It’s March in Vermont, this is a time of maple sap running out of the trees, heavy snowfall, and life punctuated only by ski trips and trips to stoke the woodstove. Inoperable are the dirt roads, freezing and thawing with no interest in their summertime draining habits, rutted, sometimes frozen, sometimes wet, every car in the state is a salty white with brown accents, just like your grandmothers’ kitchen.
What does even this mean? It’s an excellent time to fill up the car with friends, skis and tunes en route to the sedentary lift served ski area, or the stinky, crunchy-granola backcountry ski stash, depending upon one’s inclination. The car we’ve chosen for the tasks that lie ahead is the Mazda CX-9. Why? It’s got loads of room, a slick shifting six speed automatic, and Mazda’s fun-to-drive and well-proven CD3 platform that’s been a familiar friend throughout the years.
2014 Mazda CX-9 Specifications:
- Style: Five-door crossover.
- Seating Capacity: 7.
- Base Price: $29,985.
- Price As Tested: $36,625.
- Engine: 3.6L MZR V6 – 273bhp at 6,250 rpm and 270 lb-ft at 4,250 rpm.
- Transmission: 6-speed automatic.
- 0 to 60 mph: 7.5 seconds.
- Top Speed: 118 mph.
- Curb Weight: 4,516 lbs.
- Fuel economy: 16/22 mpg (EPA) 17.5 (observed) city/highway.
- Options: Grand Touring Technology Package, All Wheel Drive.
Mazda does charge extra for many things that one might expect to be standard in an SUV starting at $29,985, but they are not Porsche, so heated seats, for example, are part of a $690 package that also heats the mirrors and powers the driver’s seat. Manufacturers are often accused of ‘buttering up’ journalists with a manual transmission (not available in this car) and basically every option that can be fitted to the car. While this may give some of us ‘rose tinted windows’ to look through, the fact of the matter is that, as journalists, we can evaluate if every option is worth forking over the extra ‘coin. Our Grand Touring All Wheel Drive equipped CX-9 is no exception. This is the top trim level, and the AWD option includes the towing package, upping capacity from 2,000 lbs in the FWD model to 3,500 lbs in the AWD model. Other options included the TomTom navigation system, the HomeLink auto-dimming mirror, LED daytime running lights, power moonroof, 10-speaker Bose sound system, leather seats and keyless go.
We will get to dynamics later on, but let’s face it, no one purchases a seven seater SUV for its driving abilities, it’s all about space. Knock down the passenger side (smaller) portion of the 60/40 split middle seats and 180+ cm skis can be piled as high as you feel is safe. The third row seats are comfortable enough, but if you’re an average sized adult, you may be talking through your knees. The middle row seats are not heavily bolstered, but offer ample displacement and can easily be reclined, making long second-row journeys on the interstate pleasant.
Of the folks included in our test, two had a slight proclivity to car sickness, something that a simple test drive isn’t going to make apparent, but a day long journey might. We rotated passengers through both calm and spirited segments of driving through sometimes bumpy, sometimes smooth, but always twisty mountain passes, and the answer became pretty clear: if you have passengers, (in the case of this car, probably kids) that get carsick, stay on the interstate or drive like you are running on fumes. The ride is great up front, but as one migrates further back, one tester remarked that they’d be less sick in the back of a hot hatchback.
Speaking of hatches, this car offers a powered rear hatch, which is definitely a convenient feature and can be operated by the car’s keyfob. Here’s the kick to the face though, I’m 5’9″, I’m average in quite a few ways, but probably shorter than average, height-wise. It’s not hard to smack one’s head on the rear liftgate when it’s fully extended. That’s not the worst bit though. Most of these powered liftgates are designed so that if you are sitting on the rear floor, the door will contact your legs that are sticking out, but it won’t leave a mark. We didn’t test the system that way, but we did hit the button to close the door and had to exert about 40 lbs of force on the door before it stopped closing and reversed to reopen. It’s possible that we just got a bad copy, but it’s not a good thing if a child or any other priceless element were in the way of this door.
Our tester came with leather and heated seats up front. In a $36,625 SUV, this makes sense, though why Mazda is not offering heated rear seats is understandable, but disappointing too. As is common, one will find USB connectivity in the center console, and iPod/iPhone integration as well as Bluetooth. With a shrill tone reminiscent of a smoke detector, the tap indication noise for the touch screen can be turned off, but like the focus confirmation noise that Canon programs into SLR cameras, it’s an irritating legacy feature. The same can be said of the iPod integration, which was slow to react, and required a higher level-of-effort to operate than simply plugging into the car’s 3.5mm stereo jack, which we immediately did. This USB integration may have been interesting and appropriate in 2007 when the car came out, but it is largely a hindrance.
