Review: 2012 Mazda CX-9

By Andrew Ganz
Wednesday, Feb 29th, 2012 @ 11:14 am
It's no secret that we've been fans of the Mazda CX-9 ever since it hit the road back in 2007. But that was a long time ago, which has given rivals from several automakers time to play catch-up.

Have they leapfrogged the zoom-zoom-inspired CX-9, or is this big Mazda still at the top of its game? We hopped into a well-equipped 2012 model to find out.

Read on.

What is it?
CX-9's basic architecture is shared with the Ford Edge, but the two crossovers go about things quite differently. The Blue Oval brand lets its larger Explorer take on three-row rivals like the CX-9 since the Edge is a mere five-seater.

Not to mention that the CX-9 has a decidedly sport-tuned feel that made it sort of the default "enthusiast's choice" in a segment more notable for cupholder counts than skidpad grip.

The CX-9 saw a modest facelift for 2010, which gave it a new, happier front fascia and a few interior tweaks. The earliest CX-9s featured a 3.5-liter V6, but all subsequent models have since come standard with a 3.7-liter unit that also does duty with a few modifications in the Ford Mustang. A six-speed automatic is standard across the line, while our tester's optional all-wheel-drive replaces sunny state-friendly front-wheel drive.

Lower-rung CX-9s represent a surprisingly good value, but our Grand Touring tester pushes the limit, especially with an expensive rear seat entertainment system (an iPad mounted to the headrest seems like a better idea to us). We like the mid-level Touring, which comes with all-wheel-drive and leather seats for under $34,000. Most rivals still feel a little stripped out at that price point.

What's it up against?
CX-9's natural rivals range from the Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia to fresh-faced competitors like the Ford Explorer and Dodge Durango. Toss in the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot and Kia Sorrento if you're in the mood for a full day of shopping.

Only the Durango, with its rear-drive platform and available V8 engine, offers a similarly enthusiast-bent take on a crossover/SUV.

How does it look?
Since it has been on the market for nearly half a decade, the CX-9 has become a familiar site. That's not to say that it isn't aging gracefully, however.

Tasteful proportions hide this big, nearly 200-inch-long crossover's girth extremely well. If we didn't know better, we might think it was sized more along the lines of the one foot shorter Toyota Highlander.

Tweaks to the CX-9's front fascia for 2010 gave it a bigger grin like its Mazda3 and Mazda6 siblings, but the rest of its conservative design was, fortunately, left alone. Gently flared wheel arches give way to attractive unpainted lower cladding, which is, to our eyes, more pleasingly integrated than a similar "rugged" effect used on the Explorer and Traverse. We also really like the twin-spoke alloy wheels and the wide exhaust pipes, which lend an air of sportiness that meshes with the driving experience.

And on the inside?
At first glance, the CX-9's interior is appealing. Rich black and grey leather seats are offset by extensive matte black plastic, convincing faux wood and limited silver touches. But on a closer evaluation, the CX-9 is starting to show its age.

Ergonomically, however, the CX-9's interior is top notch. The front seats are firmly supportive, and their fragrant semi-aniline leather covers put many luxury brands to shame. A small, thick-rimmed three-spoke steering wheel further reinforces a sporty mission, while most controls fall quickly to hand. A red display at the top of the dashboard displays basic climate and audio information, but its appearance is rather more 1990s than 2010s. So to the navigation and infotainment interface, which works intuitively but feels a little too Windows 95 even though it can record live radio or wirelessly stream Bluetooth audio devices.

Back seat passengers are treated to good space and a comfortable, highly adjustable bench. Third-row access is a cinch for more nimble passengers, and space back there is perfectly tolerable for adults, provided they're not expected to ride across the country.

A DVD player screen drops down from the roof, but selecting it means drivers must forgo an otherwise optional moonroof. The third row folds into the load floor to create an expansive and nicely-finished cargo area. But even with the third row in the up position, there's plenty of space for some small suitcases.

Materials are a mixed bag. While nothing looks cheap, some surfaces - like the center console and lower portions of the doors - feel a bit flimsy.

But does it go?
CX-9's 3.7-liter V6 is rated at 273 horsepower and 270 lb-ft. of torque, both of which peak toward the upper reaches of the rev range. The good news is that the responsive six-speed automatic - which features a manual-style gate - keeps the engine within its power band. Quick and smooth downshifts are complemented by prompt upshifts.

Its 4,546 lbs. curb weight keeps the CX-9 from ever feeling fast, but we hardly struggled to keep up with traffic and we found more than adequate mid-range passing power. Notably, the V6 emits a refined growl when called upon but is essentially silent otherwise.

So too the rest of the driving experience. In contrast to some other recent Mazdas, the CX-9 seems to be particularly well-insulated.

As we mentioned before, the small diameter three-spoke steering wheel hints that there is something sporty about the CX-9's driving dynamics. Its steering is taut and direct, with not even a hint of play. Extra feel has been dialed in, which gives the driver an excellent sensation of what's going on up front.

Ride quality from the 20-inch alloy wheels on our Grand Touring tester was firm but not flinty, which imparts a premium feel while still maintaining a sporty character. Toss the CX-9 into a corner and it responds ably with limited lean and minimum fuss.

We took our all-wheel-drive tester on a handling loop we typically reserve for sports cars and we came away grinning from ear to ear. Keeping in mind that the CX-9 is a three-row crossover that weighs almost as much as two Miatas makes it all the more impressive. Certainly, it won't out-handle the zoom-zoom brand's roadster, let alone a well-balanced sedan, but the CX-9 nonetheless remains remarkably fun. That's high praise for any car, especially one that can handle seven passengers and their luggage.

Sadly, this sporty nature exacts a toll on fuel economy. We pegged the EPA's 16/22 mpg estimates, which are more along the lines of what we might expect out of a larger, heavier and more powerful SUV like a Chevrolet Tahoe.

Why you would buy it:
Kids have arrived but you're not willing to give up a fun driving experience.

Why you wouldn't:
Your definition of a family-hauler looks more like a Toyota Sienna.

Leftlane's bottom line
CX-9 represents how a well-designed vehicle can age gracefully. Roomy, refined and surprisingly fun to drive, the CX-9 is still a worthy adversary for new rivals.

A new CX-9 isn't far off, and we hope Mazda doesn't abandon its mission in pursuit of a more mainstream design. This might be one of Mazda's oldest products, but it's also one of the brand's best.

2012 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring AWD base price, $35,125. As tested, $190.
Power liftgate, $400; Rear bumper guard, $150; Navigation, $1,665; Rear seat entertainment/Bose audio, $3,055; Destination, $795.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.

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