The CX-9's curvy body features styling that isn't as bold or as sporty as the CX-7 with its pontoon fenders, but those familiar with Mazda will find it instantly recognizable. I also like its looks more so than theutilitarian-minded GMC Acadia, which looks a touch too much like a minivan. As for the finer details, the CX-9 has an extremely clean shape, with no garish angles or trim pieces to speak of, but I like the intricateness of the headlamps and how the turn signals are integrated into their upper flanks. The rear is particularly nice, highlighted by upscale looking LED taillight assemblies and aggressive integrated exhaust tips which are more likely to be found on a high-end sports car than a seven-seat crossover. The icing on the cake was our tester's Stormy Blue Mica paint which featured metallic flake that glimmered in the light, plus the dark silver painted 20-inch alloy wheels that fill out the wheel wells nicely.
Mazda says that the interior of the CX-9 represents its best effort to date, and we can see where they're going with this claim. It's apleasing blend of textures and colors, like the raindrop dimpled leather inserts and the black gloss effect trim on the steering wheel and console that definitely imparts an upscale feel. And while we admire the use of contrasting stitched leather, we didn't at all like the less than stellar use of extra-hard plastics on the dashboard. Despite that, everything works well, making drivers and passengers alike all feel at home and at ease.
Even new buyers of entry-level brands seem to be demanding that interior features compete with some of the premium offerings that exist, and the CX-9 takes care to address these concerns. Our tester had options on it that many vehicles above its class include, such as a back-up camera and touch screen navigation system. The only issue is that to get some of these goodies you have to step up to various option packages that you may not want or need. And as good as the features are, they suffer from some ergonomic quirks. The right bank of buttons on the touch screen interface (including the all-important volume knob) was a bit of a stretchto reach, signifying that this indeed is a right-hand-drive conversion. Fortunately steering wheel controls are included, although these don't access all of the audio system's functionality. The screen was also susceptible to being covered with fingerprints and became hard to discern in direct sunlight.
As much as they could, Mazda engineers tried to keep the dynamic flavor so familiar to those who enjoy their products so much. In this regard, we think they have succeeded as much as the platform will allow. Anytime you build a vehicle with the CX9's girth, weight and size you're not going to have it threaten something light and agile (like an MX-5) in its dynamics. Therefore, the CX-9 tries hard to mask its sheer size when out on the road, and for the most part it does pretty well. The ride and handling package served up offers well-controlled body motions and a ride that might be just a touch too firm, which could be attributed to its low profile tires. Overall it feels tied down and drama free.Only when you chuck the CX-9 into a corner at high speed does the picture become slightly less rosy with all 4,546 pounds making their presence known. Our all-wheel drive version helped to control understeer, bringing the car closer in line to our cornering intent, offering up better control than expected, though the steering was less precise than we what we hoped for. It would squirm uncomfortably off center and didn't have the clarity and confidence of some its stable mates. Yeah, we know, it's a big vehicle ... and yet, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche (to name a few) have a very fluid and precise steering feel on some of their bigger vehicles, so we know its possible from other sumo utes (for a price, of course). Mazda also offers the CX-9 in front-wheel drive, though we hesitate to recommend it due to the high power of the engine and the potential for torque steer. If fuel economy is more important to you than performance, mind you, it might be the way to go.
Speaking of the drivetrain, motivation comes from a new 3.5-liter V6 that puts out a respectable 263 horsepower and, if you hadn't guessed, is borrowed from Ford's Edge, and now additional Ford/Lincoln products. It is (thankfully) a fairly sophisticated piece, making goodpower and respectable refinement. We're not the only ones thinking that this is a good engine either. In its first year of production, it's already managed to make its way onto Ward's Ten Best Engines list. Hooked up to an Aisin six-speed automatic (the Edge and MKX use a Dearborn-engineered six-speed automatic, reiterating the differences), it fades into the background until you're hardly aware of it. The only gripe we have is that the gear ratio spacing needs a bit of sorting out, as there are large gulfs of space between gears, preventing the engine from spinning in its sweet spot for very long. While we're mentioning gripes, the CX-9 is victim to some strange noises, like some scrubbing during low speed cornering and disconcerting sloshing coming from the gas tank. Strange indeed.
The CX-9 just wouldn't cut it as a crossover if it didn't offer room and utility, and in that regard it doesn't disappoint. This is a seven-occupant CUV where all three rows are readily usable with decent third-row leg and knee room. Access to the rear quarters is done by tugging on a single handle and pushing the second row forward. Physical cargo capacity is also very good, with a fairly decent 17.2 cubic feet with all three rows up, which can be expanded to a frankly astonishing 100.7 cubic feet with the second and third rows folded flat. Who says you've got to have a minivan for minivan-like storage capabilities?
So is the CX9 good? The answer is yes, but not overwhelmingly so. During our stay with us, we began calling it the un-Mazda because it's different from the fun, nimble vehicles we normally sample from the marque. Having said that, perhaps we're letting our memories color our impressions too much, keeping in mind the other vehicles in its class, the CX-9 hardly embarrasses itself. We think buyers will warm to the combination of hauling versatility, all weather capability and handsome styling. If Mazda can concentrate more of its vehicle dynamics know how into the CX-9, the future looks bright.