Sporty looks, but handling falls short
I’ve always liked Mazda vehicles because they look and drive a little sportier than most brands that us average middle class folks can afford.
That’s why I’m disappointed with the new Mazda CX-9, the large sport-utility/crossover I just tested. It only delivers on half the equation. It still looks a bit sportier than its competition, models like the boxy Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander, but handling wasn’t up to Mazda standards.
My dark metallic gray CX-9 did have a new grille, less smiley and cartoonish than the previous model, but with a nose that still looks sleeker in profile than most large crossovers, sort of a tall sport wagon look. And its interior feels high-brow and is well finished. Plus this was the Grand Touring with all-wheel-drive, so it was loaded with electronic goodies.
But here’s the deal. I expect more responsive steering from a Mazda and, sorry to say, this just felt like other large sport-utes or crossovers. Steering is extremely light, but not as responsive as I felt in the last CX-9 I drove. It feels a bit vague with more wheel play than I had expected from past experience. That leads to a bit of lane wander on the highway.
The crossover still behaves well in corners. There is little lean in tight turns and with the light steering effort I found it easy to park, despite being over 200 inches long.
Ride is a CX-9 strong point still, and that’s a good thing considering you can haul up to seven folks in it. Yes, there’s a third row seat that makes this more useful than many mid-size and large crossovers.
The four wheel independent suspension, with multi-link in back, and giant 20-inch tires (an upgrade on the Grand Touring model) deliver a smooth well controlled ride that easily handles sharp bumps and railroad crossings. Remember those 20-inch tires, like all larger tires, cost more than the smaller ones when it comes time to replace them.
Mazda uses its strong 3.7-liter V6 in the CX-9. This creates 273 horsepower, quite sufficient for hauling this heavy, 4,552-lbs. crossover around, and whatever you want to put inside, whether people or luggage or both. The engine does get a bit noisy under heavy acceleration though.
Vented discs with ABS, traction and stability control are standard and a 6-speed Sport automatic provides smooth shifts. T tested GT model came with all-wheel-drive, which provides better footing in snow and slush. Your call on whether you need that, considering our ever warmer (except this week), less snowy winters.
Your call too on whether the CX-9 meets your gas mileage requirements. The EPA rates it at 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway, certainly in the ballpark with its competition. Sadly I got just 14.6 mpg in about 70% city driving and with some snow on the roads for a few days.
Mazda’s interior likely will not disappoint, especially on the top-end GT model, which features leather-trimmed seats, driver’s memory seat, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, rain-sensing wipers and a power hatch in back.
The test vehicle’s seats were black cloth with black leather trim featuring red stitching to “sport” up the look, plus vertical wood-look trim on the center stack and doors, complete with a pewter look edging. The dash featured a black leather-look texturing.
Everything was laid out logically and the CX-9 has a manual tilt/telescope steering wheel with radio, cruise control, phone and trip computer buttons on the hub. Like many vehicles, it also has a leather wrap on the wheel, but this one is quite slick. That’s not a problem in summer, but it was not as easy to grip firmly in winter while wearing gloves. The wheel slid through my hands a little too easily.
On the center stack are three big climate control knobs that are easy to use, and above that a moderate sized navigation/radio screen with large adjustment buttons around the screen’s edge. The radio’s volume and tuning knobs are medium in size.
The GT model also has two-level seat heaters up front, welcomed here in the winter. However, the seats take longer to warm than in many cars and trucks I’ve driven, and the automatic dual climate control system up front took a good five minutes before it started cranking warm air, that seems like an eternity on a cold morning.
Seats are comfortable in the first two rows and relatively flat, so good for easy entrance and egress, and on longer trips. The seat backs are more contoured and provide good support and the driver’s seat has a power lumbar adjustment.
I like how the second row seats can be slid forward to create more room for third row riders and how the second row seats fold and move easily with the pull of a lever. Both the second and third row seats will fold down and flat to create monster carrying space in back.
Even with all three rows of seats in place the CX-9 offers 17.2 cubic feet of cargo room. That’s generous. With the third row flat that grows to 48.3 cubic feet and with row two and three down there’s 100.7 cubic feet, better than most crossovers.
I found the center console in the Mazda to be so tall that it made me feel I was in a somewhat cramped cockpit. That may be a personal thing, but be aware of the console’s size. Also, the ignition is keyless, but there’s an ignition switch to turn on the steering column. Visors have extenders and there’s a digital time, trip computer readout in a thin gauge atop the dash, but I could find no outside temperature gauge.
There are, however, plenty of technical features included with both the Touring and Grand Touring models, including a rearview backup camera and sensors and a blind-spot warning system that lights up in the side mirrors if something (person, car, trash can or snow pile) is hiding in your blind spot.
The test CX-9 added a GT tech package that also upgraded the stereo to a Bose unit with 10 speakers, plus Sirius satellite radio, the touch-screen navigation system and a moonroof. Cost is $2,435.
That added on to the Mazda’s $36,375 base price and $795 delivery charge and a $150 rear bumper step plate put this unit at $39,755. That’s getting up there, but you can go with a front-wheel drive Sport model for $29,785 and it gets slightly better 17/24 mpg gas mileage. A Sport AWD model begins at $31,375.
Mazda’s CX-9 remains an attractive and luxurious feeling crossover for large families that need seating for seven and its model array allows you to get that space for a reasonable cost, or opt for luxury and press the limits of $40 grand.
FAST Stats: 2013 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring AWD
Hits: Big, roomy ute/crossover with third row seat, comfortable seats with two-speed heated front seats. Smooth, controlled ride, sizeable storage and power hatch.
Misses: Bad gas mileage, overly light steering. Cockpit feels tight with high center console. Seats and cockpit heat are slow to come up to speed and steering wheel’s leather cover is slick.
Made in: Japan
Engine: 3.7-liter V6, 273 hp
Transmission: 6-speed Sport automatic
Weight: 4,552 lbs.
Wheelbase: 113.2 in.
Cargo: 17.2 cu.ft. (2nd & 3rd row seats up), 48.3 cu.ft. (3rd row seat down), 100.7 cu.ft. (2nd & 3rd row seats down)
Tow: 3,500 lbs. (max.)
Base Price: $36,375
Dealer’s Price: $34,413
Rear bumper step plate, $150
GT Tech package (Bose audio w/10 speakers, Sirius satellite radio, touch-screen navigation, moonroof), $2,435
Test vehicle: $39,755
Sources: Mazda, www.autos.yahoo.com
Photos: Courtesy of Mazda