Review: 2010 Mazda CX-9

Michael Karesh
by Michael Karesh
review 2010 mazda cx 9

My youngest child, of three, turns eight next month. A few years ago, when it became clear that regularly working until 3 AM and then dealing with the children in the morning was not good for anyone’s sanity, we added an au pair. So there are six people in the house. Anyone with sense would have gotten a three-row something-or-other at least eight years ago. And probably when the first child was still in utero. Fool that I am, a decade on I’m still waiting for one to sweep me off my feet. I tend to have a thing for Mazdas. Mazda makes the three-row CX-9. So, why not the CX-9? In test drives back in 2007 and 2008, we didn’t quite hit it off. Perhaps we just needed more time together? Ever hopeful, I spent a week with the 2010.

Let’s face it: in automotive love, looks matter. Mazda had the right idea with the CX-9, giving it the lithe curves of a sporty car rather than the chunkiness of an SUV. But the execution doesn’t quite work, for two reasons. Wide black plastic wheel arch moldings, a stray SUV trope, make already overly large wheel openings (leaving room for something larger than the Grand Touring’s dubs?) appear even larger. Though this automotive equivalent of too much eyeliner likely provides much-needed rust protection, trimmer moldings would have achieved the same.

Second, taking a car-like front end with horizontally-oriented graphics and simply raising it a few inches visually accentuates the front overhang while giving the designers more lower fascia than they can handle. With the 2007-2009 CX-9 the designers essentially ignored the problem, leaving the vehicle with a weak chin. For the 2010 they butched it up, super-sizing and enchroming the smiley lower grille and foglamp surrounds. Then someone decided that the new lower grille was way too large, so they added a chrome strip (braces?) in a failed attempt to visually divide it. An

improvement over the 2007-2009, but not enough of one.

Not that everyone agrees with my evaluation. The CX-9 certainly has its admirers. My family found it attractive, especially when clothed in “copper red mica.” Also, the CX-9’s curves and proportions successfully disguise its size (200 x 76 x 68 inches) and mass (4,550 lbs.). My wife has rejected SUVs as small as the Hyundai Tucson as “too big.” The CX-9 provoked no such objection. The styling might not be perfect, but it does successfully sell the CX-9 as the three-row vehicle for people who don’t really want one, but need one.

Inside the designers have been more successful, with a distinctively mod interior that’s both sharper and sportier than you’ll find in competitors.

The downward sweeping “I can’t believe it’s not wood” trim that frames the center stack in the Grand Touring is mirrored in the door panels. Both this and the similarly mirrored horizontal bands of silver plastic trim (starting to look dated) work best in the black interior. The light gray interior in the tested car isn’t as striking, and would be harder to keep clean, but feels airier. In either interior the precisely tailored armrests lend a comfortable touch of class. The Mazda3-class switchgear: not so much. And what’s up with the manual height adjustment for the xenons? The previous tester (or perhaps the one before him?) left them in their lowest position, where in an unladen vehicle they essentially serve as really strong fog lights.

Between a steeply raked but not overly distant windshield and an unusually tall center console, the CX-9’s driving position is easily the most car-like among three-row people haulers. The downside: the CX-9’s cabin feels narrower and considerably less roomy than that of a Lambda, Flex, or

large minivan. Both the second and third rows are mounted low to the floor and provide less legroom than you’ll find in the aforementioned competitors (if more than in the all-but-dead Hyundai Veracruz and Subaru Tribeca). Ditto the cargo area with the third row up; it wouldn’t have been enough for our road trip last summer.

Only putting kids in the back? Then no problem…except the only rear air vents are on the aft face of the center console. There are none in the rear walls or ceiling. Almost as bad: the controls for the rear HVAC are similarly located—only on/off can be performed from the driver’s seat. After tipping-and-sliding the second row to provide access to the third row, sometimes it returned to its previous position, other times it acquired amnesia. Back up front, various bits of the IP reflect in the windshield. Mazda offered the MPV for years before developing the CX-9, so why the rookie mistakes? One thing done right: large mirrors and an optional blind-spot warning system make for worry-free lane changes.

