Editor's note: This review was written in February 2013 about the 2013 Mazda CX-9. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2014, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
The Mazda CX-9 has struggled to keep its head above water in a sea of similar large crossovers, and though it's not the roomiest, this stylish and fun-to-drive SUV deserves a second look in its updated 2013 form.
The CX-9 again comes in three trim levels: Sport, Touring and Grand Touring. Front- and all-wheel drive are available across the board. Changes for 2013 are cosmetic and take the CX-9's styling from pleasant to energetic: It borrows a version of the new compact CX-5's large grille, angular headlights and curvy fog lights. Inside, new standard features include a 5.8-inch touch-screen, a USB port and an upgraded version of the Bluetooth phone and audio streaming system.
The CX-9 goes up against a competitive class that includes many recently revised models such as the Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Explorer and Honda Pilot. Compare all four here.
Fun to Drive
The words "agile" and "sporty" aren't usually tip-of-the-tongue when describing a large crossover — unless it's the CX-9. One of its greatest strengths is that it drives like a much smaller, sportier vehicle. Light and precise steering, ample power, a responsive transmission and agile handling make it engaging to drive — even if it's just to the grocery store.
The V-6 offers plenty of power, and although the 273-horsepower, 3.7-liter engine doesn't feel very smooth at idle, it's spirited from a stop and delivers even, linear power that's competent on the highway. Prompt downshifts from the alert six-speed automatic transmission mean passing is no problem. The CX-9's gas mileage doesn't stand out, however. Two-wheel-drive versions share an EPA rating of 17/24 mpg city/highway with the Explorer and Traverse. The Pilot squeaks out an additional 1 mpg in both city and highway driving.
The ride is on the firm side but not overly harsh, complementing its overall sporty nature. I went from a 2013 Chevrolet Traverse test vehicle to the CX-9, and found in the Mazda a nimbler, more composed vehicle — the ride was more compliant, the corners felt crisper and body lean was less noticeable.
At 200.2 inches long, it's one of the larger vehicles in its class but drives smaller, thanks in part to having one of the tightest turning circles in the bunch. That really made a difference when maneuvering into city parking spaces and winding through parking structures.
Inside: Stylish Design, Finicky Navigation
To some, a black-on-black interior is dull. It never gets old in my closet, and in the CX-9 it underscores the crossover's sportiness. Suede trim, shiny maroon plastic panels and red contrast stitching on the seats augment the black theme. Other editors thought it bland and not enough of an update compared with the Traverse's interior, but I thought the overall look was sleek and clean — though the shiny plastic was a dust magnet. The words "shiny plastic panels" don't inspire thoughts of coziness, but most of the touch points in the CX-9 are padded and cushy, making for an overall comfortable interior.
My feelings on the controls are mixed. The climate dials are simple to use, and although the audio functions are absorbed by the touch-screen, figuring them out wasn't a problem, either. My issue is with the navigation system. The optional TomTom unit could use some refinement. In some ways, it worked almost too well, while in other ways it was overly complicated.
For starters, the 5.8-inch screen is very small, making for even smaller buttons on the panel. The response time is also slow — some buttons required two or three pushes to register. The biggest problem is the number of steps for certain tasks. You have to make your way through three screens to input an address, for example, and figuring out how to cancel route guidance took a couple of minutes and lots of muttering. Although the Traverse's 6.5-inch screen isn't much bigger than this one, its navigation system is much more logical and reactive. Once you've finally gotten all the numbers and letters in the system (whew!), it's a great navigator, delivering extremely precise and detailed directions. It registered my driveway and told me even before I left it how many turns it would take to get out of my subdivision. Most navigation systems don't register private roads.
Passengers & Cargo
Although the CX-9 drives small, the interior feels pretty roomy. By the numbers, though, it doesn't look it. The other three crossovers offer slightly more head- and legroom up front (with the exception of the Explorer, which has slightly less legroom), though I had plenty of both and enjoyed the heavily bolstered seats. They're pretty firm but also snugly supportive — larger occupants might feel constrained and need wider seats. Cloth seats are standard on base Sport models, while leather comes on Touring and Grand Touring trims.
