Somewhere in the mountains of Colorado, road-test editor Mike Schlee and I came to the conclusion that the Mazda CX-9 is surprisingly capable. Outfitted in Sport trim, the large crossover didn’t run out of breath at high altitude and moved about capably in harsh terrain. Thinking that maybe the altitude was playing tricks on us, we decided to take it for yet another spin in familiar territory.
|1. A 3.7L V6 makes 273 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque with FWD and AWD options.
2. Fuel economy is 17 MPG city and 24 MPG highway (FWD) and 16 MPG city and 22 MPG (AWD).
3. Pricing starts at $29,785 and tops out at $40,415 for a fully loaded AWD Grand Touring model.
The conclusion is very much the same, the CX-9 is surprisingly good… when viewed in a vacuum. True, everything else as of late that’s been coming from the Hiroshima-based automaker has been quite good. What’s surprising is that the CX-9 is far from new. Updated for 2013, the changes are relatively minor.
While the vehicles driven during out time competing in the Mazda Adventure Rally were budget-oriented Sport trim models, the tester in our hands back at home is a fully-optioned Grand Touring model. The GT trim adds leather seating, navigation, parking sensors, bi-xenon headlights, a power lift gate, memory seating and 20-inch wheels to the seven-seater, plus our model also features all-wheel drive.
For 2013 the CX-9 gets a refreshed exterior look too, which uses the same Kodo design language that was established with the CX-5. The bigger vehicle doesn’t wear the new threads as well as its stable mates, likely because the other models were designed from the ground up to suit the new look, while the CX-9 is just paying lip-service to the new language through a facelift.
PREMIUM INTERIOR HITS THE SPOT
Still, there are plenty of details in the CX-9 that give off a premium feel, from the classy new front-end look, to the Alcantara-like seat inserts. The driver will certainly appreciate the rear-view camera and blind-spot assist, but the new infotainment system is a bit clunky to use. In particular, the navigation component is unintuitive, confusing and needs a significant amount driver attention to set up properly, which means making changes on the fly can be downright dangerous.
Even with three-rows, the CX-9 doesn’t offer an uncomfortable seat throughout the whole cabin. Adults seating is available in the third row and offers more legroom than the Hyundai Santa Fe, though less headroom than the Nissan Pathfinder. Polite passengers in the second row can slide their seat forward to give up more legroom to those sitting behind them. Taking the CX-9 fully loaded with adults about four-hours out of the city without a break in driving resulted in few complaints from passengers, a feat that few large crossovers can lay claim to.
Trunk space is generous and versatile thanks to a folding third and second row, and that sliding second row of seating helps to maximize the available cargo room. With 17.3 cu-ft of trunk space, which expands to 48.3 cu-ft with the third row folded and 100.7 with the second row down as well, the CX-9 trumps most rivals.
UNLEASHES ITS INNER MIATA
On the road the CX-9 drives like a Mazda, that is to say, it feels smaller than its wheel-base and curb weight. The CX-9 is enjoyable, and is likely the sportiest seven-seater out there. That might not mean much in this segment, but just imagine: getting the kids from school can actually be fun!
Taking the scenic route shows off the direct-feeling steering feel, while the chassis responds well and the suspension is well sorted… if a little stiff. Remembering that the Sport model didn’t feel as choppy, it’s likely the Grand Touring trim’s bigger wheels are contributing to the bumpy ride.
Available only with a 3.7L V6 which makes 270 hp, the CX-9 isn’t a trailblazer in this segment. Easily the most uninspired part of the car, the Ford-sourced engine could use a bit more grunt. While the transmission is responsive, the car just feels lethargic.
Lacking in grunt, the CX-9 won’t win any fuel economy contests either. Achieving 19 MPG combined in our tests, up one from the official rating. While that’s a bonus, those numbers are down from the competition at 20 or even 21 MPG combined.
Furthermore, when it comes to towing, the CX-9 is rated to tow 3,500 lbs. when properly equipped, far from the 5,000 lb. rating of the Pathfinder.
SKIPPED SKYACTIV SUPPLIMENTS
Braking is another sore spot when it comes to the large crossover. With little initial bite and not much feel beyond that, you’re left pushing hard as you close in on every intersection.
The reason for the CX-9s lazy acceleration and braking feel may lay with its curb weight. Where new Mazdas have undergone a diet, weight loss is not a part of the CX-9’s 2013 update. As a result, it’s on the hefty side compared to other crossovers.
COMPETITION: Check out the Nissan Pathfinder and Hyundai Santa Fe
The CX-9 could clearly take advantage of Mazda’s Skyactiv weight-loss strategy, which would contribute to better performance in the areas of acceleration, braking and even fuel economy.
Starting at $29,785 the CX-9 is more expensive than the Nissan Pathfinder and Hyundai Santa Fe, and although it is slightly more premium feeling, the competition benefits from either a more powerful drivetrain, or less weight tying them down. Our Grand Touring trim with the GT tech package borders near-luxury territory at $39,605. The Buick Enclave and Acura MDX aren’t far off that price-point, and carry plenty more brand prestige.
Skyactiv is the missing ingredient that would turn the CX-9 into the go-to large crossover. While the seven-seater Mazda is a capable and enjoyable vehicle, it just doesn’t live up to the benchmark set by the rest of the Mazda vehicles and ultimately other cars in its class.