Even though the Mazda Tribute — a version of the Ford Escape compact SUV — has been on sale for years, SUVs don't come to mind when I think of Mazda. Instead, I see Miatas and RX-7s — sporty cars.
That said, Mazda took the right approach with the new seven-seat CX-9 crossover by giving it a sporty look that both reaffirms Mazda's brand image and is likely to appeal to more buyers than conventional SUVs do. Add a roomy interior, refined engine and transmission, and carlike handling, and the CX-9 is an attractive entry that seems more than able to hold its own against other full-size crossovers like the new Saturn Outlook.
An SUV With Zoom-Zoom?
One of the best things about the CX-9 is its drivetrain. Every CX-9 comes with a 263-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine that teams with a six-speed automatic transmission with a clutchless-manual mode. Smooth is the defining word for this powertrain; the V-6 revs freely and the automatic changes gears without a hint of harshness. It's a level of refinement you'd expect on an expensive luxury car, not a SUV that goes for less than $40,000.
With two or three people onboard, the V-6 moves the CX-9 easily and doesn't feel taxed in the least, which bodes well for those who plan on filling this SUV with people and cargo. Compared to the Outlook, the CX-9 feels swifter when accelerating at highway speeds. Front-wheel-drive models get an EPA-estimated 18/24 mpg (city/highway), while all-wheel-drive versions are rated at 16/22 mpg.
All CX-9s have a four-wheel-independent suspension, and Sport and Touring trims have standard 18-inch wheels. The Grand Touring (the model I tested) gets 20-inch wheels and tires. The ride is definitely on the firm side, but it's not to the point where it punishes occupants. While large pavement ruts and bumps make themselves felt in the cabin, once you've passed over them, the suspension quickly recovers and settles itself. Buyers looking for a softer ride should consider a model with the 18-inch tires; their taller sidewalls should provide additional cushioning.
For the most part, the CX-9 does a good job of hiding its size from the driver (it's almost as long as a Chevrolet Tahoe). It's only when you throw it into a tight turn that you start to feel its true size as moderate body roll develops. It's stable on the highway, and overall offers a very carlike driving experience, albeit one from a higher vantage point.
The CX-9 has a variable-assist power steering system. It doesn't take much effort to turn the steering wheel — especially when starting a turn — and this trait seems out of place on a sporty crossover like this.
Because of its preproduction status, Mazda warned that there might be some imperfect trim pieces in the cabin, but our CX-9 held up well to our scrutiny. Sport models have cloth seats, and the first and second rows of Touring and Grand Touring models have leather-covered seats (the third row is finished in vinyl, a common practice).
The front leather seats were comfortable, but I would have liked them more if the seat cushions were a little longer, for additional thigh support. Forward and over-the-shoulder visibility is good, which enhances driver confidence when changing lanes on the highway. The CX-9's dashboard falls away from the driver and front passenger nicely, and the two-tone color scheme in my test car was appropriately upscale.
All CX-9s have a second-row bench seat whose 60/40-split segments can slide backward and forward to create more legroom in the back rows. The backrests recline, and the generously sized seats mean adults should be able to get comfortable with relative ease. The same can't be said of the two-passenger, 50/50-split third row; though probably tolerable for a short trip, adults who get back there will find limited space and headroom. It's built more for children. When not in use, the third row folds flat into the floor.
Standard safety features include all-disc antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags for all three rows of seats and an electronic stability system with Roll Stability Control. If RSC senses that the CX-9 is leaning excessively, it can reduce engine power and apply the brakes to bring the SUV under control.
Cargo & Towing
There's 17.2 cubic feet of cargo room behind the third-row seat. Folding the third row flat increases the cargo area to 48.4 cubic feet, and folding the second row flat makes for a total of 100.7 cubic feet. All of the CX-9's numbers lag behind the Outlook's, especially the 48.4 cubic feet behind the second row (the Outlook has 68.9 cubic feet).
Standard towing capacity is 2,000 pounds, but the CX-9 is rated to tow up to 3,500 pounds with the optional Towing Package. Available on Touring and Grand Touring trims, the Towing Package includes a heavy-duty transmission cooler and fan, a wiring harness and a receiver.
Standard features include three-zone automatic air conditioning with a zone each for the driver and front passenger and another zone for rear passengers, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel with stereo controls, and a CD stereo with an auxiliary input for connecting an MP3 player. The optional rear-seat entertainment system includes a 9-inch flip-down screen, 11 Bose speakers and 5.1 surround sound. The optional touch-screen navigation system is bundled with a rearview camera that projects its image onto the navigation screen. These two features come in the Assistance Package, which also includes a power liftgate.
CX-9 in the Market
Full-size truck-based SUVs were wildly popular in the '90s, but crossover SUVs are (for the moment) the hot segment in the car business. The 2007 model year saw the introduction of more than 10 new or redesigned crossovers, and more are on the way. That means plenty of competition for the CX-9, but if it proves to be trouble-free and crashworthy, Mazda will have a winner on its hands.
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