Arrival: Nov/2016 Departure: Mar/2018
What we drive, more often than not.
Welcome to Crossover and Dad, the first magazine devoted to those high-riding, two-box vehicles that no self-respecting car guy wants but everyone is buying! Going forward, the rebooted C/D will be so replete with crossover news and reviews that it will resemble the overflowing cargo area behind the third row on your last family vacation. Yes, we know it’s your wife’s car. Our promise to you both: Absolutely no minivans—ever!
Fear not: There’s no way that’s happening, no matter how much the auto business careens off in such a direction. And make no mistake, the car world has turned upside down. Buick, which may be the stodgiest, most historically sedan-centric mainstream brand, reports that 79 percent of its sales volume in the first quarter came from crossovers. As for Porsche, we can’t remember the last month that the Macan didn’t outsell the 718 and 911 combined. [Also see p. 010.] Our test fleet on any given day seems to have more rows of seats than nearby Michigan Stadium.
But the news is not all doom and gloom for us car folk. The flood of crossovers has only made those few clever ones stand in greater relief, machines that manage to tick all (or most) of the practicality boxes without forgetting to reward the driver. Mazda’s seven-passenger CX-9 is among this select group, providing better-than-average driving dynamics in a great-looking, right-sized package. Putting one into our long-term fleet was a given, not open to debate.
To ensure there would be no shame in our game, we ordered the CX-9 in Signature trim, the full-monty spec that started at $44,915 for the 2016 model year (the price has since increased by $375). This included, among other equipment, all-wheel drive, 20-inch wheels, a moonroof, LED lighting, and driver-assist systems (adaptive cruise, blind-spot monitoring, lane keeping, and automated braking). We added some dealer accessories and paid $300 for the Machine Gray paint that made our CX-9 look like a chrome-trimmed artillery shell, bringing the total to $45,955.
But it was less the long list of features that initially impressed us and more the CX-9’s natty two-tone black-and-reddish leather interior with open-pore rosewood trim. “This interior shames some Acura, Cadillac, and Lexus vehicles,” pronounced technical director Eric Tingwall. “That’s not the highest bar to clear, but it’s impressive considering the Ford-era Mazdas.”
“DRIVING AROUND ON BACK ROADS, THIS BIG THREEROW SUV FEELS SO MUCH SMALLER THAN IT REALLY IS.”
–NATHAN SCHROEDER, DESIGN DIRECTOR
Indeed, from the first time the CX-9 rolled into the C/D garage, it was evident that this new model had little in common with the vehicle it replaced, which was the last vestige of Mazda’s decades-long partnership with Ford. The most significant change comes under the hood, where a turbocharged version of Mazda’s 2.5-liter four, rated at 250 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, replaces the Ford V-6. Mazda no longer offers a six in any of its vehicles, and it’s easy to see why. The switch to the turbo four resulted in a 22-mpg average over 40,000 miles, a 4-mpg improvement over our long-term 2008 CX-9 powered by a 3.7-liter V-6.
The CX-9’s new powertrain makes it both lighter and quicker, with curb weight dropping below 4400 pounds. The CX-9 managed 7.1 seconds in a zero-to-60-mph sprint when new, and it trimmed a tenth of a second off that time at the conclusion of our test. On flat-foot acceleration, the CX-9 would get noisy at high revs, but with peak power occurring at 5000 rpm, it is unnecessary to chase the 6300-rpm redline. The engine favors low-end grunt anyway, with its full torque output available at a diesel-like 2000 rpm. “This turbo 2.5-liter is the little engine that could,” wrote deputy online editor Dave VanderWerp, “tugging this large vehicle very capably around town.”
Ride quality—even on its 20-inch wheels—and roll control were routinely praised in the logbook, as was the CX-9’s sedanlike handling and steering feel. Grip improved from 0.83 g to 0.85 once the CX-9’s tires were worn in, and its outstanding braking performance was consistent, with the CX-9 stopping from 70 mph in 168 feet at both ends of its service. (Full disclosure: We did have the front rotors turned due to warping just before final testing.)
