Greg A. Godsell
In 2007, Mazda caught utility vehicle fever and unleashed a pair of crossover vehicles aimed at what promises to be the next hot vehicle segment. Although the CX-7 and CX-9 have similar styling, the two vehicles have almost nothing in common, aside from the confusing alphanumeric designation. The CX-7 is a small 5-passenger crossover that competes with the Ford Edge and Nissan Murano. The larger CX-9 crossover offers three rows of seating for up to seven passengers. It serves as Mazda's family hauler effectively replacing the MPV minivan.
The CX-9 is available in Sport, Touring and Grand Touring Models. All three models are well equipped with standard stability control, anti-lock brakes, alloy wheels, power windows/door locks and a 6-speaker audio system. A 3.7L V6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission are standard on all models. Entry-level Sport models start at about $30,000, equipped with manually adjustable cloth seats. Touring models list at just over $32,200 and add power controlled leather seats. The range-topping Grand Touring model includes 20-inch wheels/tires, xenon headlamps, electroluminescent gauges, and memory settings for the driver's seat. The Grand Touring model starts at $34,205. All-wheel-drive adds about $1,300 to the sticker price of all three models. Other items like a navigation system, an entertainment system, or an upgraded audio system are bundled together in option packages that add thousands of dollars.
We tested an all-wheel-drive CX-9 Grand Touring model priced at $34,655, equipped with the GT Assist package ($2,500) and the Moonroof/Bose/6 CD Package ($1,760). Pearlescent paint ($200), Sirius Satellite Radio ($430), a cargo net ($40), and a blind-spot monitoring system ($200) brought the price as tested to $39,785, or $40,420 with destination. Our tested CX-9 was nearly fully loaded with luxury features, including leather seats, a navigation system, backup camera, xenon headlamps, satellite radio and a power-operated tailgate. the only notable item missing was a rear-seat entertainment system.
The marketplace for utlity vehicles with three-row seating is crowded with alternatives. Obvious competitors include vehicles like the GMC Acadia, Saturn Outlook or Hyundai Veracruz. Since a fully loaded CX-9 can easily hit $40,000, this also draws vehicles like the Acura MDX into consideration. The real target the CX-9 is the perennial segment best-sellers, the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander.
How does the CX-9 Grand Touring stack up against the competition? For a fully optioned vehicle, the CX-9 is priced similarly to the Toyota Highlander Limited, but significantly higher than the 2008 Honda Pilot EX-L. The Hyundai Veracruz Limited undercuts the CX-9 by couple thousand dollars, whereas the GMC Acadia is several thousand dollars more expensive and the luxurious Acura MDX is priced even higher. The CX-9 is slightly below average for passenger volume, above the norm for cargo volume, yet is also one of the larger vehicles in this class aside from the GMC Acadia. In a crowded segment, the Mazda stands out on styling and power, which should come as no surprise.
Mazda offers the CX-9 with a choice of black or sand-colored interior color schemes. Both of the available interiors have stylishly designed shapes and materials. A range of contrasting colors and finishes complemented the sand-colored leather seating in our CX-9. The top of the instrument panel, doors, and center console were dark colored, which minimizes glare. The carpet and scuff-prone areas prone are charcoal colored to hide dirt and wear. Wood and aluminum finishes occupy the transitions between interior trim panels.
The upgraded instrumentation in the Grand Touring model is clear, legible and devoid of the gimmicks found in some other Mazda models. Smaller fuel and temperature gauges flank the large circular tachometer and speedometer. A small odometer features A/B trip mileage, but lacks fuel economy information. The instrumentation clearly shows the currently selected gear, even when the transmission is in "D", an uncommon but appreciated feature.
The center stack has Mazda's typical red LED readout that combines a clock with a number of other functions like fan, temperature, hands-free phone and audio system settings. The optional navigation system takes over control of the audio system, allowing control of the CD changer, satellite radio, and radio stations through the touch screen, which also displays the reverse backup camera. Mazda interiors typically cant the center stack towards the windshield, which frequently bathes the screen in too much sunlight, making it hard to read. There is little in the Mazda system to warrant the steep upgrade cost. We typically recommend aftermarket units for their value and superior user interfaces. A chunky center console (with minimal usable storage) stands some 18-inches off the floor and is about a foot wide. The console intrudes into the footwell, which prevents taller occupants from fitting into the driver's seat.
