CX-9

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2019 Mazda CX-9 Test Drive Review

2019 Mazda CX-9 Signature The 2019 Mazda CX-9 offers an upscale exterior with some impressive features, but the driver's seat isn't exactly "one size fits all."

7 /10
Overall Score

There is plenty to like about the 2019 Mazda CX-9, a roomy and safe family-sized 3-row crossover SUV. When it comes to Mazdas, though, fans of the brand expect to fall in love with their vehicles. And when it comes to the CX-9, that love doesn’t come easy, and for several reasons.

Look and Feel

8/ 10

Somewhat surprisingly, Mazda has been selling a midsize 3-row crossover SUV since 2006. Not only that, but the CX-9 has always been visually appealing, with more nimble driving characteristics than most of its direct competitors.

Until recently, though, the CX-9 didn't get much attention. A redesign for 2016 gave the CX-9 luxurious styling at a relatively affordable price—even if the SUV’s interior quality couldn’t always match what the exterior looks were advertising.

Mazda has been closing the gap between interior and exterior luxury a few way. First, the company has stuck to a program of continuous improvement inside the cabin. Second, it introduced the swanky Signature trim level, which adds creamy Nappa leather upholstery, real wood trim, and adds other upscale details to imbue the SUV with a premium look and feel.

My 2019 Mazda CX-9 test vehicle had Signature trim, which sits at the top of a lineup that also includes the Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring trims. Prices start at $32,280 (not including the $995 destination charge) for the CX-9 Sport with front-wheel drive, and can rise to more than $50,000 for a CX-9 Signature with all-wheel drive and dealer-installed accessories.

The price of my test vehicle came to $49,030. Extras included Snowflake White Pearl Mica paint, a rear-seat entertainment system, doorsill trim plates, and a cargo mat. The interior came with the Signature trim’s standard Auburn Nappa leather, along with exclusive Santos Rosewood inlays and real aluminum accents.

For the most part, it looked, felt, and even smelled like a luxury SUV. But when you examined it closer, evidence explaining the CX-9 Sport’s affordable base price is irrefutable, from hard and glossy lower plastic panels to flimsy controls and fittings.

No doubt, the 2019 Mazda CX-9 Signature looks fantastic, inside and out. But it doesn’t always feel that way.

Performance

8/ 10

Turbochargers accomplish three goals. First, they help an engine produce more horsepower. Second, they help an engine produce more torque. Third, they limit the effects of altitude on an engine.

I’ll bet you thought I was going to mention something about fuel economy, didn’t you? Well, perhaps by EPA testing methods, turbocharged 4-cylinder engines are more efficient than a larger and more powerful V6 engine, but out in the real world I haven’t found this to be accurate.

For example, my Mazda CX-9 Signature test vehicle should have returned 23 mpg in combined driving. Yet, after I put nearly 700 miles on it, the SUV's computer showed a disappointing average of 19.9 mpg.

Mazda bolts its turbocharger to a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine. Run it on regular unleaded, and horsepower measures 227 at 5,000 rpm. Choose premium fuel, and you’ll get 250 hp at the same engine speed.

Torque is the real story here, though. Torque, torque, and more torque, measuring 310 lb.-ft. at 2,000 rpm regardless of what kind of gas you burn. What is torque? Simply described, it's what you feel when you’re accelerating—it's the thrust that pushes you back into your seat.

When people say they like lots of horsepower, usually what they really want is plenty of torque.

In the 4,383-pound CX-9 Signature, low-speed engine response is robust. And, in spite of the SUV’s predictive intelligent all-wheel drive, there is even some torque steer as the front wheels scrabble for traction. A pleasant grumble accompanies acceleration, too, making the CX-9 sound more like a Subaru than a Mazda.

Once the CX-9 is up to speed, though, that fat wad of torque is less accessible, and the vehicle lacks adequate passing power. But as long as you’re able to live with this, you’ll be very happy with the CX-9’s turbocharged drivetrain.