Visibility is good, and the rearview camera does a good job of indicating where the rear bumper is just in case one needs to do mil-spec parking. The blind spot warning system works as advertised, and will likely serve users well. Likely due to safety regulations, the moonroof is pretty invisible to those of average height and therefore those with the driver’s seat in the middle of its travel. Scoot the seat back and the sunlight becomes apparent, and the rear passengers will still have plenty of legroom. Sound deadening is on par with other vehicles in this class, but not outstanding. The sound coming out of the speakers is inoffensive, but if you are looking to fork over the extra cash for a better sound system, go with the basic version and have an aftermarket system installed.
Mazda has worked really hard to make this car appear as something other than a mid-cycle refresh. They have done a pretty good job. The LED daytime running lights look great. The lack of LEDS in the tail lights works quite well, and the 18 inchers wrapped by all season tires are like the music in a ski movie, attractive, but forgettable at the same time. Our tester wore Blue Reflex paint, a new color for 2014. It does well to accent the car’s curves, hides a modicum of the salt, while still not looking like the common pewter and silver colors which do the same job so well.
Not entirely common for this class are bi-xenon headlamps. The low beams are great, we had to flip them on and off a couple of times to see if they were indeed on: like the miniature fog lights which most cars are fitted with these days, the high beams don’t make much of a difference.
Dry, Paved Road Handling
It’s best to think of this car as a really big Mazda 6. At over two tons, Mazda has not blown lots of money on self leveling suspension, but they have a very good traditional setup that firms up nicely the harder one pushes the car. It’s set up for moderate understeer and the limit is probably a little higher than other cars in the class. Initially the car feels heavy, but it becomes increasingly rewarding as you get its knees down in the corners. Roll control is excellent, and aside from the nauseated rear seat occupants, Mazda has outdone themselves with the suspension, and the turning circle that this car offers is excellent.
Slippery, and Unpaved Road Handling
As a long time veteran of commuting across northern Vermont and the North Country of upstate New York, I’ve lived up steep, winding dirt roads and have a) never owned an AWD or 4WD car b) never needed the services of a tow rope or cable. Common sense and snow tires can go quite a bit further than a two-ton SUV with AWD and all season tires, siped though these tires may be. This car is pretty similar to other cars in its class when so equipped. Push it too hard and the front end will happily break loose. The traction and stability control system lets you have a little bit of fun, but not too much, it can totally be switched off, if need be. The ABS on this car is in the middle of the pack as far as aggression is concerned. Is it worth it to pay more for all wheel drive? Unless your driveway has serious springtime drainage and mud issues or you need to tow more than 2,000 lbs, probably not. The AWD system in this car is not necessary to pin down the 273 horsepower from the V6 on wet or dry roads, there’s no hill descent control, low range gearbox, long travel suspension, and only 8 inches of minimum ground clearance, so this is not an off road car either. In a car-based sensible alternative to a minivan, all wheel drive merely ads expense. Save the money and take the kids on another ski trip or two.
On the topic of getting its power down, Mazda has gone with a traditional 6 speed auto with a torque converter. The transmission does a good job in auto mode of knowing where you want to be, will drop a cog going down hill when the brakes are applied moderately, and is attentive in manual mode compared to the bulk of torque convertor based autos out there. Apart from the infotainment system, the only weak point of this car is the engine. When driven gently, 18 mpg was seen for a fleeting whisker of a second, and then it dropped back down. 17 mpg is pretty normal for mixed driving and is one example where the port-injected 3.7 liter V6 shows its age. The power and torque is midpack for this class, so, given Mazda’s excellent range of efficient and zippy SKYACTIV engines, this powerplant is an abberation, and as the sole option, will go to the grave with this car.
This car has been with us for seven years now, and it’s very competitive. The engine and infotainment system are dated, the rear occupants should take Airborne if they are very sensitive, but other than that, this car is excellent value for money, and the options are very reasonably priced. If you’re in the market for a 7-seater, and this is your price range, don’t hesitate, don’t cross shop any minivans either, just drive one of these and you will not be disappointed.
-By: Sawyer Sutton
All photos © 2014, Sawyer Sutton, egmCarTech