The entry version of this seven-seater is good enough to lend impression that this model represents a brand-defining moment for Mazda.
For: Linear powerplant, cabin space and obsessive attention to quality feel, chassis poise.
Against: Infotainment quirks, front-drive competent but you’d go AWD for the extra pluses.
OXYMORONIC as it might sound, the very appeal of the CX-9 is that it’s a sports utility that isn’t much of a sports utility.
Don’t misinterpret that. Obviously, it has all the basic ingredients required to be considered an SUV. Like, it’s of the right size and dimension, it has the right seating count – seven pews, across three rows – and it has the right sort of power and torque.
I really mean, not an SUV in the traditional sense. It’s not so much as short-cutting the traditional rules as rewriting the route book almost entire. For instance, there’s the convention that says SUVs must have blockhouse styling. Clearly, this model does not; edges do not really exist here per say. The metalwork’s wholly rounded here; patently the final production process does not include dipping the body into fast flowing water for a millennia or so, but the impressions is much the same.
And how about the thinking that says it needs to be kitted up to go off-road: One of the three derivatives selling here doesn’t even have all-wheel-drive, and the pair that do are not expected – or engineered – for dirt digging. As Mazda expressed at the launch event: “It’s an all-wheel-drive vehicle, not an off-road vehicle.” Are you fine with that? Stats such a lot of us are.
A further ‘mandate’ ignored: That it needs a big six or eight cylinder petrol, or at least a torque-rich diesel four. Yeah … nah to that. Hiroshima delivers a 2.5-litre petrol four-cylinder that is essentially as effective. No just as those big-lunged petrols; like-capacity diesels, too.
So it’s a splitter? That’s one way of looking at it. The other is that it’s the start of a whole new genre.
Today we’re starting at the bottom, with the GSX in front-drive that, at $52,995, is $3000 cheaper than the four-wheel-drive and $10k under the flagship Limited.
Arrival of this car might further reinforce perception that Mazda designers are big fans of matryoshka, better known in the Western world as Russian dolls.
The CX-9 looks like the big mama figure, from which might emerge the new CX-5 that, in turn, would be a shell for the CX-3. They’re not wholly alike in look, but get all three members of the same family side-by-side in a common hue and it’s easy to miss the differences and instead think of the commonalities.
Obviously, the CX-9 is the largest yet. Against the CX-5 it’s half a metre longer overall and 23cm longer in the wheelbase, 19cm wider, and almost 8cm taller. And yet the sense of elegant scale that works so well on the compact and medium crossovers transfers really neatly; the bigger the car, the bigger the glass area, so proportions remain familial and the sense of visual heft is largely lost. It’s clever and cohesive design on which even the stuff that does go extra-big – such as the Mazda corporate grille – just doesn’t look awkward. The detailing is ultra-precise, too. It’s a quality piece of work.
The cabin is huge and beautifully built, very well-lit with natural light to lend impression of an airy and spacious ambience. The entry model doesn’t get the highest-quality materials, but the interior still looks smart. The quality of the plastics in particular, and the fit and finish are exceptional, everything looks integrated and to scale and every variant has a properly premium ambience.
A fixed screen for the MZD Connect infotainment functions sits atop the dash in full view and everything falls easily to hand, except may the climate control.
The three rows of seats are all high-set and offer a good view of the outside world. Patently adult passengers will prefer the front and middle row, but those who fail to call dibs in time and are relegated to the third row won’t feel as hard done by as in some rivals. It benefits from the American insistence for lots of space; there’s room for passengers up to 170cm and foot space under the seats.
That comes by impacting on the luggage space. Admittedly, when there’s room to burn for seven real, fully grown humans, it seems amazing that this model has less space between the seat backs and the tailgate than the old CX-9. So is this a loss? It’s just a matter of how you use what is afforded. While boot space starts at a Mazda2-like 230 litres it stretches to an impressive 810 litres with the third row folded away. An adjustable back angle, a 60:40 split-folding arrangement that includes a centre armrest and making the rear seats two separate units that fold up easily from the boot floor are all ingredients to innovative space maximization.
Standard equipment on the GSX includes blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, autonomous city braking, leather upholstery, three-zone climate control, sport mode, LED headlights, electric parking brake, keyless start, rear parking sensors and sat nav.
