June 28th, 2013 by Steve Cypher

A week spent in the entertaining midsize crossover SUV from Mazda

Pros:

Exterior and interior styling
Handling
Steering feedback

Cons:

Mediocre fuel economy
Rear three-quarter visibility

The SUV conundrum

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a fan of SUVs in general and mid to large size SUVs in particular.

The “in general” part refers to their overall inefficiencies. If you want to either haul around a lot of people or a lot of stuff, a minivan is far more fuel efficient as well as being quite a bit more voluminous inside. And while a minivan won’t give its driver the same view of the road ahead as that of a Kenworth and SUVs generally have better ground clearance, driver visibility in one is still excellent while most SUVs will never leave the tarmac (jumping the curb and landing in a flower bed at the mall doesn’t count).

As for “in particular”, midsize to large SUVs are some of the most boring vehicles to drive on the planet. Piloting many of them is akin manning the  wheel of a large ocean liner – largely detatched from events unfolding beneath the keel. Their bloated size also makes them particularly inappropriate for daily urban usage while their generally abysmal fuel economy means long highway jaunts require that either copious amounts of cash or a charge card with a high credit limit be along for the ride.

2013 Mazda CX-9

Having said all that, I was pleasantly surprised by practically everything the Mazda CX-9 had to offer.

Based on Ford’s CD3 platform, the Mazda CX-9 shares its underpinnings with the Ford Edge, Lincoln MKX and previous generations of both the Ford Fusion and Mazda Mazda6.

Originally brought to market as a 2007 model, the CX-9 is still in its first generation – although facelifts for the 2010 model as well as our 2013 tester have certainly kept it fresher-looking than much of the competition.

The only available engine is a Ford-sourced all aluminum MZR 3.7-liter V6 with chain-driven dual overhead camshafts featuring variable intake valve timing and generating a robust 273 horsepower at 6,250 rpm with 250 lb.-ft of torque available between 3,000 and 6,000 rpm while maxing out at 270 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,250 rpm. It’s rated at 16/22/18 city/highway/combined by the EPA while our observed fuel economy was admittedly not that impressive at 18.2 mpg in primarily city driving.

It’s mated to an Aisin-supplied six-speed Sport AT electronically controlled automatic transmission with a manual mode. Mazda’s largest vehicle also features four-wheel independent suspension using MacPherson struts in front and a multi-link setup in the rear.

All-wheel-drive models also come with Mazda’s Active Torque AWD system that monitors wheel slippage, steering angle, yaw rate, lateral acceleration and available driveline torque. In normal driving it directs 100 percent of the driving torque to the front wheels. During aggressive acceleration or when the system detects that one front wheel is on the verge of slipping, a controlled percentage – up to 50 – can be directed to the rear wheels.

Exterior

Like its mild refresh in 2010, exterior updates for 2013 were limited to new front and lower rear fascias fashioned after Mazda’s newest KODO “Soul of Motion” design language. Since little was done to the CX-9’s flanks, Mazda refers to it as KODO-esque. Compared to the new Mazda6 and the just-revealed 2014 Mazda Mazda3, the SUV’s design language is more like KODO “lite.”

Those constraints aside, Mazda has done a nice job of grafting its latest corporate look onto the aging CX-9, giving it a fresh and sophisticated look.

Changes up front include a massive five-point grill that on all but its upper half is outlined by a narrow chrome trim strip. This trim rises until it meets and bisects the “eagle eyed” headlamps. Below the headlights are a pair of highly sculpted fog lamp enclosures while, in back, the previous model’s trapezoidal-shaped exhaust tips have been replaced with round outlets – matching the shape of the new front fog lights.

18′ aluminum alloy wheels wrapped in P245/60R18 all-season tires are standard while our Grand Touring tester came standard with 20-inch alloys paired with Bridgestone Dueler H/L 400 P245/50R20 all-season rubber.

Interior

Inside the CX-9 is an exercise in subtle elegance. Rich-looking soft touch surfaces abound, with the prevalent dark charcoal color offset by silver brushed metal and rich-looking Bordeaux trim. Overall fit and finish is outstanding with the highlight being a console arm rest that instead of releasing from the front and flipping backward features a clamshell-type opening, with the right and left sides opening independently of each other. With this setup there’s plenty of room for one of the front seat occupants to rest their arm on the console while the other person accesses the storage area below by flipping open their half of the console arm rest.

The steering wheel both tilts and telescopes while the leather and suede-trimmed heated front seats were both firm and supportive with just the right amount of side bolstering.

Instrumentation is clear and easy to read, with the smooth console and center-stack buttons and controls being very intuitive. Kudos to Mazda for another design feature: although our tester came equipped with a touch screen, the system also featured conventional knobs and buttons that performed those functions as well.

