Earlier this year, nearly eight years after Ford started divesting its controlling interest in Mazda, the Japanese brand finally replaced the last of the products that shared hardware with the Dearborn brand. Mazda’s biggest vehicle was also its oldest with the original CX-9 lasting nearly a decade before a complete redesign. Now that the CX-9 is new and fresh, does it finally fit in with the rest of the family from the brand that says “driving matters?”
Mazda has always been one of those brands that’s in an awkward middle ground. Too big to be one of the more premium niche players, yet too small to be one of the market leaders. To stylish be one of the real odd-balls, but just different enough not to be an appliance. Too unique to be Toyota, but not weird enough to be Subaru. The company has somehow managed to consistently find the resources to be really special from an engineering standpoint with its long-standing development of Wankel rotaries and lightweight design, yet not quite enough to be a leader in electrification or autonomy. In the next 5 to 10 years Mazda is going to have to find the resources to handle the latter while maintaining enough differentiation to find a special place in the hearts of customers.
The CX-9 is a fascinating example of the challenge faced by Mazda. Utilities have been steadily grabbing market share from cars, pickups and vans since the turn of the century and in the last several years, small and compact utilities have shown particularly strong growth. Mazda has had some success with the cX-3 and CX-5, the latter being considered one of the best in its class. But in many respects, the CX-9 may be more important. While the sales volumes and growth aren’t as robust as those for smaller utilities, the fatter margins will be necessary to fund other endeavors.
The new CX-9 is a big step up from its predecessor in almost every way. It competes directly against market leaders like the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot and Ford Explorer. It’s a seven-seat, three-row crossover utility that casts an almost identically sized shadow to its competitors. But it also takes advantage of Mazda’s SkyActiv strategy with more efficient, direct-injected engines and lighter construction.
From a design perspective, the CX-9 fits in with the Kodo design language used on the rest of the Mazda lineup, but it’s more than just a bigger CX-5. The forward-leaning five-pointed grille shares family DNA but it’s been nicely scaled with each of the horizontal bars having a slim chrome perimeter. In combination with a chrome trim piece that wraps around the bottom of the fascia, the visual impact is more premium. Along the flanks, the sculpting that gives the CX-3 and CX-5 a more athletic stance is toned down a bit in keeping with this more upscale approach. From any angle, this looks like a well-executed vehicle that could have come from a European luxury brand rather than a more mainstream one.
Like other contemporary Mazdas, the premium execution continues into the cabin with logical and uncluttered control layouts and excellent materials. The top-end Signature trim that I drove featured matte wood accents and contrasting red stitching on the leather surfaces. I particularly like Mazda’s implementation of the central control knob rather than a touchscreen. The central display sits up high on the dash, close to the driver’s normal line of sight. Despite the absence of any shade hoods, the display is clearly visible in any light and doesn’t disappear when viewed through polarized sunglasses. A heads up display mirrors navigation prompts and content from the driver assists including the adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assist.
The cruise control works smoothly to maintain a consistent distance to the vehicle ahead but unfortunately only functions down to about 15 mph at which point it disengages. The lane keeping system is less prone to false activation than many other systems and alerts the driver through visual prompts and vibrating the steering wheel, my preferred approach. However, unlike some other contemporary systems it’s not as aggressive at keeping the vehicle in the lane or centering the CX-9 so you can’t use this like Tesla’s AutoPilot.
I drove the CX-9 about 250 miles to central Ohio and the driver’s seat provided excellent support. The second row is also very roomy and the second row seats can be adjusted fore-aft and reclined. Even with the second row pulled ahead, the third row remains snug for both knees and shoulders and best reserved for kids. If you don’t need to carry passengers 6 and 7, you can fold the third row forward for a flat load floor and 38.2 cubic feet of cargo space.
In this modern world, we are constantly using our mobile devices and they always seem to need power. The storage bin between the front seats has a pair of USB ports available to keep our phones and tablets energized. In the second row, when only two passengers are present, the central portion of the seatback can fold down to provide an armrest and it also gives access to another storage bin with another pair of 2.1-amp USB ports.
Speaking of power, the first-generation CX-9 was always powered by V6 engines. In keeping with other modern Mazdas, this one uses a SkyActiv four-cylinder. For this largest of Mazdas, the 2.5-liter direct-injected four-cylinder has been turbocharged. If you fill the tank with regular gas, it will produce 227-horsepower and 310 lb.-ft of torque. Splurge and fill the tank with premium and maximum output jumps to 250-hp. While you’re probably not going to win many drag races with a CX-9, you also won’t have any issues keeping up with traffic or merging onto the highway.
On the two-lane rural roads of central Ohio, the CX-9 feels surprisingly nimble for a vehicle of its size. Like other Mazdas, it provides good feedback to the fingertips about what is happening and the suspension does a great job of soaking up the road contours while keeping the body motions under control.
Back in the 1990s when SUVs first really started to gain a foothold in the marketplace, they drove like the trucks they were derived from and got similar fuel economy. Just as modern utilities now exhibit vastly improved driving dynamics, they need far fewer trips to the pump. The all-wheel-drive CX-9 is EPA rated at 21 mpg city, 27 mpg highway and 23 mpg combined. During a week of driving including that road trip, I averaged a bit more than 24 mpg.
Of course all of these amenities don’t come cheap although it’s far more affordable than most of the premium brand equivalents. The base front-wheel-drive CX-9 Sport starts at $31,520. The machine gray Signature I drove comes with AWD and everything else standard and comes out to $45,215 including delivery.
I still think a minivan is the best form factor for a family hauler, but if you are among the larger segment of the buying public that prefers the SUV style, you would be doing yourself a disservice by neglecting a visit to your local Mazda dealer for a look at the CX-9. A friend was recently looking for a utility to replace a 2008 Mercury Mariner as his two kids are getting bigger. He and his wife bought a CX-9 and they’ve been thrilled with it.