CX-9, you had me at "Drive."
So much for trying to stay objective while gathering information and impressions about a vehicle. As soon as I sat in the latest in a long string of three-row SUVs to grace our driveway I was enveloped by the best interior in the most competitive of auto classes, I started to understand what Mazda's executives mean when they talk about repositioning the company as a premium brand.
Rich leather seating and trim, real wood inserts, plush ventilated seats—all at the same price point as worthy adversaries like the Toyota Highlander, Honda Passport, Hyundai Santa Fe and Subaru Ascent.
I was immediately impressed. Then I drove it.
Holy cow! It drives like a Mazda: agile and alert through corners, well-planted on the open road. Confidence inspiring. I was in love and I hadn't even asked for a name or phone number.
Starting at $32,280 for an FWD Sport model and climbing to $45,365 for an AWD Signature, the CX-9 offers comfort, safety and something its rivals lack, a soul. This is not another minivan sculpted to look like a truck. This is a people hauler that finds value not in reaching the destination, but in the journey.
To be sure, the CX-9 has its drawbacks, like a cramped third row and less cargo space than competitors, but for those who still draw pleasure from driving, the Mazda dealership is a must stop if you are in the market for a midsize SUV.
Engine: Less is more
In a class dominated by V-6 engines, Mazda demonstrates the capability and competencies of its skyactive technology with a 2.5-L turbocharged four-cylinder engine that gets from a dead stop to 60 in 7.1 seconds, which is quicker than a V-6 Highlander, Pathfinder, Durango or Atlas but 0.7 seconds slower than Ford Explorer with a V-6 EcoBoost, according to Motor Trend, which has the gear and expertise for measuring such things.
The CX-9 powertrain excels in two areas, fuel economy and driveability. With an EPA-rated mileage at 22 city, 28 highway, the CX-9 trails only the Highlander Hybrid, which attains 30 in town and 28 out on the road. In our heavy-footed testing, which may or may not have involved multiple violations of speed limits—we ain't sayin'—the CX-9 averaged better than 25 mpg.
Mazda wrings more torque, 310-ft-lb., out of four cylinders than competitors do out of six, about 50 ft.lb more, on average. That's a huge key to pleasant driving. Not only does torque gives that nice feeling in the small of our backs when we accelerate, creating a sensation of power applied smoothly, it also makes for a happier transmission.
While the rest of the world is going to transmissions of eight or more speeds, the CX-9's six-speed is quite happy, because a surplus of torque means it doesn't have to hunt for more rpm going up and down hills. It feels solid, exquisitely engineered.
On the other hand, the CX-9 is limited to 3,500-lb. towing capacity, while most competitors can drag around 5,000 lbs.
The other reason the CX-9 just feels right is that Mazda engineers spent a great deal of time and energy making it that way.
Noise, vibration, and harshness were attacked with multiple techniques: acoustic class, more sound damping materials, thicker headliner and floor mats. For 2019, Mazda refined and retuned the suspension and found ways to lighten the vehicle by 250 lbs.
Coming up with a great-driving car involves a thousand little things, and the CX-9 feels like Mazda got to most of them.
The $32,280 Sport model comes nicely equipped with a 7-inch infotainment screen LED headlights and taillights, one-touch front and rear power windows, rear privacy glass, three-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth hands-free phone and audio pairing, keyless entry and push-button start, Smart City Brake Support automatic emergency braking, blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert.
If you want a full suite of driver-assist technology—and you do—that calls for moving up to the Touring ($35,330, $37,130 for AWD), which adds standard automatic headlights, heated front side mirrors, power liftgate with adjustable height, rain-sensing windshield wipers, leather-trimmed seating surfaces, Mazda Advanced Keyless Entry, a power driver's seat, 8-inch infotainment screen, two second-row USB ports (each 2.1 amps), Homelink, high beam control, in addition to the things that save lives: lane-keep assist, lane-departure warning, radar cruise control, smart brake support and smart city brake support with pedestrian detection.
You also get Android Auto and Apple CarPlay plus an auto-dimming rearview mirror.
The smart play may be to add the premium package ($2,390) which includes a power moonroof, BOSEPremium 12-speaker audio system, SiriusXM with a three-month trial subscription, LED fog lamps, Mazda Navigation, front parking sensors, and second-row, retractable sunshades.
It would be nice if Mazda separated the Nav from that package since most people can use their phone navigation systems.
The Grand Touring ($40,840) comes with all that, plus a new 7-inch TFT reconfigurable gauge cluster display, ventilated front seats, new power-folding door mirrors, and 360 View Monitor, which makes parking lots much friendlier places.
Signature ($45,365) feels like the perfect choice for families downsizing from a Cadillac Escalade costing twice as much. It includes Auburn Nappa leather seating surfaces, a hand-stitched, leather-wrapped "Chidori" steering wheel, new Santos rosewood interior trim and supplemental interior lighting around the transmission shifter.
We tend to avoid discussions of style, which are wholly objective, but we would be lax in our duties if we did not point out that the CX-9's bold, sweeping lines manage to break the cookie-cutter generic SUV mold of the competition.
We should also note that Mazda's warranties and routine maintenance offers are not as generous as the competition.
CX-9 sales lagged in the first quarter, but Mazda is a small company and is disciplined about offering incentives. Still, this might be a good time to see if a local dealer is motivated to make a good deal.
Especially if you're a driver who marches to a different beat.