We know Mazda best for its small Mazda3 cars and its CX-5 SUV, not to mention the one-of-a-kind MX-5. When it comes to larger vehicles, though, Mazda is running behind the times. Its Mazda6 is a superb car offering a very positive driving experience, but it has yet to impose itself on the market. As for the CX-9, more than a few consumers are unaware of its very existence. Some people I spoke with instead even conjured up the CX-7 – which has been dead and gone for over five years!
Reception to the CX-9 has been overwhelmingly positive. Automotive journalists have tended to like it, for one thing. It was even named Best Large Utility Vehicle in Canada by the Automobile Journalists’ Association of Canada, just ahead of the Honda Pilot. This vehicle can accommodate seven occupants, by the way, even if you wouldn’t think so from looking at its exterior. I felt I had to put it to the test in a very particular way.
The family and I were taking a road trip down to Burlington, Vermont for spring break. In my case, family includes teens who have already outgrown their parents, so we were five adult-sized people taking part in the nearly three-hour trek to our destination. Perfect occasion to try out the CX-9. My daughter was going to be the designated tester of the third-row bench, while my son and his buddy had the middle row.
From the outside, the Mazda CX-9 looks basically like a beefed-up CX-5, except for a more prominent front grille. Some like it, others not so much! I had the Signature version, and when you open the door the first thing that strikes is the bigness of the central console. I was frankly worried about legroom, but in the end that was not a factor at all. My legs, just like my head and my shoulders, had plenty of room to breathe.
A quality interior
I was impressed by the quality of the leather seating and of the materials in general. Construction is impeccable, and the overall level of quality throughout the cabin places the CX-9 in a category apart in that respect. I should point out that this version retails for just over $50,000, so you’re paying a tidy sum for that quality. Rest assured, though, the base version starts at a little more than $36,000, much more reasonable if you ask me. Front seats are very comfortable for longer voyages, although the heated seats, even though they could be adjusted to three levels of intensity, never seemed to heat all that much. Same story for the heated steering wheel, which only warms your hands if you hold them in the ‘10-to-2’ position.
The instrument cluster is easy to read and use, but it’s the head-up display that most stands out. Nearly all the useful information you could want is projected onto the lower part of the windshield, allowing you to keep your eyes peeled on the road ahead at all times. Even the GPS can be displayed there. Elsewhere, all the dials display data in white letters and numbers on black background. The steering wheel commands, for their part, are certainly plentiful, but they’re easy enough to keep track of and use.
The weak point of this dashboard is probably the infotainment system, which surprised me, since just a few short years ago it was probably my favourite among those I was encountering. But that was then, this is now. Its biggest sin is that it hasn’t evolved much, so that it’s been overtaken by other manufacturers’ more recent, upgraded systems. It’s easy enough to use, but it doesn’t have Apple CarPlay or Android Auto compatibility, for example. Nor is there in place a WiFi system, which is rapidly becoming ubiquitous in the industry. As for the navigation system, it’s easy to program by voice, but like all integrated systems, the maps in it are already out-of-date by several months if not years. So that when I searched a new business in the area around St. Albans, Vermont, for which Google had provided me the address, the road it was located on was not yet listed in the GPS. I had to go old school and stop at a gas station to ask for directions. So much for the GPS!
Lower down are commands for the tri-zone climate control system. The boys in the second row appreciated having their own settings for the temperature, like they did the heated second-row seating. The dashboard sports a pleasant design and quality elements and finishes, and I found the contrasting black-terracotta scheme quite chic, thank you very much. And since I’m sure you’re wondering, access to the third row is not too difficult, as long as you’re not my shape or size. Height is not really an issue (my daughter is 5’9’’), but do you need to be kind of nimble!
Cargo space overall is ample and useful. If you’re free of passengers, you can lower all the seats and create a cavernous space. The second-row bench is 60/40 split while the third row is 50/50. With our crowd on board, we simply folded down one half of that third row. My daughter was thus surrounded by luggage, creating a bit of a bunker vibe! It suited her fine, she told me. I asked if it would still suit her fine if she had to sit that way all the way down to Florida, for instance, and she said yes; although in that scenario, for a longer voyage, we would have been seriously short of luggage space for our needs. As always, the key is finding the right compromise between needs for passengers and luggage while taking into account the duration of the trip.
4-Cylinder Turbo and No More
While the previous generation of the Mazda CX-9 came only with a V6 engine, this time around the only choice for buyers is a 4-cylinder turbo. All trims, from the GS up to the Signature version we tested, are powered by a 2.5L SKYACTIV-G turbo generating 250 hp (when using 93-octane superior gasoline; pump in regular and you get only 227 hp). Maximum torque is 310 lb-ft, attainable from 2,000 RPM. The automatic transmission comes with 6 speeds and can be shifted manually. I have to say that even with five of us aboard, this powertrain performed quite well. Acceleration from a stop is not exactly earth-shattering, but overall performance is excellent. This 4-cylinder handles itself admirably, and it’s an impressive feat by Mazda to have included, in such a large vehicle, a certain amount of that zoom-zoom spirit in the way it drives. All of the mechanics, including the steering, suspension and braking, are up to the task for managing a vehicle of this type. Mazda didn’t skimp anywhere that I can see.
As mentioned the Signature is a pricy edition of the 2018 CX-9, but there are more affordable options available, which offer less equipment, to be sure, but still give you that feeling of luxury that accompanied us on our road trip. Mazda has crafted a vehicle that can hold on its own quite well against much pricier competitors. Now I guess the company’s main job is making more people aware of its existence and its many qualities.
Model tested: 2018 Mazda CX-9 Signature
Consumption figures according to Natural Resources Canada:
City – 11.5L/100 km
Highway - 8.9L/100 km
Consumption figures according to Mazda: 10.2L/100 km