Mazda CX-9 — A new take on the large crossover

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

It's been nearly a decade since Mazda brought its three-row CX-9 crossover to market, and although it has worn quite well over the years against increasingly more sophisticated and modern competition, it was past time for a change. Mazda has answered the call with a startlingly good remake that pushes the CX-9 back to the top of its class in terms of most things a buyer wants — three useable rows of seats, a healthy and fuel-efficient engine, a high-quality interior loaded with technology, the latest in safety equipment, an engaging driving experience, and styling that will turn heads.

The new Mazda gets a sharp, rakish exterior featuring a long, sharply angled hood, bold, trapezoidal grille and sleek lines that continue the Japanese automaker’s execution of the “Kodo” styling theme.

Mazda has taken that attractive styling to an even more advanced state in the larger and more expensive CX-9. It's paramount when you buy a vehicle that you get living quarters you can not only be proud of, but that you enjoy inhabiting day in and day out for years. Mazda delivers in this regard.

Our top-of-the-line, all-wheel-drive Signature model was trimmed in gorgeous redwood colored leather and charcoal accents. The look is very near luxury, including a leather-upholstered instrument panel with matching soft-touch applications on the door panels and center console. Attractive satin nickel-finish metal trim on the dash line, center console, steering wheel, air vents and door add to the upscale look and appeal. Only the base model offers cloth seats.

Under the hood the CX-9 has discarded the previous model’s 3.6-liter V-6 in favor of a new 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that produces 227 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. It’s paired with a smooth shifting six-speed automatic transmission. We found power and performance ample for all driving conditions. And the towing capacity remains the same as the outgoing V-6 at 3,500 pounds.

One of the big benefits of the turbocharged 4-cylinder is the improved gas mileage rated at 22-mpg city and 28 highway in front-wheel drive and 21/27/23 with AWD. Those numbers are among the best in the segment. And Mazda says either regular gas or 93-octane premium can be safely used in the engine. What differs is performance. Using 87-octane, the engine makes 227 horsepower while on premium it churns out 250 horses.

Normally you would be happy — perhaps even thrilled — if you could find a large SUV that had all the ingredients for carrying seven passengers and cargo in reasonable comfort, and had a decent tow rating. But the CX-9, while displaying all these traits, is just darn right fun to drive, too. That's a big bonus in this segment. The electrically assisted power steering is light and accurate and the big guy is devoid of the ponderous feel offered by many competitors. The suspension is turned toward the firm side for satisfying twisting back-road driving, yet supple enough to provide the kind of luxury ride sensitive backsides expect.

Mazda offers a full range of driver-assistance systems, including blind-spot monitoring, radar-based cruise control, and lane-departure warning and correction. Only Grand Touring and Signature models get the radar-based active cruise control that makes the collision-warning system possible.

But there are some downsides and head-scratching omissions that keep the new CX-9 from being a home run. There is no second-row captain's chair option, the comfort of which many people enjoy in a bigger SUV or crossover. In addition, captain's chairs make entry and exit into the third row easier. While the front seats are well sculpted and comfortable some have complained about compromised legroom because of the narrow cockpit and awkward power seat adjustments that left the bottom cushion angle uncomfortable. (That wasn't a problem for us vertically challenged drivers).

On the infotainment front, the CX-9 is not available with AppleCarPlay or Android Auto compatibility, a serious mistake. At the same time, the Mazda Connect infotainment system was slow and hard to use. And one more thing — Mazda has elected not to offer an oversized panoramic sunroof that is now featured in virtually all competitor vehicles.

The CX-9 comes in four trim levels — Sport, Touring, Grand Touring and Signature — starting at $32,420 including destination charge. All trims can be purchased with all-wheel drive for an additional $1,800. Standard equipment across range includes LED headlights and taillights, 18-inch wheels, rear backup camera, trailer stability assist, Mazda's infotainment system with a seven-inch color display, full power accessories, and an electronic parking brake.

Our top-line Signature test car carried a price of $45,215.

Base price: $32,420; as driven, $45,215
Engine: 2.5-liter turbocharged four cylinder
Horsepower: 227 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 310 foot-pounds @ 2,000 rpm
Drive: all-wheel
Seating: 2/2/3
Wheelbase: 115.3 inches
Length: 199.4 inches
Curb weight: 4,054 pounds
Turning circle: 38.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 14.4 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 71.2 cubic feet
Towing capacity: 3,500 pounds
Fuel capacity: 19 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 21 city, 27 highway, 23 overall
0-60: 7.2 seconds
Also consider: Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer

The Good
• Attractive styling
• Quiet, comfortable interior
• Excellent fuel economy

The Bad
• Apple CarPlay, Android Auto not available

The Ugly
• Only one engine option