I developed quite an affection for the last Mazda SUV I drove . Nimble, fun, stylish and cheap, it was a shockingly good little crossover.
It's one thing to make a small crossover that good. It's another thing entirely to attempt that same success on a three-row SUV, as the class is full of bloated monstrosities that sacrifice any semblance of fun or interest to the altar of practicality.
With the CX-9, Mazda promises that a three-row SUV doesn't have to bore you to death.
Exterior: An ogre in a three-piece suit
Straightaway, you can see the folks in Hiroshima aren't messing around. Yes, it's a three-row crossover so it's a tad fat and overstretched, but they've done a beautiful job sculpting the exterior.
Dipped in Machine Gray Metallic paint and riding on 20-inch, 5-spoke wheels, the CX-9 easily looks $10,000 more expensive than the $45,555 top-spec Signature trim actually costs. It's curvy without being bloated, aggressive without being artificially edgy.
Mazda managed to cram an ogre into an Italian-cut suit, and it looks fantastic. It's made the world's least sexy market segment look attractive. That shows we can credit Mazda for employing one of the best styling departments in the business.
The one detail I can fault is only visible at night. An LED strip of lights lines the bottom of the grille, coming on with the headlights so other drivers can see the illuminated lips of Mazda's corporate face in their rearview mirrors. I don't know who signed off on that, I just know that it's kitschy and unnecessary when you have such an otherwise strong exterior.
Interior: A hauler that can't haul
The same simple, elegant design theme carries over into the car's cabin. The red leather seats with black inserts look absolutely fantastic, and the faux aluminum running along the dash looks classy.
Speaking of faux materials, I wasn't much of a fan of the wood pattern around the center console. As I said to a friend while showing the car, "I don't get it, anyone who cares about having wood in the car will instantly be able to tell that it's hilariously fake, so why bother?"
Well, maybe I should consider a career change. Because it is real wood, and I was wrong. As hollow and plasticky as it felt to me, I've come to find that Mazda partnered with Japanese guitar maker Fujigen to bring real rosewood into the cabin. Foot, meet mouth.
All of this boils down to the interior aesthetics being another home run, but unfortunately usability is a different story. Starting with the infotainment system, I ran into a few problems.
First, every Mazda press car I get comes with the ability to relay my text messages to me. The way it works, from my experience, is that I get a text from my mom. The Mazda, entirely on its own, then picks a random contact and tells me I have a text from them. When I click read, it says its unable to retrieve the message. Then, it marks the text as read on my phone. That leads to me forgetting to respond later.
The infotainment screen is also mounted in a way that it reflects in the windshield at night, shining a moving picture of a navigation screen brightly in your eyes when you're trying to drive. Speaking of which, at one point the car insisted it didn't have a navigation system. It told me I had to buy one at the dealer. "Ah," I said, pointing at the window sticker line item, "it says right here that the car already has it." But the car wasn't in the mood to negotiate, so I restarted the CX-9 and its directional ability spontaneously reappeared.
Finally, practicality is paramount in this class. And the CX-9, simply put, can't run with the big dogs here. The rear seat isn't nearly as comfortable as some competitors. There aren't as many small cubbies and storage spaces. Plus the load height for the trunk is absurdly high.
Fold down both rows of seats, and you'll find the CX-9's 71-cubic-foot hauling capacity falls a massive 26 cubic feet behind the class-leading Volkswagen Atlas. Regardless of which seats you fold, the Honda Pilot has a space advantage over the Mazda. It's a family hauler, sure, but this truck ain't built for hauling.
Driving Experience: It drives well, if you care
It's a Mazda, so it's an absolute non-surprise that the CX-9 is the best driving mainstream three-row SUV that I've driven. I've driven everything in the class but the new Volkswagen Atlas, which I hear isn't much of a dynamic powerhouse.
Luckily, its sharp handling and dynamics don't dilute the CX-9's ability to ride quietly and comfortably in day-to-day life. The engine, a turbocharged four-cylinder, produces adequate power. With AWD, the EPA says the CX-9 will do 20 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway. In mixed-use driving, leaning more towards highway, I average 20.7 mpg.
Value: Heavy on value, light on tech toys
For almost any other car in the class, the options don't stop until you're knocking on the door of $50,000. This $45,555 CX-9 Signature is equipped with every possible upgrade, so it appears on the surface to be a value home run.
The truth is the CX-9 just doesn't offer the toys that competitors do. Among the options offered by the competition — but not available in the CX-9 — are cooled seats, panoramic sunroofs, full-speed adaptive cruise control, active lane keeping and rear-seat entertainment. The list goes on.
Factor in the missing kit, and you'll find that similarly equipped competitors are still a bit more expensive. So if you don't care about the top-end toys, the CX-9 comes out as a solid value.
If I had to get a three-row mainstream crossover, it would absolutely be the CX-9. It drives better, looks better and feels better inside than its competitors. But I'm a single guy in my 20s, and the fact that I like it isn't much of an endorsement.
The truth is the CX-9 misses on some points that are crucial to this segment. It can't comfortably seat seven adults or even teenagers, it doesn't have the latest generation of safety tech, it doesn't have the legendary reliability of some key opponents and it isn't cheap enough to make up for any of these things.
It's a truly fantastic car, but it's not good at what customers in this segment need it to be good at.
Driving Experience: 4
Price as configured: $45,555