Guests were in town and by good fortune, I happened to have a seven-passenger 2017 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring in the garage that week. As I’d already discovered after a few days behind the wheel—and as my guests would soon see for themselves—the CX-9 is a passenger-pleasing dream. Simply, it’s one of the best-looking, nicest-driving three-row SUVs on the planet.
My very first passenger started what would be a week-long flood of approvals for the Mazda. “Ooohhh! This cabin is beautiful!” she said as she slipped into the right-hand seat. “It feels so soft, and look at this stitching here. This car must be really expensive, huh?” Not really.
At $41,810 as-tested, my Grand Touring edition (the second-most luxurious after the Signature model) included a ton of standard luxuries—a 12-speaker Bose audio system, leather seats (heated in front), three-zone automatic climate control, 20-inch alloy wheels, 8-inch color touchscreen with backup camera and navigation, and keyless entry with pushbutton start, among others. The materials also look rich, are pleasing to the touch, and are fastidiously assembled. There is nothing “cut-rate” about this cockpit. Moreover, the Grand Touring edition includes a wealth of standard active-safety technology—including blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alerts, lane-departure warning and lane-keeping, and smart braking. The only options on my tester: a cargo mat ($100) and Soul Red metallic paint ($300).
The CX-9 drives even better than it looks. Mine was a front-drive model (all-wheel drive is optional), the wheels powered by a turbocharged and intercooled 2.5-liter four that’s good for 250 horsepower on 93 octane fuel and 227 hp on 87. (In California, where “premium” is 91 octane, the engine is likely making around 240 hp.) It’s a lovely powerplant—smooth, lag-free, and eager. Max torque is 310 pound-feet, regardless of octane, and the full swell comes on stream at just 2,000 rpm, so responsiveness from stoplights is excellent. The turbo four is refined and powerful enough that most of the time you won’t miss the V-6 offered by most of the Mazda’s rivals. And at the pumps you won’t miss having a six at all: Despite checking in at well over two tons, the CX-9 delivers class-leading efficiency of 22/28 mpg city/highway.
The six-speed automatic does a superb job of shifting, and there’s a Sport mode that summons lightning downshifts when braking into turns while also holding gears longer (as when powering through corners). The electrically assisted power steering is up to Mazda’s typical high standards; despite a fairly light effort, it delivers good feedback and outstanding control—you can position the front wheels as accurately as a diamond-cutter finessing a setting. The chassis is firm but unfailingly pliant; one of my passengers commented that it felt “like we’re hovering over the road.” And while you can’t expect sports-sedan moves from a largish crossover, the CX-9 is surprisingly agile. Mazda’s driver-centric DNA is on full view as you nip your way through wriggling tarmac. This is a poised, confidence-inspiring rig with just enough playfulness to keep enthusiasts entertained.
Most of the time I really appreciated the built-in active safety systems. Blind-spot detection offers a subtle but helpful warning if another vehicle is loping alongside your rear pillars, and the rear cross-traffic alert works brilliantly. Twice, when pulling out of tight parking spaces alongside pickup trucks (which completely blocked the view), the system alerted me that another car was about to intersect my path. Yes, you can see to the rear via the standard backup camera, but having a system monitoring the rear sides does wonders for peace-of-mind—it’s a bona-fide accident-preventer for even the very best and most careful drivers.
I was less enthusiastic about the smart-braking system. Using info from the standard radar-based cruise control, the system monitors traffic ahead and, if it senses a collision is imminent, it will automatically slam on the brakes—no driver intervention necessary. Trouble is, it’s an overly protective nanny. I suppose erring on the side of “stopping” versus “not stopping” is the safe way to go, but for an attentive driver the system is intrusive. More than once the brakes suddenly slammed on as I was about to maneuver around another car—with plenty of space to do so. You can adjust the sensitivity of the radar, but it always defaults to “full nanny” when you restart the car. Despite my grumbles, though, I can certainly see how smart braking could save the hide of today’s average face-into-smartphone driver.
As I noted earlier, the cabin is a radiant, comforting space. Five adults can fit easily, and while there’s room for two in the third row, those two had better be children; an adult would suffer back there as the CX-9 is one of the smaller three-rowers in its class. The middle split-bench seat folds down for third-row access, but it’s a fully manual affair (no power controls are offered). Out back you’ll find 14 cubic feet of cargo room with the third row up. Room grows to 38 cubic feet with row three folded flat and to 71 cubic feet with the second row flat as well.
Ergonomics are generally excellent throughout. The nav and audio systems can be controlled via the central touchscreen, but it’s a longish reach. Thankfully, a small rotary dial on the center console also controls those systems (and more); it proved equally easy and intuitive to use. The steering wheel is festooned with switches for operating everything from audio volume to cruise control and answering incoming cellular calls.
A sensible, family-friendly people-hauler isn’t the sort of vehicle you’d expect to generate gushing praises, but during my week with the CX-9 the Mazda garnered plenty. It’s a thoroughly charming machine, one that surprises and delights by driving and behaving far better than its duties would suggest—from its quiet cabin to the smooth rush of turbo power, the agility of its chassis, and the conspicuous quality of its interior.
I didn’t want my guests to depart for their hometowns. But when my CX-9 tester had to go back…well, that hurt.
2017 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring FWD Specifications
|ENGINE||2.5L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/250 hp @ 5,000 rpm, 310 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 7-passenger, front-engine, FWD SUV|
|EPA MILEAGE||22/28 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||199.4 x 77.5 x 67.6 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.1 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||133 mph (governor limited)|