The front seats are comfortable and well contoured. The 8-way driver's seat features fore/aft, up/down, seatback up/down, and power lumbar controls. The passenger's seat has fore/aft, and seatback up/down only. Outward visibility from the driver's seat is comparable to other similar SUVs. Although most interior panels are hard plastic, soft touch materials surround arms and elbows. Front row occupants will find the high waistline and large center console either cozy or overly confining. Many drivers will find the power window controls too far away.
The CX-9 has large rear doors to access the second and third-row seats. These bulky doors require about four full feet of clearance to open. Compared to minivans with their convenient sliding doors, CX-9 owners risk having their kids hit every other car in the parking lot.
The second row seats are considerably flatter to accommodate the folding seatbacks used for hauling cargo. The door panels in the second row also feature soft touch materials and storage pockets large enough to hold water bottles. The wide center armrest contains two cup holders and a shallow storage compartment. Although, the second row slides forward to add legroom for the third row occupants, there isn't much to spare.
Third row seating is barely adequate: the available legroom depends greatly on the position of the sliding second row. The third row footwell slopes down towards the front, so every inch the middle row is moved forward helps improve passenger accommodations in the back row. A lack of ventilation ducts adds to the discomfort of third row passengers. In contrast, many competitive SUVs offer vents in the ceiling or the B-pillar to improve rear occupant comfort. In the CX-9, the nearest vents are in the rear edge of the center console. The steeply raked rear glass allows sunlight to fall on those poor souls in the back making matters worse.
When it comes to hauling capacity, the newest crossovers all have the same drawbacks, and the CX-9 is no exception. The sporty styling and the inclusion of the third row seats leaves little cargo room in back. The seatbacks intersect with the steeply raked hatch, which leaves a small triangular storage area comparable to that of a compact sedan. However, once you fold the 50/50 split third row or 60/40 split second row, the cargo capacity improves greatly. Once again, the crossover design hampers utility, because large bulky objects must be stored in front of the third row seatbacks to clear the hatch opening.
The CX-9 has a stiff body structure, and the test vehicle showed no signs of flex or rattles. The rack-and-pinion steering is direct, with adequate feedback. The fully independent suspension provides a comfortable ride with minimal body roll. The Grand Touring model includes 20-inch wheels shod with 245/50R20 Bridgestone Dueler H/L 400 tires. Although the 10-spoke wheels make a strong visual statement, the large tires seem to hunt out every imperfection in the road. The standard four-wheel disc brakes stop the vehicle with confidence.
When Mazda introduced the CX-9 in 2007, the standard engine was a 3.5L V-6. For 2008, all CX-9 models are equipped with a 3.7L V-6 rated at 273-bhp and 270 lb-ft of torque. Only the GM crossovers and the Acura MDX have more power in this segment. When we initially tested the 2007 CX-9, it seemed heavy and sluggish, probably due to the underpowered V-6. The additional 30 lb-ft of torque and 23-bhp of the 3.7L engine greatly enhance the driving experience. Once off the line, the six-speed automatic shifts swiftly and the CX-9 accelerates with ease. While we did not get an accurate measurement of the fuel economy, the EPA rates the CX-9 at 15/20 MPG (city/hwy.), which is reasonable for this type of SUV. The highest rating in this class belongs to the Toyota Highlander, which the EPA rates at 17/23 MPG (city/hwy.) for the non-hybrid models, and 27/25 MPG (city/hwy.) for the hybrid variant.
In summary, the CX-9 is a competitive vehicle in an emerging segment. It stands apart from its competitors with above average power and distinctive styling. Although the CX-9 has some ergonomic and cargo-carrying shortcomings, it shares them with other 7-passenger crossovers. Mazda has a full-size crossover that should appeal to its core customers as well as attract new buyers to this Japanese brand.