The 6-speed automatic transmission shifts flawlessly, but the manual shifting pattern is maddeningly counterintuitive. Dynamically, Mazda could fine-tune a couple of things. Steering feel and response are excellent, and the automaker’s G Vectoring Control technology helps to make the CX-9 feel more athletic. The brake pedal is not as satisfying to use, demonstrating a delay in response when the driver quickly applies pressure, such as when another motorist cuts in front of the SUV. Otherwise, when gradually applied, such as during normal driving, the brakes produce progressive response that is easy to modulate.

Mazda has updated the CX-9's suspension tuning for 2019, and it favors smooth pavement. With just a driver aboard, the CX-9 feels too stiff on anything less than a perfect road surface. Add a full house of passengers, as I did on several occasions during the week I spent with this Mazda, and the jittery ride vanishes.

The trade-off, apparently, is impressive handling. No doubt the Signature trim’s 20-inch aluminum wheels and 255/50 tires also assist in this area. Just be warned that on undulating twisty pavement, the CX-9’s composure shrivels with velocity because the SUV can bounce and rock due to weight transfer and its naturally high center of gravity.

According to Mazda, ground clearance measures a generous 8.8 inches. I did not test this, or the CX-9’s predictive AWD, because of road and trail closures associated with recent Southern California wildfires.

Form and Function

5/ 10

My biggest problem with the Mazda CX-9 pertains to comfort. And this issue isn’t the fault of the seats, exactly. Rather, it is the position and relationship of the seats to the rest of the cabin.

In my opinion, the CX-9’s front seats are too small, they lack a proper range of adjustment, and they are mounted too low in relationship to the center console and the vehicle’s beltline. I assume this was done on purpose, perhaps to give the CX-9 the low-slung feeling of a sports car. But this isn’t a sports car, is it?

Unquestionably, the Signature trim’s Nappa leather is supple, the heated steering wheel has a nice touch, and the heated and ventilated front seats are appreciated. My problem is that I can’t get the right combination of seat height, thigh support, and room for my legs.

After days of fiddling with the seat controls, I gave up and settled for a position that wasn’t downright aggravating. But my elbows kept banging into the tall center console and door panel armrests, and the wood trim on the sides of the console kept digging into the side of my kneecaps.

Solar heating through the CX-9’s windshield, even in the winter, is brutal. So, even though temperatures in the Los Angeles area were comfortably in the 60s, I enjoyed using the new-for-2019 ventilated seats. I’ve previously tested the CX-9 during a summer heat wave, so I speak from experience when I tell you it can take a long time to get this SUV cooled off.

Wisely, Mazda installs a sliding second-row bench seat in its top-trim CX-9. In fact, captain’s chairs are not available at any price. And I’m totally OK with that because I prefer a bench seat, anyway.

The second-row seat sits high off of the floor, and between the generous legroom, the manual side-window shades, the triple-zone climate control system, and the heated rear outboard seat cushions, the CX-9’s second-row seat is the place to ride. Similar to the front seats, though, thigh support is in short supply.

Unexpectedly, the third-row seat is habitable by adults for short distances. It is reasonably easy to get in and out of the third row, thanks to wide rear doors and the sliding second-row seat. The cushion is flat, but since the front two rows don’t support your thighs, why expect that in the way back? My only concern is that the head restraints are right up against the rear window glass, so it's hard to imagine these seats would be very safe in the event of a rear-end collision.

Storage space isn’t all that impressive. The front center console bin is mediocre at best, and accessed through a dumb split armrest that creaks every time you lean on it. The glove box is average in size, and there is a deep well forward of transmission, but it’s hard to see in it, especially at night. That leaves the decently sized door-panel bins as a repository for things.

Cargo space also fails to impress, when assessed strictly by the numbers. You’ve got 14.4 cu.-ft. behind the third-row seat, 38.2 cubes behind the second-row seat, and a maximum of 71.2 cubes with both rows folded down.

