The Mazda CX-9 is an automotive oxymoron. It’s a 200-inch-long, three-ton SUV from the same company that produced famous lightweights like the Miata, RX-7, RX-8, and assorted hot hatches. What does Mazda – the company with the infamous “Zoom Zoom” slogan – think it’s accomplishing by producing such a vehicle?
An awful lot, by appearances. And we agree. The CX-9 is a big vehicle for this company in every sense of the word. It’s as long as an Audi Q7, and only one foot shorter than the long-wheelbase Chevy Suburban. However, its styling hides its size, and from a distance you might mistake it for its smaller brother, the CX-7.
None of that massive bulk goes unused. The CX-9 offers seating for seven, and the third row is one of the best on the market. In most SUVs, one row has to compromise on comfort in order to get the seven-seater thing to work. Not here. Even with the front seats all the way back on their rails, the second-row passengers still have enough room to relax. What’s more, the second row can still be folded down without hitting anything.
The third row is truly cavernous, and unless the second row is pushed as far back as it will go, there is no shortage of legroom. No row goes unpampered in the CX-9 – the third row is nearly as comfortable as the front two, and if you cut your passenger manifest down to six, each passenger gets two cup holders.
Mazda sent us their best example of the CX-9 – the loaded Touring version with all-wheel-drive. It was positively stuffed to the gills with useful equipment. We got the moonroof package, which included a 277-watt Bose system and an in-dash six-disc changer. We also got the “Touring Assist” package, which adds a touch-screen navigation system with voice command, a rear-view camera, a lift gate with power open and close from a variety of buttons, and one of the best smart-key systems we’ve ever seen.
Mazda calls it “Smart Card,” and it’s really just that. Many so-called ‘smart keys’ – the RFID-equipped key fobs that enable the driver to start the car without the traditional key-in-the-ignition procedure – are large and bulky. But the CX-9’s fob is actually smaller than a credit card, and only about four times as thick. It’s a small thing, to be sure, but it makes the driving experience that much more convenient.
Typically, buyers of any class of vehicle that is manufactured by both Japan and Germany have a clear choice: bland Eastern excellence or pricey, imperfect Western elegance. CX-9 buyers, however, make no such compromise. The interior of our CX-9 test car was incredibly stylish, with a neat twist. Most manufacturers rely on wood trim (or its plastic look-alike) to gussy up their interiors. But our CX-9 Touring came dressed in shiny black lacquer trim, akin to the finish of a really expensive piano. Since it’s obviously less expensive than wood, Mazda saw fit to use it lavishly, with a spectacular visual effect. Large, thick strips of it run up and down the door panels, and from the top of the dashboard to the floor. It’s just as elegant as wood, but more modern and certainly more environmentally friendly.
The CX-9’s on-road manners match its accommodations and aesthetics. Our Limited test car, laden with all-wheel-drive and nearly every available option, was probably on the north side of three tons. Still, the CX-9 is far from slow. It uses a version of the 3.5-liter V6 found in the Ford Edge and Lincoln’s MKX and MKZ models. We’ve raved about this engine before and it’s the same story here. In this application, the six makes 263 horsepower at 6250 rpm and 249 pound-feet of torque at 4500 rpm. More importantly, it revs quickly and is incredibly responsive. The CX-9 can probably get to sixty in around eight seconds in Limited AWD trim.
The CX-9 may share its excellent motor with the Ford and Lincoln cars, but the transmission is completely different. Mazda has tapped Aisin to produce a six-speed automatic with a manual shift function, something not found in any of the Ford or Lincoln offerings. The CX-9’s gearbox is just flat-out better in every respect, and being able to shift on your own heightens the driving experience in any car.
The icing on this cake is twofold. First, the transmission won’t over-ride your choices. Aside from preventing you from money-shifting into first gear at cruising speeds, the automatic intrudes not at all when you’re in fully manual mode. Secondly, the action on the shift lever itself is great. If you’ve ever watched footage of a race car with a sequential gearbox, you’ll know that upshifts are accomplished by pulling the lever back, while pushing the lever away achieves a downshift. This is the way the CX-9’s transmission does its thing, and although it might be counter-intuitive at first, it’s miles ahead of the conventional passenger-car pattern of pushing for upshifts and pulling for downshifts. The payoff is that if you are downshifting while braking, perhaps for a corner, pushing against the lever allows you to brace yourself better and therefore maintain better control of the car.
The steering in the CX-9 is light. As in, really light. But, as quickly as you can saw the wheel back and forth, the CX-9 can react. It’s rather disconcerting at first to anyone accustomed to more ponderous steering wheels on vehicles of similar sizes and missions. It’s not excessively darty, either – once you set the CX-9 up for a corner, little or no correction is needed to clip the apex and sail through. Within the limits of normal, everyday frisky driving, the CX-9 feels like a larger version of one of Mazda’s sporty small cars. That’s not far from the truth, actually. The CX-9 shares basic underpinnings with Mazda’s 6 sedan, a highly acclaimed player in the sports-sedan segment. There’s only so much this DNA can do – the CX-9 won’t accelerate or brake as abruptly as its little brother, but it has much of the same ‘feel’ to it. This is important; Mazda is beginning to carve out a very special place in the minds of automotive enthusiasts.
That sporting character, combined with the CX-9’s mistake-free styling and appointments, make it a very tough out in the full-size SUV game. Factor in the price – under $38,000 for our fully-loaded test car – and it’s hard to see anything standing in this graceful behemoth’s path.