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[REVIEW] 2013 Mazda CX-9 – Zoom Zoom with Room to spare

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The time is 10:51pm and I’m anxiously waiting for flight UA021 to arrive from Chicago.

Onboard the flight are one of my best friends Todd, and his girlfriend Jessica.

Both of them have been in Brazil for a friend’s wedding and are making their way back after 3 weeks on holiday.

With the Mazda CX-9 in my possession, it seemed only fitting that I test it out for its people and cargo carrying capacity. Surely a couple of things it will see in its life as a reliable and capable people mover.

However the flight is 4 hours delayed and it is New Year’s eve.

This is starting to play out like an episode of 24 with Jack Bauer…

Will we make our New Year’s Eve party in downtown Vancouver? Or will my New Year’s day be spent in the driver’s seat of Mazda’s largest vehicle? Keep reading to find out!

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My history with Mazda…before “zoom zoom” was invented

The Mazda brand and I go back a long ways. My uncle in Malaysia had a original Mazda 323 that lasted well into 300,000 kms. He eventually sold it for a Protégé after over 25 years!

In my immediate family, when I was 8 years old and living in Singapore, my father came home one day with a sporty looking 2 door Mazda 929 coupe. It was unlike anything we had ever owned before. The pop-up headlamps combined with the appeal of a new 2 door car was surely exciting for any 8 year old boy!

Kodo styling

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Mazda says that its new Kodo “Soul of Motion” design language “abounds with graceful yet energetic lines”. They also say a lot more, which you can read here.

Since I thought that the pre-face lifted CX-9’s face was always attractive, I’m happy that the new look brings the vehicle back in-line with the rest of the styling cues of the newest Mazda line-up.

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I particularly like the addition of the LED daytime running lights as any new car worth its salt these days needs to have this feature. You can thank Audi for starting that trend!

Other 2013 exterior tweaks include the addition of new hawk-eye-like Bi-xenon headlamps and a switch from oval to round exhaust tips.

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There’s no questioning the fact that the CX-9 still looks like the most sport choice in today’s crowded 7 passenger crossover market.

Compared to the box-like silhouette of the Honda Pilot, the CX-9 looks like a sports car with its tapered nose and relatively sharply raked windshield.

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Zoom zoom

Anyone who has watched television or read magazines in the first decade of the millennium has surely heard the Mazda marketing tag lines “Zoom-Zoom” or “Soul of a sports car”.

Generally, those slogans hold true. After all, Mazda is the only Japanese car company to ever win the 24 Hours of LeMans endurance race. Its history books are also coloured with iconic vehicles such as the rotary powered RX-7 and RX-8, the Mazda Miata MX-5, and even the rakish mini-minivan Mazda5 which is still around today. Needless to say, Mazda knows how to inject their knowledge of sports-car DNA into just about everything it slaps its name badge on.

The interior

If you’re looking for an SUV with 3 rows of seats and 7 passenger capacity, there are a lot of choices out there. But if you’re looking for something sporty and fun to drive as well, the Mazda CX-9 tries to be that as well.

Visibility out the front is very good, especially with the raked front windshield and big greenhouse. I found that the only downside to that rakish windshield is that cleaning the dash requires a bit of a reach.

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With its low dash and waist lines (at least on the front doors), the CX-9 is also easier to see out of than many other SUVs. It’s not quite as good as the famously low waist lines of a Land Rover Range Rover, but it’s certainly above average for its segment.

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For anything that you don’t see, large rearview mirrors and an effective blindspot warning system will keep a constant watch out for you.

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The cabin was well-dressed in my leather-lined Grand Touring trim level vehicle. I liked the mix of satin aluminum lined along the doors with the mahogany trim. But the use of high gloss black plastic in certain high-activity areas makes me wonder if it’s going to be prone to scratches after a couple of months.

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The seats are generally very comfortable although slightly firmer than some competitors such as the 2014 Nissan Pathfinder. Not a bad thing as they’re supportive and have nice effective side bolsters especially on the front seats. The driver’s seat is well positioned relative to the steering wheel and all major controls.

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Over the course of my loan, all of my guests approved of the Mazda’s interior creature comforts, including current Senior Writer/Producer for the Canadian Olympic Committee, Callum Ng. Watch out for his editorials on Olympic.ca especially as we approach the Sochi 2014.