The key thing to pay attention to here is the amount of usable floor space, which appears to me to be greater than several competitors. So while you can’t stack as much stuff to the roof, you’ve got lots of floor space to use. Personally, I prefer floor space to outright volume.

Tech Level

6/ 10

I like Mazda Connect, the company’s infotainment system that includes a touchscreen that works only when the vehicle is stationary. Some people hate that, but I think its smart of Mazda to limit use of the system when someone is driving. Besides, you can still use control Mazda Connect via the center console, the steering wheel, and through the voice-recognition system, so the touchscreen sleep function really isn’t that big a deal.

Mazda Connect gets Apple CarPlay and Android Auto this year, complementing all of the existing functions of the system, including an E911 service that can help speed rescue if you get into an accident or otherwise require immediate assistance. Mazda still isn’t offering any safe teen driving technologies with Mazda Connect, and the omission of a wireless-device-charging pad in the otherwise cushy Signature trim level is conspicuous.

The top sound system for the CX-9 is a 12-speaker Bose Centerpoint surround audio system. It sounded OK; nothing special. Our test vehicle also had a comprehensively featured head-up display that was terrific, except for the fact that it was almost invisible when I wore my polarized sunglasses.

Mazda equipped our test vehicle with an optional dual-screen infotainment system, but at nearly $1,800, I can’t see how this is more cost effective than paying for Wi-Fi service and just having your kids use hand-held devices. Many car companies are dropping infotainment systems in favor of tablet holders, and some have converted this upgrade to a set of iPads that can be used outside of the vehicle. Mazda’s expensive solution doesn’t make much sense.

Safety

8/ 10

Regardless of which trim level you choose, any Mazda CX-9 can be fitted with the most important driver-assistance and collision-avoidance technologies.

Sport trim comes standard with low-speed automatic emergency braking, a blind-spot-monitoring system, and rear cross-traffic alert. An option package for the Sport model adds adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability, a pedestrian-detection system, full-speed-range automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning with lane-keeping assist, automatic high-beam headlights, rain-sensing wipers, and more.

These features are standard on all other versions of the CX-9. Combine them with a “Top Safety Pick” rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and a 5-star overall crash-test rating from the federal government, and you can rest easy putting your family in this SUV. Just note that the feds give the CX-9 a 4-star rating for frontal-impact protection for the driver and front passenger, which is of some concern.

Because I had family visiting during my week with the CX-9, making good use of all three rows of seats, I loved Mazda’s cool seatbelts fastened indicator on the dashboard. It shows you who is buckled in, and who isn’t.

My top-shelf CX-9 Signature also had adaptive LED headlights that did a great job illuminating the way forward after nightfall, and the new-for-2019 surround-view camera system came in handy while negotiating a tight drive-thru line. I did not, however, need to use the CX-9’s wiper de-icer system, but I wish such things existed when I was a kid growing up near Detroit!

Cost-Effectiveness

7/ 10

On the surface, it seems like you’re getting a whole bunch of luxury and style for your money when you buy a 2019 Mazda CX-9. And that’s not necessarily inaccurate.

The problem, like it is for so many mainstream midsize SUVs with price tags closing in on $50,000, is that it is still too easy to spot the interior cost-cutting necessary to bring the CX-9 Sport in at less than $35,000.

Plus, while the CX-9 Signature plays the role of an upscale SUV, Mazda as a brand is still perceived as a mainstream player, despite its desire to elevate itself into Acura, Buick, Genesis, Infiniti, and Lincoln territory.

With that said, the CX-9 is a roomy, safe, and stylish way to transport your family. If you like it, then by all means, get one.

As for me, as much as I want to love the CX-9 as much as I do most other Mazdas, I simply don’t. I can’t get comfortable in it, and it can’t match some other midsize SUVs in terms of driving dynamics, like the Acura MDX SH-AWD, the new Ford Edge ST, and (no doubt) the upcoming Ford Explorer ST.

Updated

Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.

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