The Mazda CX-9 is a stylish three-row crossover sport-utility whose emphasis on sport compromises the family a bit, so its functionality will depend on its intended use. If you always want sharp handling on a firm ride and only occasionally need that third row of seats, it works.
It uses one engine, introduced in 2016, a 2.5-liter turbo making 250 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, when premium gas is used; however it drops to 227 hp on regular. The engine has already been named one of Wards “10 Best Engines” for 2017. An SUV the size of the CX-9 could use more power. In the CX-9 it still accelerates quickly enough, helped along by a quick six-speed automatic that’s smoother than rivals having eight, nine, or ten speeds; but given the CX-9’s sporty personality, there should be paddle shifters. The omission is curiously out of character for Mazda.
With a long wheelbase of 115.3 inches and overall length of 199.4 inches, it’s bigger on the outside than the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander, but those inches mostly vanish on the inside, where the Pilot and Highlander win with more space for passengers and cargo. The CX-9 wins on cabin beauty and luxury feel, but loses again on tech, with mediocre connectivity and an infotainment system that doesn’t keep up with rivals.
With standard front-wheel drive it gets 22 miles per gallon city, 28 highway and 24 combined, and one less combined mpg with all-wheel drive, according to the EPA.
For 2017, the biggest change is automatic emergency braking at low speeds, called Smart City Brake Support, standard on all models but the entry-level Sport. This feature joins blind spot monitors and rear cross-traffic alert.
The 2017 Mazda CX-9 Sport ($31,520) comes with cloth upholstery, three-zone climate control, and 18-inch aluminum-alloy wheels. All-wheel drive is available for Sport, Touring Grand Touring for an additional $1800. (Prices are MSRP and do not include destination charge.)
CX-9 Touring ($35,970) includes leather upholstery, power heated front seats, push-button start, three-zone automatic climate control, two USB ports, Bluetooth audio streaming (no CD), rearview camera, 18-inch alloy wheels, an 8.0-inch screen, and LED headlamps.
Grand Touring ($40,470) adds lane-keep assist, lane departure alert, moonroof, adaptive cruise control, power liftgate, and upgraded infotainment with 8.0-inch screen. An option package adds automatic headlamps, LED foglamps, navigation, Bose speakers, automatic windshield wipers, sunroof, SiriusXM satellite radio, 20-inch wheels, and head-up display.
Signature ($44,315) comes standard with all-wheel drive and Nappa leather, Japanese rosewood inlays, and real aluminum trim.
The CX-9 is elegant, with a long hood, tapered fenders, and dramatic (for an SUV) roofline. Its tall nose features a large but delicate grille that’s tilted at the top like a Volvo XC90, and LED headlamps; on the Signature, the grille has LED background lighting. The rear pillars arc upward. The wide stance gives an athletic look that could pass for Italian.
The CX-9 cabin is car-like, with a low shelf-like dashboard similar to the design in other Mazda vehicles. The materials feel upscale and expensive, for sure in the Signature, although the switchgear placement sometimes seems haphazard, and there’s a lot of glossy black plastic that will show smudges. The driver’s line of sight includes a 4.6-inch screen with trip information and functions.
Our biggest criticism is for the awkward touchscreen and infotainment system. The screen sits on the dash like a TV on a Motel 6 dresser. The system itself is confounding, and requires repeated use of the control knob. The software is menu intensive and takes too many clicks to program things. The navigation is at least a generation behind competitors. There’s no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto connectivity, not even as an option.
For an SUV this size it’s cramped inside. Ironically, the split-fold second row has the most room because it’s on a sliding track, with one inch more legroom than the Pilot or Highlander. They recline, but offer no contour. The front seats offer enough adjustment, and there’s a tilt/telescope steering wheel, but the wide center console steals side legroom. The bucket seats are firm while not being especially supportive, like the rear bench.
The third row has too little room for adults. Behind it, there’s only 14.4 cubic feet of cargo space. With the third row folded flat, there’s 38.2 cubic feet of space. We’re inclined to say the CX-9 works best like this, as a five-seat crossover. Which reduces it to a roomy (and expensive) CX-5.
For all it’s sporty slant, we’re not as entertained on the road as we should be. That’s unlike the CX-5, which we declared to be the most fun compact crossover we’ve ever driven.
The steering is on the heavy side, with a medium amount of feel, making it a pleasure to drive on twisty roads. But the optional 20-inch alloy wheels deliver a firm ride that turns twitchy on rough roads. That’s because the sidewalls of the tires aren’t as wide as the standard 18-inchers, so there’s less absorption of the bumps. They run the dampers out of range. So if you want the most comfortable ride, avoid the top model.
The CX-9 uses a simple suspension, struts in front and multilink in rear, to deliver a well-controlled ride with the standard 18-inch wheels. The brakes inspire confidence.
The turbocharged 2.5-liter engine responds smoothly and quickly to make the most of its 250 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, but the engine needs high-test gas to get that power. It runs fine on regular, but only makes 227 horsepower. Mazda says the difference only occurs above 4500 rpm, so it’s not something you’ll notice around town or even cruising on the freeway, just when you’re very hard on the throttle. There, it growls and strains a bit when it’s carrying five people. Some competitors with V6 engines are more powerful.
The turbocharger was designed by Mazda, to respond without the lag that inherently comes with turbos, and the engineers succeeded in their goal. However, when you floor it from idle, for just a moment, it can be caught napping.
With only six gears in the automatic transmission, against rivals that have as many as 10, the CX-9 appears to lose the comparison, but it doesn’t. The tranny does a good job of keeping the engine in its powerband, and it shifts smoother than some with more speeds.
There is a sport mode that raises the shift points, but, unlike others, the mode doesn’t do more than that. It doesn’t change the throttle response or the steering quickness or weight. And there are no paddle shifters. These lapses defy the character of the car. They change it. They bring it up short.
All-wheel drive delivers up to 50 percent of the power to the rear wheels when they need it.
The CX-9 is cramped in the third row and tight in places in the front seats. It can be described as a sporty three-row crossover, making it stand out from its competitors, but it misses the opportunity to fully deliver on the sport and three-row part. The infotainment system is dated.
Sam Moses contributed to this report.