More than one commenter mentioned how small the CX-9 drove given its largish size. About that ish: The CX-9 is one of the smaller seven-passenger, three-row crossovers on the market, and its third row is neither particularly commodious nor easy to get to, as the CX-9 offers only a second-row bench seat rather than captain’s chairs. We found its “occasional-use” third row more of a feature than a problem, as the size and handling trade-off is one we’ll always make. Which is why the new CX-9 is our reigning comparison-test champ in its class and has landed on our 10Best Trucks and SUVs list for two years running. As one logbook scribe put it: “A compromised third row is as common in this segment as four wheels and doors. Just buy a minivan already.”
Complaints about the big Mazda were few. Some of the taller members of our staff felt that the front seats needed longer cushions. Those who hate head-up displays hated this one, too, and grumbled that turning it off in the infotainment settings was overly complicated. The cockpit ambient light was deemed too bright at night-time by some, while others didn’t notice. Having recently spent many months with our now gone long-term Honda Pilot made it easy for everyone to notice the CX-9’s paucity of storage bins and cubbies.
Sometimes the infotainment system would freeze at startup; often, the fix was to shut off the CX-9 and turn it on again. And of course, since it doesn’t yet speak Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, this system that we once lauded as among the industry’s best is beginning to feel a little dated—“like an iPhone 4,” wrote one editor. Mazda knows that it lags in this area and has announced future support for both phone-mirroring technologies, with details still forthcoming.
The CX-9 proved mostly reliable during its tenure, needing five routine service visits for oil changes and such. The dealer also performed two no-charge repairs to address service bulletins from Mazda, including updating the powertrain-control-module software. We had to have a cracked windshield replaced, and we took the CX-9 to the body shop for repairs after a minor parking mishap caused damage to the chrome rear-bumper trim.
We did have a few scarier encounters with the CX-9, ones that seemed innocuous at first but threatened one editor’s road trip. They were related to what we’ll call here conventional range anxiety. It started at around 30,000 miles, when a staffer ran the CX-9 out of gas twice in one week. Which seems stupid, except that in the first instance, the CX-9 stalled just as the estimated-range display changed from one mile to zero, and the second time, it still showed eight miles of range. Our collective takeaway from the experience can be summarized by the note that showed up in the logbook after the second incident: “Don’t gamble with the estimated range.”
More than 3000 miles passed before the issue recurred. The CX-9 was in rural Virginia, en route to Universal Studios Florida. The editor behind the wheel was planning to pull over for gas at his next opportunity when the vehicle sputtered to a stop. This time, the CX-9 estimated the distance to empty at a substantial 41 miles. It would later take our local dealer 14 days to fix the running-on-empty problem by replacing both fuel-sending units. But the more immediate issue for our vacationing editor and his family was that they were stuck on the side of the road, and when they called Mazda’s roadside-assistance number and waited about a half hour for a callback, they were told that there were no tow trucks in Mazda’s network that could assist them. Oh, hey, thanks. Glad we waited.
A Virginia State Police trooper happened upon the scene shortly thereafter and arranged a gas-can delivery, and so the editor was able to make it two miles down the road to the next filling station. He never allowed the CX-9’s gas gauge to drop below a quarter tank again, and he was thus able to buy plenty of expensive Wizarding World of Harry Potter souvenirs for his children. And they all lived happily ever after.
The whole of our 40,000-mile test was equally fairy-tale-like. For 16 months, we never grew tired of the CX-9. Its smart engineering and superior value acted as a salve to the frequent suffering of those middle-aged family men on staff who watch their younger and less attached coworkers drive off weekend after weekend behind the wheels of the sportiest cars in our stable. As deputy editor and parent Daniel Pund succinctly put it, “The Mazda CX-9 is really the only mainstream three-row SUV I can actually see myself buying and driving.”