I found ample room in the second row, too, though two taller editors complained that they didn't. With 39 inches of headroom, the CX-9 again trails the Explorer (40.5), Pilot (39.8) and Traverse (39.4).
The second-row seat slides and reclines for comfort and folds fairly flat for cargo. To get to the third row, the seat can be easily moved with one hand. The resulting opening is pretty narrow, however, thanks to a protruding wheel hub, and has a high step-in height.
Once in the third row, space is pinched and the seat itself is pretty uncomfortable. The bench is set low to the ground, requiring an awkward knees-up seating position, and the cushion is much firmer and thinner than the other seats. Add small, high windows to the mix, and the third row feels like a cave.
Folding the third row, however, is another easy maneuver; it's a two-step process, up or down. When it's raised, the CX-9 has just 17.2 cubic feet of cargo space, well shy of the Explorer (21), Pilot (18) and Traverse (24.4). With both rows of seats down, the Traverse wins again with an impressive 116.3 cubic feet of space, compared with the CX-9's 100.7 cubic feet.
Small-item storage in the front row also isn't great: Both the center console and the glove compartment are small for this class. It gets better as you go back, however. In the second row, there are two door pockets for bottles, two cupholders and two seatback pockets. In the third row, there are two cupholders on each side. Behind the third row, there are two shallow under-floor storage areas — one that's pretty tiny and a larger one that extends nearly the width of the vehicle.
In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests, the CX-9 earned the top score, Good, in frontal and side-impact tests and Marginal in roof strength and rear-impact tests. The Explorer, Pilot and Traverse received Good scores across all areas of testing. The 2013 CX-9 has not yet been tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The CX-9 has two airbags in front, front-seat-mounted side-impact airbags and side curtain airbags that cover all three rows. A blind spot warning system and backup camera with rear parking sensors are standard on Touring and Grand Touring models but are not offered on the Sport. The Traverse and Pilot offer a standard backup camera across the lineup; one is standard on uplevel versions of the Explorer. To see all the CX-9's safety features, click here.
One big disappointment in the family-friendly department is the lack of a tether anchor in the third row, which means installing a forward-facing child-safety seat back there is not safe. Some vehicles equipped with third rows, like the Traverse and Explorer, conveniently offer one tether anchor for the row. The Honda Pilot bests them all with three tether anchors in the third row. Click here for our full Car Seat Check.
Features & Price
Price is one big factor that makes this class so competitive. The cost separating many of the vehicles in this segment is small. The 2013 Mazda CX-9 starts at $30,580 (all prices cited include destination charges). The Honda Pilot ($30,350) and V-6 versions of the Ford Explorer ($29,995) start a touch lower, with the Chevrolet Traverse ($31,370) starting a bit higher. Equipped with a few key comfort and convenience features, the CX-9 can get pretty pricey. Navigation is only available bundled in an expensive Technology Package on Touring ($3,000) and Grand Touring ($2,435) models. It's much more affordable in the Traverse and Explorer, where it's a $795 option on most models (but not available on base versions). On the Honda Pilot, it's a $2,000 option on midlevel EX-L models and standard on top-of-the-line Touring versions.
Heated seats are a $690 option on base CX-9s and standard on the Touring and Grand Touring. The Traverse doesn't offer them on base models, but they're a $250 option on midlevel versions and standard on top trims. On the Pilot, they're unavailable on the bottom two trim levels and standard on the top two versions. The Explorer lists them as standard equipment on uplevel versions, available in a $2,250 package on the midlevel XLT and unavailable on base models.
In the Market
Eye-catching good looks and sporty driving dynamics make the 2013 CX-9 stand out, but a minor exterior face-lift won't be enough to turn this underdog into a major player. The Explorer, Pilot and Traverse consistently outsell it by large margins — but that doesn't mean it should be ignored.
Mazda positions the CX-9 as a sporty alternative in a class of bland people-movers. And I admit, I've sipped the "zoom-zoom" Kool-Aid and see the brand's point. It's not the roomiest crossover in the class, but it's the most fun to drive. Families looking to add a little pep to the carpool lane should check it out.