With a 113.2-inch wheelbase there’s plenty of interior space. Front seat passengers enjoy a generous amount of head (38.4 inches with a sunroof, 39.6 inches without one), shoulder (59.4 inches) and leg room (40.9 inches). Center seat passengers will find a nearly flat floor, along with plenty of room (39 inches of headroom, 58.7 inches of shoulder room and 39.8 inches of legroom) along with well-shaped seats and easy ingress and egress.

In back, up to two rear-seat occupants will find 35.4 inches of headroom, 56.9 inches of shoulder room and 32.4 inches of leg room with 4.6 inches of knee clearance.

Cargo volume behind third seat is fairly commodious at 17.2 cubic feet and expands to 48.3 cubic feet with the third row folded flat. With both rear and middle seats down it transforms into a cargo-worthy 100.7 cubic feet.

On the road

But it’s on the road where the CX-9 really shines. The V6 is smooth, powerful and refined with brisk acceleration, while the cabin is fairly quiet even at freeway speeds. It tracks nicely down the road while suspension compliance is excellent with body lean being well controlled through the corners. Braking is also very good and it’s easy to modulate the brake pedal.

All things considered, Mazda has done an amazing job of incorporating its “zoom-zoom” spirit into a vehicle of the CX-9’s size and heft. Overall handling is very good and feedback through the steering wheel is closer to car-like than any other vehicle in this class. The view from the driver’s seat out the front and back is excellent. The only drawback is the model’s sloping roofline and wide C-pillars, which somewhat hinder the driver’s view out the rear quarter.

Equipment

Mazda offers the 2013 CX-9 in Sport, Touring and Grand Touring trim levels. All models offer three-zone automatic climate control, cruise control, power windows (one-touch up/down in front, power locks, keyless entry, a leather-wrapped tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel with audio and cruise controls, a leather-wrapped shift knob, Bluetooth hands-free audio and phone system, a 5.8-inch in-dash multi-information display screen, Pandora and HD Radio, USB and auxiliary jack connection ports.

The Touring trim adds power leather seats – 8-way driver’s with power lumbar, four-way front passenger, automatic headlights, Blind Spot Monitoring, backup sensors and a rearview camera. An optional Touring Technology Package features a Bose 10-speaker system, TomTom-based in-dash nav with real-time traffic, power lift gate, push-button start, Sirius satellite radio with 4-month subscription, a moonroof and fog lights.

Grand Touring models get, among other niceties, 20-inch alloys wrapped in Bridgestone Dueler H/L 400 P245/50R20 low-profile tires, chrome exterior door handles, rain-sensing wipers, an alarm, power outside mirrors with turn indicators, memory and an automatic tilt-in-reverse feature, fog lights, power lift gate, auto on/off bi-xenon HID headlights with manual leveling, LED daytime running lights, a three-position memory driver’s seat, auto-dimming rearview mirror and the aforementioned Bordeaux interior accents.

Three packages are available for Grand Touring models.

The Technology Package includes a Bose 10-speaker sound system, TomTom-based in-dash nav system, a moonroof and Sirius Satellite Radio (four months complimentary).

The Rear Seat Entertainment Package comes with a 9″ screen DVD player, an 11-speaker Bose Sound System, TomTom-based in-dash nav system with real-time traffic, and Sirius Satellite Radio (4 months complimentary) and cannot be combined with the Technology package (for obvious reasons – like the sunroof).

Finally a Towing Prep Package is available only for FWD Grand Touring models.  While all CX-9 FWD vehicles have a 2,000 lbs. towing capacity, this bumps it to 3,500 lbs. and includes a heavy-duty transmission cooler and radiator fan and a revised engine control module (a towing receiver hitch must be purchased separately). Note: AWD models receive the Towing Prep Package as standard equipment.

2013 CX-9 pricing

New car pricing, including a $795 destination charge, starts at $30,580 for a front-wheel drive Sport model and can top out at over $41,000 for an all-wheel-drive Grand Touring model with all the option boxes checked.

Our tester, a Liquid Silver Metallic, all-wheel-drive Grand Touring had an MSRP, including delivery, of $39,605.00.

The Bottom Line

It’s easy to like CX-9 because it’s got lot going for it – a quiet ride, a striking interior that’s both comfortable and spacious interior and a healthy enough dose of Mazda’s “zoom-zoom” DNA that actually makes it fun to drive – at least for a vehicle this size.

It also has to be the best-kept secret around because last year Toyota sold roughly five times as many Highlanders while Chevy delivered more than three Traverses to every CX-9 that Mazda moved out of dealer showrooms.

So the bottom line, as I see it, is to get the word out: even if you absolutely have to have a midsize SUV it doesn’t mean you have to settle for vehicle whose dynamic properties are akin to those a large ocean liner. Instead, put the CX-9 at the top of your list, pay a visit to your local Mazda dealer and take one for a test drive. I promise that you won’t be disappointed.



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