When you think of Mazda, the one vehicle that’s as synonymous with that brand as hamburgers are to a pair of golden arches— the Mazda Miata—has nothing to do with the SUV world. For that reason, the 2012 Mazda CX-9 SUV was not a name that had made my short list in the three-row family hauling category.
That lack of marquee name recognition may be Mazda’s ace in the hole. With the front-runners in this category boasting bulky, truck-like facades with smooth riding undercarriages, the largely unchanged CX-9 has a slim, long body that rides upon a fully independent suspension and optional 20-inch tires.
Boasting a 3.7-liter, 273 hp,V-6 with 270 lb.-ft. of torque channeled through a six-speed automatic transmission, the CX-9 can pull seven passengers with ease in its front-drive setup or with the tested all-wheel-drive setup in one of three trim lines: Sport,Touring, or GrandTouring.
If you’re paying the 40 large that the Mazda’s flagship Grand Touring AWD rings up, you’ll find a high degree of competition and class warfare: two well-spaced and comfortable rows of seating for real-world adults, while the skimpy third row is best for toddlers, soccer balls, or, better yet, folded down for cargo.
The interior is inviting and intuitive yet somewhat antiseptic because its surfaces are so bland, overpowering the piano black accents on each side of the center stack and the front door/dash. Three large knobs make it easy to adjust creature comforts. Winter gloves won’t render the controls useless as you adjust the lumbar supports or turn on heated seats to fight off the chill.
Toss in all the electronic wizardry the world expects, a touch navigation screen, and leather-trimmed seats for the first two rows only—which proves that sitting in the third row is reserved primarily for peasants or large plastic bags from home improvement stores—and you’ve got a high-priced package for people and parcels. Adding the rear-seat DVD entertainment system ($3,055) deletes the moonroof option, which shouldn’t be a big deal given the number of kids toting tablets to and fro.
Stretching out at 200 inches with its sloping, styled profile, the CX-9 appears more liked a raised station wagon atop 20-inch heels.The long lines are reinforced when opening a door, but if the wind should catch it, hang on.
Mazda’s magic happens behind the wheel, where the SUV excels in speed, handling, and response. The honed shape, raked windshield, and stylish good looks reduce wind noise and the feel is that of a car that will take you happily over the river and through the woods.
Keeping its footing via Mazda’s Active Torque Split All-Wheel Drive system, this Mazda puts 100 percent of its power behind pulling the CX-9 around. Should it detect wheel slip, an electromagnetic center differential can provide an evenly matched 50-50 front-to-back split with the front and rear axles. It’d be even better if, for 40 grand, it worked like the Mazdaspeed6, where the grip is split yet again to the wheel that’s spinning.
On the road, the CX-9 is composed sitting upon an independent Macpherson suspension with struts and a stabilizer bar while the back end is controlled through an independent rear multi-link suspension with stabilizer bar. It pulls calmly with firm, direct steering input courtesy of power rackand- pinion steering with power assist that’s neither overcompensated nor too light, like something one might feel in a senior’s comfy cruiser.
The ride is firm yet compliant upon the larger tires; this Mazda doesn’t ride like a truck despite its size, girth, and weight.The CX-9 has more than enough power to cruise easily at highway speed, pass, or merge after entering the highway from an on-ramp.
That power and the CX-9’s weight form a compromise similar to that of any large cargo-carrying creature at the pump. Mazda lists 16/22 mpg EPA numbers; in my drive I realized only 16.24. Mazda estimates annual fuel costs of $2,919, which equates to 834 gallons annually at $3.50 per gallon. Its 20.1-gallon gas tank provides a cruising range of more than 400 miles if you’re lucky enough to hit the 22 mpg EPA listing.
For a vehicle this size, there’s less storage space than one might expect, though the center console is deep and spacious.
Mazda just announced an update for the 2013 CX-9 and I look forward to seeing and driving that SUV to compare it with this version, which arrived in 2007.
With a lot of competition, the CX-9 is a solid, well-made SUV or crossover. It may seem more vanilla than other offerings, but it’s good vanilla, with a premium price tag if you add its many options.