At reminder that the CX-9, though new to this market, was signed off for production more than a year ago comes with the absence of some cool tech afforded the just refreshed Mazda3 and Mazda6. How long before it takes sign recognition software and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto is hard to say, but I’d have to suggest they’ll be worthwhile additions. Also, if you want rear seat blinds and a power-operated tailgate then only the Limited has those features.
The CX-9 is bristling with safety gear and five ANCAP stars. Six airbags, ABS, traction and stability controls, trailer-sway control, brake assist, a forward collision warning and what Mazda calls Smart City Brake Support (forward and reverse), blind spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert – which shows up on a head-up display visible through polarized sunglasses - and blind spot detector is a decent swag.
The heavy focus on developing the CX-9 for the US market (it’ll swallow 80 percent of production) dictated that it would come with a petrol engine rather than the usual diesel, but pragmatism also came into determining what kind of powerplant that should be.
The old V6 (supplied by Ford) had to go. Mazda understood even deep-pocketed Yanks could not afford to keep the old model’s 3.7-litre V6 in business – it’s fuel consumption is too epic – and, anyway, it couldn’t match impending emissions rules. However, in theory, it potentially could have received another six-pot engine.
But there was no need. Mazda’s Skyactiv four-cylinder engines are remarkable; so good and singularly different to anything around it’s understood Japan’s most powerful brand, Toyota, is hoping to come to a licensing agreement to access the benefits.
The CX-9’s Skyactiv-G T 2.5-litre is a new direct-injection 16-valve (with variable control) turbo-petrol four-cylinder. And yes, you read that right, the ‘T’ stands for something Mazda once said was not needed for this kind of engine. I’m glad they’ve changed that tune; adding on a turbocharger is a good inclusion. This obviously lifts the power, which tops at a handy 170kW, but Mazda seeks to impress the tuning is to prioritise torque delivery from low in the rev range – just as a diesel does. I’ll say. An optimum output of 420Nm would be a fine effort for an oiler of this size.
And this is when the car is burning the cheap stuff, 91 octane. If an owner prefers to feed it 98 petrol, the torque doesn’t change but the power ramps up to 186kW. So why not quote the higher figure for greater kudos? Because Mazda figures most owners will save.
Speaking of … the lower grade fuel still provides a good burn rate. Mazda claims 8.4 litres per 100km for the front-wheel-drive, an easy 25 percent lower figure than the old V6.
I’m not sure how easy it is to achieve Mazda’s official optimum. The test vehicle operated occasionally with a full load, but more often was just hefting one or two of us, and after a mix of city and open road running the average was around 10.8. Not quite up to official play, but still a huge improvement on the real-world numbers of the old car. Given it has a 72-litre tank (74 in the AWD), you’ll go a fair bit further between drinks.
To add further polish, every version has stop-start and the i-eloop (energy recovery) system that makes a small, but useful, contribution.
What do you call a front-drive, multi-seat sports utility? Well, you’d be tempted to call it a people carrier. But Mazda, once so much of a fan of that that concept once offered a people carrier called ‘MPV’ – yes, HOW imaginative - recognizes that that kind of connotation can be more a hindrance than a help at buy-in time. So it’s not a people carrier. Even though it fulfils that function rather well.
Still, even if you use it for that kind of role (I’m trying really hard not to say ‘school run’ … but, dammit, there it is), then at least there’s a sense of satisfaction that it doesn’t feel, in ambience or driving, like a car-based bus. If anything, it’s more like a really big hatchback.
Okay, a REALLY big hatchback, because this is a five-metre-plus body. And yet, aside from when you are parking or u-turning, the sheer size of the thing (and its 11.8 metre turning circle) just doesn’t impact on your driving as much as you might imagine it would.
AS always, you don’t want to take the ‘sports’ part of SUV too literally when on the move, yet it handles well for its type to suggest the ‘zoom-zoom’ mantra still has some meaning. The suspension is clearly tailored to keep the bodyroll in check – which it does reasonably well and its road-holding is as certain as it is smooth and composed. The suspension is tuned to take the bumps and so too the tyres; in taking 255/60s fitted to 18-inch alloys Mazda gets a tall sidewall with some compliance. Steering is well-connected and remains mostly unruffled, though bigger bumps can occasionally spark some disturbance through the wheel.
