– Attractive inside and out
– Cabin trim and features
– Ride and handling
– Limited offroad ability
– Less space than rivals
– Few key options not offered
It’s not often we get excited about trying out a crossover, even if mildly. But Mazda has been on a roll lately in terms of producing mainstream cars with enthusiast appeal, and the only one that was left out in the cold so far was the flagship CX-9. Festering with only minor facelifts for the better part of a decade, it was a good vehicle but was clearly showing its age. So when the CX-9 finally debuted, we were glad to see that it wasn’t simply a mild reworking, but rather a completely new vehicle.
Mazda was brave in going for an extroverted style for their redone midsize crossover, with a jutting shark-like nose and an intricate chrome panel between the Ferrari-style tail lights. It is shorter in overall length now, but wheelbase has actually increased to improve interior room. Believe it or not, while it looks small, the CX-9 is slightly longer than the massive-looking Ford Explorer. Oddly enough, most of the car’s length is still over the front wheels, with a sizeable front overhang. Still, it’s looks great, especially with the 20-inch alloys on the top model. Fancy LED lighting both front and rear give it a European air, kind of like a Japanese Alfa Romeo, but without the latter’s confusion. However, we’ve met conservatives who get offended by its looks, preferring the appliance-like neutrality of Korean designs.
The interior is a bigger revelation. The cheap hard plastics have been dramatically reduced, replaced by extensive soft-touch panels on the dash and upper doors, and even part of the centre console near the knees. A tablet-like screen cleanly sits on the dash-top, with tastefully-done metallic embellishments and soft leather upholstery creating a cabin that makes the pricier, smaller Land Rover Discovery Sport look like the waste of money it really is.
Stepping into the car is easy as the doors open all the way to the floor. In terms of space, it’s fairly good in both the first and second rows, though nothing class-leading, even with the second row slid all the way back. Access to the third row is somewhat complicated, but once you figure out how to squeeze back in there, you’re greeted with a split-folding bench that can just about fit average-sized adults, but with their toes slipped in below the second-row seats, and they get hard-plastic armrests. The second-row seats need to be slid forward a bit and kept more upright if you want to give third-row passengers more breathing room, but yes, it is manageable for at least hour-long trips. For more space, you’ll have to look towards the Nissan Pathfinder, the Chevy Traverse or the Honda Pilot.
There’s tons of cubbies, pockets and cup-holders, even for last-row riders. And the boot is huge with the third row folded down (and van-like with the split-folding second row folded down), and still enough for a week’s worth of groceries with the third row in use. The two grocery-bag hooks on the boot’s sidewalls are especially useful.
The multimedia tech is simplified, although it’d take weeks to fully figure out where everything is. The colourful LCD screen is controlled by a rotary knob below the gear-shifter, while there are separate physical controls for the a/c and stereo volume, both of which we appreciated as many other carmakers seem to be replacing these with dangerously-distracting touch icons on a screen. The gauge cluster still has stylish physical dials, with an integrated full-colour info display as well.
The stereo is pretty good, but the a/c is somewhat average, taking a while before it starts blowing cool air. Features in our tester included a tri-zone a/c with rear central vents and digital controls, smart keyless entry and start, power front seats, adaptive cruise control with emergency auto-braking, electronic parking brake, rear camera, blind-spot monitors, heads-up display, a full set of airbags and, among other items, a small sunroof. There is no panoramic glass roof or rear-seat entertainment offered.
The standard engine is now a 2.5-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder instead of the previous gas-guzzling 3.7-litre V6. There’s already backlash over this decision since, on paper at least, the new motor appears to have less power than before, now producing 227 hp at 5000 rpm and 420 Nm of torque at 2000 rpm using “EPlus” RON91 petrol (although in America, it is advertised as being capable of 250 hp using “Super” RON98 too). But Mazda’s self-developed “Dynamic Pressure Turbo” engine is great, with very minor turbo lag but otherwise offering instant throttle response, strong low-end torque and pretty good overtaking power at highway speeds, while sounding good as well. It offers much more practical kick than the V6, and the CX-9 is just as quick as before, since it has now lost 130 kg in AWD trim. We managed a 0-100 kph time of 8.8 seconds during our cool December test, with no wheelspin from the quick-acting all-wheel-drive system.
More beneficially, the fuel consumption hovered around 13.1 litres/100 km in our real-world test, which is 20% better than the old V6 we tested in 2013. And that’s simply with a smooth-shifting 6-speed automatic, rather than resorting to confused 9-speeds or annoying CVTs.
Even better, the ride quality has improved considerably over the loud firm-riding older model. The new CX-9’s suspension soaks up bumps very well, and it’s fairly quiet up to 120 kph, aside from a hint of road noise. The steering is also lighter than before, with a soft brake pedal as well. Adding to that is much better outward visibility than the likes of the Ford Explorer, making for a pleasurable daily driver.
The previous CX-9 was probably the most fun handler in its class, and this new one is no different. The top-spec 2017 CX-9’s wide 255/50 tyres provide ample grip in corners, with limited body roll and no untoward motions on abrupt manoeuvres. It can probably keep up with the underwhelming Jaguar F-Pace in the twisties, even though the latter is being billed as “the sports car” of crossovers.
But the CX-9 has some deficiencies of its own. The steering is overly light while offering limited feedback, but while it can be firmed up slightly in “sport” mode, we had problems on the highway as the car constantly kept turning off sport mode after some 10 seconds. We don’t know if it was doing that by design, or due to some computer fault. Also, the soft brake pedal can be a bit overly-sensitive, although the brakes themselves are very good. As for offroad ability, we believe the all-wheel-drive system will do well on soft sand, but the lack of low-range gearing and a low front bumper means it will be relegated to flat beaches and easy gravel trails.
However, considering most people don’t buy a crossover for extreme offroading anyway, the CX-9 remains a massively compelling product that will give its owners a taste of luxury-car ownership without breaking the bank. If cabin space for seven tall adults is a top priority, the CX-9 loses to more practical rivals, but if that compromise is acceptable, we don’t see what else is better. And therefore, it is entering our recommended list.
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