Mazda CX-9 — Seven go Grand Touring

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The CX-9 entered the marketplace the same year as the much ballyhooed GMC Acadia, Saturn Outlook and Buick Enclave although the GM assemblage has gone through some changes. The Outlook is gone with the rest of Saturn and the Chevrolet Traverse now fills out the GM threesome.

And as with the GM segment entries, the CX-9 carries on in a very acceptable and rewarding manner based on the two weeks we spent in a loaded 2011 Grand Touring all-wheel drive model.

Mazda managed to create a right-sized vehicle — 200 inches in length on a 113-inch wheelbase — while incorporating the zoom-zoom design carried over from the smaller CX-7 crossover. The roof slopes back to meet rising rear quarter panels to create an illusion of speed and sportiness. The only major styling tweak since 2007 is the addition in 2010 of an aggressively designed big-mouth grille that first showed up on the Mazda3 and now graces several Mazda vehicles.

Love it or hate it, it seems to be the current styling trend for a variety of automakers and it’s here to stay, at least for the near term.

The interesting thing is that the so-called zoom-zoom styling is not an illusion. The CX-9 does not let you down. It feels sportier than other like-sized crossovers, and that’s particularly noteworthy in a more-than-two-ton vehicle. It handles smaller than its size, a nimble people carrier possessing athletic driving dynamics with good road feel and well-weighted steering.

And the 3.7-liter 273-horsepower engine is well matched for the vehicle offering very satisfying performance whether from stoplight to stoplight, passing and merging, or carrying a big load of passengers and cargo. If you are into towing weekend toys, you can equip the CX-9 to tow 3,500 pounds, which would satisfy the owner of jet skis or a small boat or travel trailer.

The current engine is a nice upgrade over the original 2007 3.6-liter V-6, with 10 more horsepower and an additional 21 pound-feet of torque. And as a bonus, the bigger engine is more fuel-efficient than the V-6 it replaced four years ago, rated at 17 mpg in city cycle and 24 mpg highway in two-wheel drive format and 16/22 with all-wheel drive. The older 3.6-liter engine was rated — under current EPA guidelines — at 16/22 and 15/21. Doesn’t sound like a lot but it adds up.

Measured by the ubiquitous 0-to-60 time, the front-wheel drive version of the CX-9 can accomplish the feat in 7.4 seconds and the all-wheel drive edition — a great option for bad-weather climates — can do it in a zoom-zoom-like 7.8 seconds. This is right in line with the recently tested Chevrolet Traverse.

During one 200-mile round trip that included four-lane highways, two-lane rural blacktops, and a pothole-littered dirt/gravel byway, the Mazda performed well, never complaining when commanded to move in a hurry, or pushed on a path where few vehicles tread, giving its front strut and independent multi-link rear suspension a real workout – lots of sweat but no broken bones. 

In addition to a compliant ride, the living quarters in the CX-9 are as comfortable as any crossover we have recently encountered. The front seats are designed for big, mature bodies, and even after hours behind the wheel, we had no complaints. Second-row passengers are afforded excellent leg room and sit in chairs with reclining seatbacks.

We found entry to the standard third row to be relatively easy with a split folding and sliding second-row seat. Once there, leg room and hip room for two adults is decent especially if second-row passengers can live with their seats moved up — they can slide fore and aft up to five inches. But the low third-row seat cushions may create a feeling of nose to knees and we don’t recommend placing adults in the way-back spot for long drives. It’s more suitable for a couple of young kids.

Cargo room behind the third-row seat is adequate at 17 cubic feet. There’s room to handle overnight bags, a couple sets of golf clubs or enough groceries to feed a car-load of passengers for a month. With the split third row folded space expands to 48 cubic feet and with both rows folded you’ll find 100 cubic feet of useable storage space. We should note that the folding of the rear seats is uncomplicated and done with ease.

To create a big enough opening to allow access to the interior, large pull-open doors are needed, and this is a parking lot nightmare if you are not extremely careful and considerate. As awful as this may sound to some we think minivan-like sliding rear doors would be a great solution to this problem.

The interior is handsome and was outfitted nicely in our top-trim test vehicle with two-tone leather and tasteful wood and chrome accents along the center stack and on the door panels. Also included on our test vehicle were an excellent blind spot monitor system, a back-up camera, and Bluetooth connectivity for hands free phone use.

We found that the red and blue lighting on the instrument panel calming. While we found the climate controls on the center stack easy to use, the Mazda — like so many vehicles these days — forces the driver to go into the navigation screen to handle audio and radio controls. Redundant controls on the steering mitigate this annoyance somewhat. We figure this is done to keep a clean, uncluttered look to the dash, but it comes at the expense of user friendliness.

We decided after missing a turn on one trip and debating for several minutes which way to proceed, to consult the navigation system. Much to our delight we discovered it easy and quick to program, and once we got back in the right direction, it guided us flawlessly to the destination.

The CX-9 comes in three trim levels, Sport, Touring and Grand Touring, starting at a well-equipped $29,930. Touring starts at $31,850 and Grand Touring at $33,940. All-wheel drive with active torque split can be added to all trim levels for $1,390.

Our all-wheel drive Grand Touring model with its 20-inch aluminum alloy wheels carried a base price of $35,330 and with a couple of options including navigation, a power lift gate and upgraded audio and rear entertainment systems the bottom line was $40,800.

Base price: $29,930 (base); as driven, $40,800
Engine: 3.7-liter V-6
Horsepower: 273 @ 6,250
Torque: 270 pound-feet @ 4,250 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: all-wheel
Seating: 2/3/2
Turning circle: 37.4 feet
Length: 200.2 inches
Wheelbase: 113.2 inches
Curb weight: 4,586 pounds
Towing capacity: 3,500 pounds
Luggage capacity: 17.2 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 100.7 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 20.1 gallons (regular)
EPA mileage: 22 mpg city, 16 mpg highway
0-60: 7.8 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Explorer, GMC Acadia

The Good:
• Zoom Zoom personality
• Roomy interior
• Easy access to third row

The Bad:
• Radio controls embedded in navigation screen

The Ugly:
• Pricey options can send CX-9 over 40 grand