Rear seating is sometimes a place for love, but rarely an object of love. What I’ve been waiting for all these years, physics bedamned: a three-row

vehicle that’s fun to drive. Ford didn’t lend its EcoBoost to the cause, yet the 273-horsepower 3.7-liter V6 (shared with the Lincoln MKS and MKT) would be gutsy enough if the Aisin six-speed automatic transmission were not so keen to lug it and so slow to respond to requests for more revs. Fuel economy is not a strength: 16.6 MPG in mildly aggressive driving, and 8.7 in full hoon mode. The much more powerful and heavier Ford Flex EcoBoost did a bit better. The 3.7 does at least sound better here than in Lincoln applications.

And the handling? The CX-9’s moderately firm but indecisive steering requires frequent small corrections. Feedback is minimal; the head learns that there’s plenty of grip in sweeping curves, never mind the body roll, but the fingertips and seat of the pants haven’t a clue. Typical of the class, tight curves are a recipe for understeer. It’s easier to form a close connection with a Lambda—and GM isn’t normally the master of such things.

A strength that’s part of the problem: the CX-9 often feels like it’s moving

much more slowly than it actually is. The body roll seems excessive partly because the minimal sensation of speed encourages taking curves more aggressively than one would in a minivan. Not that the ride is always smooth and quiet. The Grand Touring’s 245/50R20 treads aren’t a good match for the not-quite-sporty suspension tuning, and can get thumpy, especially over expansion joints.

If I’ve been overly critical of the CX-9, it’s because I so much want to love it, and instead merely like it, and not nearly all of it. The styling and driving position lay the groundwork for a driving experience that’s more sport sedan than minivan. And, objectively, the CX-9 performs and handles better than anything else in its class. But the subjective experience, while laudably car-like, is otherwise lacking. The Mazda CX-9 drives better than most, perhaps even all, competitors, but not by a large enough margin to inspire devotion and earn forgiveness for its shortcomings.

Mazda provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.

Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.

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3 of 57 comments
  • Csf Csf on Oct 15, 2010

    Have to agree with several other comments - this review was just overly picky. My wife did not want a minivan, and wanted AWD. We own a 2008 CX-9, which we bought new, and have just passed 60,000 miles. Most of these miles are from my wife either drivng carpool to and from school, drving to after school activities, or her commuting about 15 highway miles each way to and from her job. The CX-9 has also taken us on several long vacations. We have not had to make one repair, in or out of warranty. We replaced the first set of OEM tires at 54,000 miles - they were 18" Bridgestones (not the 20's as I did not want the 20's due to cost and harsher ride), and replaced the brakes at the same time. The CX-9 has far surpassed our expectations, and cost us thousands less than similar "import" vehicles with three rows of seats. The 6 speed transmission is perhaps the best I've ever owned - shifts are almost imperceptible. Accleration, braking and handling are far better than one would expect in a family vehicle this large, and probably equal to many sedans. And the interior is extremely comfortable. In daily use the third row is incredibly easy to access from either side of the vehicle, and folds down or flips up with only one hand. With both 2nd and 3rd rows folded totally flat the storage area is very large - easily moved my daughter in and out of college with room to spare. The interior materials show very little wear at this point, even with our 130 lb Great Dane routinely jumping in and out of the back. Finally, while totally stopped my wife was rear ended by a sliding Mercedes during a snow storm last year - the 2002 S Class was totalled, but the rear of the CX-9 needed only $4500 in repair, which included a new exhaust system and replacing the factory trailer hitch. Thankfully, my wife did not even need an Advil . . . although she was upset her CX-9 was no longer perfect. In short, this is an EXCELLENT family hauler, selling for a very fair price. When we bought ours we rarely saw another one on the road . . . now we see them every day. Thats said, I am not a fan of the "Mazda Smile" grill, and am glad our 2008 is missing that front fascia. If you are in the market for a family vehicle, don't pay too much attention to the negatives in this review (Sorry Michael). This is not about buying a Porsche - its picking a vehicle that will move and protect your family and stuff reliably, for a fair price, effortlessly without causing any stress, with hopefully some degree of style and fun mixed in. That is the CX-9. We do love the CX-9 and hope to keep it for many more years. If its big enough for your family, and you don't care about the status associated with names like Acura, Infiniti, Mercedes, BMW or Audi, then I highly recommend it.

