This is the case whether it’s a true sports car like the MX-5 or an economical compact like the Mazda3. The differentiating factor in those vehicles is that they are almost always the most fun to drive options in their segments, and in those smaller platforms, fun makes sense. The one product that I’ve struggled with over the years is the CX-9; as a full-sized three-row crossover it just seems much too big and utilitarian to be fun.
Moreover, I am not likely to sacrifice refinement for sportiness when it comes to a big family hauler like this. Regardless, Mazda has been quietly tweaking the CX-9, so I borrowed a loaded 2019 Mazda CX-9 Signature to collect my thoughts. Though relatively unchanged on the outside since itss introduction, the CX-9’s flowing lines stemming from Mazda’s KODO design language still look unique and fresh, and the CX-9 still stands as one of the better proportioned and most handsome of the current full-sized crossovers.
Low sills and tall doors make for very easy ingress and egress, but also do contribute to a bit of a slab-sided look from some angles. The GT and Signature trims represent the lookers of the bunch with LED exterior lighting, 20” wheels and tasteful chrome accents that give the CX-9 a bit more of an upscale look. Of note, the Signature trim level vehicles get a little LED lit strip around the grille; a gimmicky but easy way to identify a Signature model.
The interior layout in the CX-9 is very logical and ergonomic, and is really a great place to spend time. The interior is also where the Signature comes into its own – it replaces the standard leather with fine Nappa leather, adds Santos Rosewood trim on the center console and door panels, and you get genuine aluminum accents and nice Redwood covering on the dash and door panels. The leather wrapped steering wheel is neatly accented with a dual stitch pattern.
The leather on the wheel feels great, but the heat seems to be focused around the 9:00 and 3:00 positions – a minor grievance. It all comes together very well, and the interior in our tester looked and felt refined enough to be at home in a true luxury vehicle. From a practicality standpoint the CX-9’s interior also scores highly; the heated and ventilated front seats are comfortable, arm rests are well placed, and there is plenty of storage up front thanks to deep door pockets. The second row delivers loads of head and legroom, and seats that can be reclined for extra comfort.
The rear doors also open very wide, almost perpendicular to the body, which makes it very easy to load a baby seat. The third row offers plenty of space for children, and even enough room for adults in a pinch; and thanks to the CX-9’s grand length there is a lot of usable cargo space behind the third row, making the CX-9 a great option for families who frequently use the extra row of seating and still want to be able to easily haul things like groceries or a stroller.
Mazda’s already-good Mazda Connect infotainment system has been improved for 2019 with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto now standard in the CX-9. The large screen dominates the dash, I am a big fan of the console mounted rotary dial controls. They’re much better than reaching to touch a touchscreen, and the dials fall easy to hand avoiding fingerprints on the screen. Sound flows through a great sounding 12-speaker Bose system contributing to the nice refined atmosphere in the CX-9. Our tester also came with a very well executed heads-up display.
The CX-9 is powered by a 2.5L turbocharged four-cylinder making 227 horsepower (or 250 horsepower if you opt to run premium fuel) and 310 lb-ft. of torque at 2,000RPM. Power feels adequate even if the idea of a four-cylinder in a seven seater still takes a bit of getting used to mentally, and audibly. Thanks to the low-end torque the CX-9 feels peppier than expected around town with great throttle response, though it does feel a little more strained when passing on the highway.
Dynamically, the CX-9 is definitely the most engaging to drive of the seven-seat crossovers on the market; exactly what one would expect from Mazda. The steering has a nice confident and connected feeling – it corners flatter than expected for its size, and is very well mannered and controlled through high speed lane changes, bumps or other maneuvers. The CX-9’s sporty dynamics, combined with its crisp throttle response mean it is the clear winner when it comes to selecting a driver’s crossover.
Better yet is that the 2019 model has been refined enough that these sporting dynamics no longer come at the cost of comfort. One of the technologies contributing to this is Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control (GVC) which works to manage weight transfer to minimize forces on the occupants while improving stability and control. The end result is a smoother and less fatiguing ride. Soundproofing has also been improved over the years, creating a serene and relaxing cabin that makes commuting in a crossover like this all the more comfortable.
Speaking of commuting; we have had a track record here at DoubleClutch.ca of returning worse-than-rated fuel economy numbers from CX-9’s that we’ve tested. I am pleased to report that my week of rush hour commuting in frigid January weather returned an average of 10.6L/100km, which is right in line with the 9.1L/100km highway and 11.6L/100km city ratings for this model. We ran regular fuel, as recommended by Mazda, but the literature suggests that stepping up to premium would unlock 23 extra horsepower, which is not insignificant.
Pricing on the CX-9 is right in line with core competitors; namely the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, and Nissan Pathfinder. The base CX-9 GS starts at $36,700 and comes well equipped with features like LED headlamps, 7” infotainment screen, heated seats, and tri-zone climate control. The GS-L is the volume seller at $43,300 and adds leather seating, moonroof, power lift-gate, heated steering wheel, and heated second row seats. At the top is the Signature trim like our tester. It starts at $51,500 and gives you the more luxurious interior, along with the LED-lit grille and a handful of other interior refinements.
The tough part here is that the Signature trim’s refinements really do make the interior of the CX-9 special enough to give it an edge over rivals, but also pushes the price over $50K, a range getting into luxury SUV territory. That said, the tweaks the CX-9 has benefited from have minimized the compromises to comfort and economy necessary to have the best driver’s crossover on the market. If that’s over interest to you, a mid-range CX-9 might just be the perfect family hauler.