It left impression it can be pushed quite hard, moreso than the average SUV. And though, as said, its size does impinge when shuffling into a carpark, even that’s not too hard because of all the sensors and rear view camera (though a 360 view camera would be even better).
It was interesting to ascertain back at the launch how different the front-drive edition felt to the four-wheel-drive models. In theory, it should not be great, as the iACTIVE all-wheel drive system is designed to send 100 percent of the drive to the front wheels in regular conditions. Both were only driven on firm seal, so obviously in optimal traction condition, yet the entry car did seem to have a lighter, more free-wheeling feel to it.
I think, though, that if I was placed in a purchasing position, I’d still go for AWD, because it’s where the crowd likes to me - eight in 10 SUVs in this category are bought with that feature – and it would be handy. As much as Mazda insists this is not an off-road vehicle, that feature would still be handy on soft surfaces and gravel. It’s probable that the torque vectoring that has rolled out to the Mazda3 and Mazda6 will be added to the CX-9 down the track; it will be intriguing to know what difference that makes.
The drivetrain is good enough for the car, too. Yes, it does have a couple of traits. Most noticeably, there’s a preference for higher engine revolutions to get under way at anything other than a genteel pace; that’s accentuated by the sharpish throttle feel.
Yet while the engine might lack some of the high-end pep that was a feature of the old model, low and mid-range responsiveness is pretty good and it feels bigger-hearted than its actual capacity. Enough to quell concern about whether it’s too small for the 1839kg kerb weight. It really isn’t by any measure.
The unique technology includes a variable-flow control valve for the turbo that helps eliminate turbo lag seems to be highly effective; the turbocharger spools up nicely and the engine, even when revved, remains remarkably smooth for a four-cylinder, while the torque spread is wide enough to make the six-speed transmission work nicely, though you appreciate the differences in decision-making in Normal or Sport mode.
For sure, a bigger-lunged mill would potentially have more heft if every seat was nabbed and was lugging luggage and perhaps something on the hook as well (though don’t go too crazy in respect to the latter as the towing capability isn’t heavy duty) but, for the average usage, it’s fine.
I agree with general sentiment that the refinement is perhaps the singlemost impressive feature of the on-the-move operation. It’s not just a testimony to the engine but also the significant attention meted to making this a hushed environment. An extra-thick floor pan, plenty of under-carpet insulation, extra door seals and double-glazed acoustic glass in the front half of the cabin aid in the delivery of this outstanding result.
The hush of the car’s operation makes riding in it over prolonged periods all the more pleasant. So too the cabin’s ambience and roominess.
I like the attention to family consideration. Extra-wide rear doors for easy entry, a seat-sliding mechanism to access the rear seats that is lightly weighted so children can use it, and the ability to slide the footpath-side middle seat forward to gain access to the rear with a child seat in place were plus functions pointed out by a colleague who regularly karts young ‘uns. He also pointed out that the child seat anchor points are tethered for both the middle and back seating (the former being ISOFIX mounts, and the latter top-tether points), he suspected the backmost pews might not be the most convenient place for baby seats, because of the awkwardness involved in placing and retrieving them.
My eye was caught by the provision of USB charge and auxiliary inputs in the middle row's centre armrest. Mazda’s MZD system continues to improve. The provision of a combination touch screen and a console-mounted rotary controller to allow you to choose your music and an app or two is solid, though on occasion the one in the test car seemed to pause mid-way through a function. This does seem an issue specific to marrying in Apple products; without CarPlay you have to channel iPhone music and podcasts through the Bluetooth, which limits search options. At least, because it’s a Bose system, once up and running, the sound system is very decent.
The air con has three zones, with a separate operation for the rear part of the cabin, so I thought it strange the third row seemed to lack air vents – until discovering these are in the floor. Is that overkill? It’s true these chairs might only be used occasionally by humans but, when they are tucked away, the boot area will be spacious for a number of canine ones. I know they appreciate decent airflow.
Even in its least expensive format, the CX-9 imparts as a very classy effort and seems certain to succeed.
The absence of a diesel or, in this format especially, any particular semblance of all-terrain ability potentially won’t hurt its standing. On the other hand, there will be plenty of interest in its flexible and appealing drivetrain, the road manners and the design.
Also impressing is that it imparts more charisma than is usually provisioned by a three-row hauler and, even at budget level, has the technology, refinement and feel of something from the premium category.