The Mazda CX-9 is a handsome three-row crossover that blends sport and family functions. The handling is sharp and the ride firm, while carrying seven people in comfort.
It’s front-wheel drive, with available all-wheel drive sending up to 50 percent of the power to the rear wheels when they need it.
For 2018, Mazda CX-9 comes with G-vectoring, which cuts ignition spark to put a small amount of weight on the front tires, to make the handling more stable in corners. Otherwise, there are no major changes for the 2018 model year. The current-generation CX-9 was introduced as a 2016 model.
The CX-9 uses one engine, 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 was named one of Wards “10 Best Engines” in 2017.
It’s mated to a quick six-speed automatic that’s smoother than rivals having eight, nine, or ten speeds. But its sporty nature is missing something: paddle shifters.
With front-wheel drive, CX-9 rates 22 miles per gallon City, 28 Highway, 24 Combined, according to the EPA; with 1 less combined mpg with all-wheel drive. That 6-speed automatic might be smoother than some with 9 or 10 speeds, but the reason for their being is to improve fuel mileage. So the CX-9 mileage suffers a bit.
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 Pilot and Highlander offer more space. The CX-9 wins back on cabin beauty and luxury feel, but loses again on tech, with mediocre connectivity and an infotainment system that has been behind rivals for at least two years.
For 2018, CX-9 comes with automatic emergency braking at low speeds, called Smart City Brake Support, along with blind-spot monitors and rear cross-traffic alert.
The IIHS gives the CX-9 a Top Safety Pick Plus rating, but only the Grand Touring or Signature model with LED headlamps. The Sport and Touring models get a mere Marginal rating due to less-effective headlamps.
The CX-9 Sport ($32,130) comes with cloth upholstery, three-zone climate control, and 18-inch aluminum wheels. Smart City Brake Support, blind-spot monitors and rear cross-traffic alert now come standard.
All-wheel drive is available for Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring ($1800). (Prices are MSRP and do not include destination charge.)
CX-9 Touring ($34,960) 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 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 adds 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. The brown Nappa leather in our test Signature was gorgeous. 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.
The touchscreen sits awkwardly on the dash like a TV on a Motel 6 dresser (a design that makes it easier for the manufacturer to upgrade on later models). The radio is easy to tune, but the infotainment system feels dated. The system is menu intensive and takes too many clicks to program. The navigation system lags competitors. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity are not available.
The CX-9 has less room inside than its rivals, however the split-fold second row is on a sliding track, which allows one inch more legroom than the Pilot or Highlander. The rear seats recline but lack support from contour.
The front seats are spacious but firm, and also lack support. Good adjustment, and a tilt/telescope steering wheel, but a wide center console steals side legroom.
The third row is not 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. The CX-9 works best like this, as a five-seat crossover.
With both rows folded, we fit in two kayaks and two electric bicycles. The only problem was that the liftgate wouldn’t close all the way, and there’s no way to shut off the beeper that warns you it’s open. So we drove all the way to the river with the radio on full blast to drown out the warning telling us what we obviously already knew.
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. What was especially no fun was the Lane Keep Assist constantly telling us we were about to run off the curving two-lane road when we promise you, we were not.
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.
When it’s carrying just one, it feels super smooth and fast, accelerating onto the freeway.
The turbocharger was designed by Mazda, to respond without the lag that inherently comes with turbos, and the engineers succeeded in their goal. When you floor it from idle it lags for a second, but you don’t drive like that.
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 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.
With only six gears in the automatic transmission, against rivals that have as many as 10, the CX-9 looks behind them, but not necessarily. The 6-speed automatic easily keeps the engine in its powerband, and shifts smoother than some with more speeds, whose programming is more complicated, with more choices to get wrong.
Mazda’s G-vectoring is not the same as other cars’ torque vectoring. Torque vectoring uses the brakes on one side of a car to give a greater sense of grip or mitigate the effects of understeer. One consequence of that is the driver loses a sense of steering feel. G-Vectoring, on the other hand, cuts ignition spark to put a minimal amount of extra weight on the front tires, effectively creating a wider contact patch, stiffening the tire sidewall and creating more stable steering feel, both in straight lines and corners.
There is a transmission sport mode that raises the shift points, but there are no driving modes to change the throttle and steering response.
With no paddle shifters, no sporty modes, and a turbo four that’s sometimes stretched, the CX-9 can’t be called terribly sporty. It has elegant looks, but it’s not as roomy inside as it should be, and the third row is for kids. The infotainment system is easy to use but dated. We like the ride and steering the most.
Sam Moses contributed to this review, with staff reports.