    • Jonah S. Jonah S. on Oct 15, 2010

      Adding to the list of current CX-9 owners, we purchased a new 2008 CX-9 GT closeout in early 2009. I drove the competitors, Toyota (boring), Acura (way overpriced for such a downscaled/plasticy interior), and Honda Pilot (same comments as Acura with an odd shape). We didn't drive the Lambdas. That said, we are a family of four (two small kids), and drive 99% of the time with the third row folded flat. I wanted a third row for the cargo room, and the occasional extra person or two. We live in Colorado at about 6500 feet, so the car's power in muted some, but floor it and the car will still plant you in your seat with very good engine sounds. The CX-9 was, hands-down, the most fun to drive. The Acura had power, too, but a poorly designed interior and, for me, an odd driver position. Plus, we paid $20K less for the closeout Mazda. Still, the CX-9 is the sportiest driver of the lot (as indicated in the above review; gotta love that small, meaty steering wheel). The weakest interior link would be the faux silver door trim pieces in the Mazda. Those should have been real aluminum. Otherwise, a smart, Euro-layout. However, the biggest weakest of this car would have to be those awful Bridgestone Dueler tires (in 20"). They're loud on the freeway, are jolting over bumps, and suck in snow (all season, I know, but tires should drift at 10 MPH while coasting straight). We recently tossed those tires (right at the paltry 26K warranty) and purchased the most popular replacement for this vehicle, four Yokohama Prada Spec-Xs. WOW!! What a difference! The car handle so differently. It tracks perfectly, feels more confident in turns, they're quieter, and eliminate the harsh ride. And, they simply look better. I no longer wish I had 18" wheels (I originally blamed the 20s for all the cars harsh riding faults). I will be driving in snow soon, and I expect, given their great tread design, the Prada Spec-X tires to stick much better to the ground than those lousy 20" Dueler ever could. Anyhow, as new CUV designs keep trending toward the ugly side, we will be driving our Circa 2008 Galaxy Grey / plush Black-interior (holds up to kids excellent btw), CX-9 for years to come. Its a perfect fit.

  • Dragonphire Dragonphire on Oct 17, 2010

    I must add my experiences as well. I bought new in Oct 08. A very nice price. Thought about a Flex but since they were new at the time there were no discounts. I drove the typical peers. MDX, Pilot, the only Lambda I considered was the Buick, Highlander even a Murano. The CX drove better than them all and had a comparable interior. I have only one issue with the rear passenger door lock at 33k miles other than that the silver trim on door was replaced nothing else. I have replace my tires (20's) however the OME was not available so I ended up with Bridestones, kind of a bouncy ride not as firm as the others. The steering is good and does have communication. The breaks are good as well. Mileage is about 19 most of the time but does suck when you stick it too it. The seats are too low in back but sitting in back of the Buick,Toyota or the Highlander the CX is as much space or more. It only suffers in the third row and this is due to lack of height in the ceiling and low seat combined. I am hoping that in the next redesign they make it about 800lbs lighter and with a diesel hybrid combo. I like some of the others who owns one didnt see that many when I got it but now they are everywhere. Neighbor from three streets over just got one in Dolphin Grey. I was told they dont make the Black Cherry anymore so I hardly see that at all. The CX9 is hardly perfect and there are several things I would like to see improve however overall its a better package overall than everything in its class.

  • Damon Thomas Adding to the POSITIVES... It's a pretty fun car to mod
  • GregLocock Two adjacent states in Australia have different attitudes to roadworthy inspections. In NSW they are annual. In Victoria they only occur at change of ownership. As you'd expect this leads to many people in Vic keeping their old car.So if the worrywarts are correct Victoria's roads would be full of beaten up cars and so have a high accident rate compared with NSW. Oh well, the stats don't agree.
  • Lorenzo In Massachusetts, they used to require an inspection every 6 months, checking your brake lights, turn signals, horn, and headlight alignment, for two bucks.Now I get an "inspection" every two years in California, and all they check is the smog. MAYBE they notice the tire tread, squeaky brakes, or steering when they drive it into the bay, but all they check is the smog equipment and tailpipe emissions.For all they would know, the headlights, horn, and turn signals might not work, and the car has a "speed wobble" at 45 mph. AFAIK, they don't even check EVs.
  • Not Tire shop mechanic tugging on my wheel after I complained of grinding noise didn’t catch that the ball joint was failing. Subsequently failed to prevent the catastrophic failure of the ball joint and separation of the steering knuckle from the car! I’ve never lived in a state that required annual inspection, but can’t say that having the requirement has any bearing on improving safety given my experience with mechanics…
  • Mike978 Wow 700 days even with the recent car shortages.