The CX-9 is not only the biggest Mazda on offer, it is the most expensive. The size is mitigated by the fact it has three rows of seats and a massive amount of interior space. The $49,750 price tag on the test vehicle included just about all the gear and gadgets available in a family conveyance.
Sharing a chassis and drivetrain developed by Ford for the previous versions of the Edge, Flex and Lincoln MKZ, the CX-9 is likely in its final iteration as that relationship ended when Ford sold its Mazda stock for some much-needed cash.
The CX-9 is not exactly a fuel-miser, another nail in its coffin for a company obsessed with efficiency. But this is a well-built, good-looking and spacious SUV, with a 3500-lb towing capacity, and for many consumers those attributes outweigh any penalty at the pumps.
Aggressively-styled, the CX-9 remains a good looking vehicle five years after its introduction. Bearing a strong resemblance to its CX-7 sibling, it has a laid back windshield, steeply sloped roofline, distinctive fender flares and, in the GT trim, whopping huge 20-inch alloy wheels.
Suffice it to say the CX-9 stands out in any crowd, especially when painted in “copper red mica” like my test vehicle. The swoopy curves and bulges that define its sheer presence help disguise the fact this thing is big. It stretches more than five meters from bumper-to-bumper, tips the scales at more than 2150 kg (4,730 lb) and seats up to seven people in three rows.
Well equipped in both trims
Carried over into 2012 virtually unchanged, Mazda’s flagship comes in two trim levels – GS and GT. They share the same engine and transmission, but the GT gets a full-time active all-wheel-drive system, 20-inch alloy wheels, Xenon HID headlights, blind spot monitoring system, keyless start/stop, power glass moon-roof, passenger seat and lumbar support; leather upholstery, satellite radio and a 10-speaker Bose audio system.
My test vehicle also had an optional navigation system, power tailgate and a rear seat entertainment system with 5:1 channel, 11-speaker surround-sound audio, 115-volt outlet.
Standard equipment on the base (GS) model includes: power windows, locks, mirrors seats – the latter two heated, 18-in alloy wheels, three-zone automatic climate control, tilt & telescope steering wheel, remote keyless entry and wireless connectivity.
Entry and exit are a snap and the tall seating position and plentiful glass provide excellent visibility to all quarters. A rear-view camera (part of the optional navigation system) alleviates the blind spot immediately behind, making parking in tight quarters a breeze.
While the exterior styling allows it to stand out from the pack, the interior execution caps it off. The beauty is in the details - a combination of piano-black, satin chrome and in GT model, dark wood trim. There is a pleasant mix of soft-touch surfaces, faux-wood trim and chrome accents.French stitching and subtle lighting add to the upscale impression.
The instrument panel will be very familiar to anyone moving up from another Mazda product with emphasis on round dials and forms and superb fit and finish. A wide center console adds to the impression of size, putting considerable distance between driver and passenger, both of whom are ensconced in wide and supportive seats.
The second row seat is split 60/40 and positioned on rails, allowing them to slide fore and aft over a 10-cm range. The rear-most position creates limo-like legroom. The two-person third row seat has a 50/50-split.Tug a lever and the entire second-row unit slides forward for access, aided by extra-long second row doors.
Mazda claims this is the largest pass-through to the third-row in the category. But a lack of headroom limits it to small and/or agile individuals. Cargo volume is a useful 487-litres with the third row seats in place and a whopping 2,851 with both second and third rows folded.
Technology becoming dated
All models come with a slick-shifting six-speed automatic and 273-horsepower, 3.7-litre V-6 producing 270 lb-ft of torque. The Ford-sourced engine is silky smooth, refined and more than capable of propelling this big vehicle off the mark, up hills and around slower traffic with aplomb.
Gear changes are all but imperceptible. But physics and age cannot be denied. The CX-9 weighs more than 2 tonnes (4,600 lb) and the engine lacks state-of-the-art technology like direct injection and other developments included in Ford’s Eco-Boost and Mazda’s Skyactiv systems. NRCan says you’ll get 9.0 L/100 km on the highway. I say you might on a long downhill slope with a tail wind.
The all-wheel-drive system is all but invisible – until you need the added grip of two additional tires. First developed for the hot-rod MazdaSpeed Mazda6 and also used in the Mazda CX-7, it is a torque-on-demand system that powers the front wheels until slippage is detected. Sensors report this situation to a control module that instantaneously diverts some power to the rear wheels.
But this is much more than sophisticated than the common slip-and-grip setup. It also plays a role in vehicle dynamics. Sensors monitor everything from steering-wheel angle and vehicle position, as well as ABS and ESC status, and factor all these into the equation, sending some power to the rear wheels whenever it's needed to improve stability.
Built in Japan, the CX-9 benefits from unique suspension, transmission and engine tuning by Mazda engineers. Willing to sacrifice some, but not all of the pillow-soft, freeway-gobbling attributes of the Fords, they set out to impart the big truck with the driving dynamics Mazda is noted for.
Ride qualities are excellent despite the low-profile tires and handling is reasonable for such a tall, heavy vehicle but the limits of the Zoom-Zoom envelope may have been reached here.
While the CX-9 has the capacity and utility of a minivan, it feels and drives more like a car with fairly flat cornering, good steering feel and plenty of compliance. The short sidewalls on the big low-profile 20-inch tires aren’t particularly happy with abrupt surface changes like potholes and expansion stripes but overall the ride quality is worthy of a luxury vehicle.
The 2012 Mazda CX-9 is a roomy, family-size crossover with three rows of seating, and a little more fun for the driver than most competitors.