America did not need the <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/am/2014/mazda/cx_9/index.html">Mazda CX-9</a>. There was no yawning gap in the automotive spectrum that the CX-9 alone was able to fill. In fact, it's fair to say that, upon learning of the CX-9's existence, the collective reaction among staffers at this office was: Why? Must every automaker offer a three-row crossover? Apparently, yes. But the new entry seemed a particularly unlikely fit for <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/new_cars/01/mazda/index.html">Mazda</a>, the brand that professes to worship at the altar of driving fun.
The CX-9 might have been born out of some MBA's desire to plug a perceived hole in Mazda's product chart rather than in response to a crying public need, but you soon forget all that because the CX-9 is so damned charming.
Its polished manners and smooth competence overshadow the fact that the CX-9 is not really a standout in any one particular area. Among third-row-equipped crossover-utility vehicles, the CX-9 is neither the biggest nor the smallest, the fastest nor the most economical, the sportiest nor the most luxurious.
You may think that the CX-9 is simply an enlarged version of the CX-7, Mazda's five-seat crossover, but that's really not the case. The two siblings differ substantially under the skin, most obviously in the engine compartment, where the CX-9 uses a V-6 as opposed to the CX-7's turbocharged four-cylinder. The 3.5-liter V-6 is a <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/new_cars/01/ford/index.html">Ford</a> unit, and we found it to be quieter and more refined here than in the Edge or the Taurus/Taurus X. But its 263 hp and 249 lb-ft of torque aren't enough to keep it from giving the six-speed automatic a workout. Luckily, the transmission's shifts are always smooth. We measured a respectable 8.3 seconds from 0 to 60 mph, but predictably, there were those among us who wished for a bit more urge. For 2008, the engine has been bored out to 3.7 liters, netting an additional 10 hp and 21 lb-ft of torque. A comparison of the EPA figures (using the stricter, 2008 procedures for both cars) suggests that the bigger engine doesn't use any more fuel, which is a good thing, because we found the 3.5-liter to be pretty thirsty. It returned just 18 mpg overall.
Our CX-9's 3.5-liter engine, as well as the vehicle's rear suspension architecture, are shared with the <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/am/2014/ford/edge/index.html">Ford Edge</a> and the <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/am/2014/lincoln/mkx/index.html">Lincoln MKX</a>, making those corporate cousins closer relatives to the CX-9 than the CX-7 is. Either way, the CX-9 stands out from its kin for its skillful chassis tuning. "Firm steering and suspension calibrations help the CX-9 feel lighter and smaller than it is," said technical editor Don Sherman. Road test editor Marc Noordeloos found that "the ride and the body control is one of the best I've felt in an <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/new_cars/02/suvs/index.html">SUV</a>, especially at this price point." The steering earned raves as "the best of any crossover in the business." The net effect was that the CX-9 took some of the sting out of suburbia. "It's not a seven-seat Miata," wrote executive editor Joe DeMatio, "but it is evidence that family transport doesn't have to be totally depressing."
The CX-9 also hit the sweet spot with its packaging. "Excellent balance of size and space," wrote Noordeloos. Indeed, we appreciated that this seven-seat crossover incorporates a usable and accessible third-row seat plus a modicum of useful space behind it, yet it doesn't look or drive like a McMansion on wheels. "Unlike a lot of seven-seaters, it doesn't make you want to take a nap behind the wheel," said associate editor Sam Smith.
The CX-9's curved and angled sheetmetal helps reduce its visual bulk, but it also compromises the view out the back, making the optional rearview camera a virtual necessity, as is often the case with big crossovers and <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/new_cars/02/suvs/index.html">SUVs</a>. Our camera came packaged with a navigation system and a power rear hatch for $2500. A rearview camera also is available as a stand-alone option for a more reasonable $665, but in that case, it projects onto a small display within the rearview mirror rather than onto the nav screen. Speaking of the nav display, we found the touch screen imprecise, and we hated that the stereo volume knob is located on the far side of the screen (even though there is a volume control on the steering wheel).
There were other high-tech foibles. We were frustrated by the fussy Bluetooth connectivity, and the parents on staff looked stricken when they learned that our sunroof meant we couldn't order a rear-seat DVD player. The key-fob remote, with its integrated starting function, became the object of the greatest loathing. The remote was often obstinate about what doors it would unlock and when, but the truly maddening behavior was that if you used its remote-start function, the car would often lock itself once you got inside. Better not run back into the house to grab a forgotten cell phone, as Noordeloos did, or you could face a locked CX-9 with its engine running. Here's a bit of advice for all carmakers: Having doors lock themselves is never a good idea - NEVER.
<a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/new_cars/01/mazda/index.html">Mazda</a> did a better job executing the touchy-feely stuff. The seats were deemed comfortable, and the black leather upholstery looked handsome and held up nicely. Our Grand Touring model, the top trim level, was very well-finished inside, from the door trim to the armrests to the steering wheel. "The interior is far above the Mazda norm," concluded one logbook writer. "Of course, so is the price."
The price as tested for our <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/am/99/2014/mazda/cx_9/grand_touring_sedan/780/index.html">CX-9 Grand Touring</a> AWD reached $39,357. The aforementioned assist package (navigation, rearview camera, and power hatch) and power moonroof plus a high-end audio system ($1760) were the major elements that boosted the the CX-9 from its $34,470 base price. It's a good thing the scheduled services at our local Mazda dealer were a bargain. We paid less than $50 for routine maintenance at 7500 miles; 15,000 miles; and 22,500 miles. Happily, the CX-9 needed no repairs, so the only other service items were a wheel alignment and the mounting of winter tires. The latter might seem like overkill on an all-wheel-drive vehicle, but the combination is a winning one when the snow flies. "I know part of it is the fantastic tires - Bridgestone Blizzaks - but the CX-9 is pretty much unstoppable in the snow," Smith wrote. "I purposely tried to get it stuck in the large plow drifts on my street, and I couldn't get the Mazda bogged. Amazing."
That is pretty typical of the grace with which the CX-9 waltzed through its year here. "I think the CX-9 fulfills its stated mission with ease," concluded West Coast editor Jason Cammisa. "It's a smooth, relaxed, and pretty cruiser that can haul a whole lot of stuff in high comfort." This may not be a unique mission, but it is one that Mazda executed well.