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Getting into the CX-9’s cabin is easy as the floorpan is low. This allows for easy entry and egress without any need for running boards. To make matters even better, the back doors open quite wide.

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The 3rd row is acceptable for small to average sized adults for shorter trips although getting into them past the 2nd row is a bit of a stretch. While the CX-9’s 2nd row seat has a very useful 5 inches of fore and aft adjustability, its folding mechanism is not groundbreaking.

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Certainly not as slick as the Pathfinder’s which can be operated with one hand and even folds up the seat base to allow for far easier entry.

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There is also no panoramic roof option, if you care about that, to open-up the view from the back of the cabin for 2nd or 3rd row passengers. But there is a fantastic rear climate control system to keep everyone happy.

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The good news is that even with the 3rd row up, there is still a decent amount of cargo room behind those seats. Certainly more than the slightly smaller Hyundai Santa Fe XL I tested from a while back. If you desire even more room, folding down the 3rd row only takes the pull of a strap.

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So overall, it’s pretty roomy inside even though the front centre console is quite wide. But I did find it a bit weird that it was quite high as well, causing a slight height disparity between the front door’s armrest which was positioned lower. I occasionally felt slightly lopsided if I rested both arms on either armrest simultaneously.

Interior changes are few to the 2013 Kodo-inspired face-lifted CX-9. The gauges now feature white letters over a darker background for better visibility and the gear shift knob has been redesigned.

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There is also a new TomTom based navigation system which has revised volume and tuning knobs for better reach. This supplements the excellent 10 speaker Bose audio system with Bose Audiopilot noise cancellation technology. There is also the now ubiquitous Bluetooth audio streaming feature which I used copiously.

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If you like TomTom systems for their basic simplicity and easy-to-use user interface, you’ll like the Mazda system. The new 5.8” screen is on the small side, especially when compared with the absolutely humongous 8” screens on many other vehicles these days.

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But at least the resolution is high. A good thing too as it’s linked to the rearview camera and rear back-up sensors, which was standard equipment on the Grand Touring trim level.

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One small point of contention for the TomTom-based system was that while the vehicle is in motion, the voice command feature is the only way to input an address. Frankly, I found it far faster to do it manually by pulling over and punching in the address, or when parked.

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While we are on the topic of gripes, I was also initially quite confounded at the power tailgate’s operation until I realized that you have to unlock the car first then press the keyfob button (or reach under the latch) for the power tailgate to open. If the car is not unlocked first, the system beeps 3 times and the tailgate will not open. Not particularly obvious as in other vehicles, the tailgate automatically unlocks and opens when the keyfob’s tailgate button is depressed.

So how does it drive?

For a fairly large SUV, you might not expect to find something that is really fun to drive on a twisty road. Around the corners, the CX-9 is surprisingly nimble. It feels agile. The steering, a good old fashioned hydraulic-based unit, has an honest weight to it with decent road feel, unlike the electric steering systems of many of its competitors.

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You can actually tell what the front wheels are doing, even though my test vehicle was fitted with non-OEM Toyo Observe GSi5 winter tires that I was not a fan of. The Toyos just felt too soft and gave up grip too quickly. I much preferred the Hancook winter tires that were fitted to the Hyundai Santa Fe XL.

Even when pushed a bit, the CX-9 doesn’t have much body roll in the corners. It’s quite fun to drive and it feels much smaller than it really is. The brake pedal feel is also firm and progressive.

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This handling translates into driver confidence in emergency maneuvers, keeping in mind that this is still a relatively big vehicle. Helping with its athletic feel is the impressive 37.4 foot turning circle. Among the best in its segment.

To give you some perspective, the Mazda CX-9 stretches 200 inches from tip to tail with a 113.2 inch wheelbase, and 76.2 inch width. This Mazda is a big girl, at more than 3 inches longer than the Ford Explorer, 9 inches longer than the Honda Pilot, and a whopping 12 inches longer than the pre-2014 all-new Toyota Highlander.

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The ride is firm, but controlled and steady and the bumps are soaked out well. On rougher roads, you’ll notice the bumps but the CX-9 doesn’t crash over them either.

Noise-wise, it’s pretty quiet in here, but not as quiet as the Nissan Pathfinder. Part of the blame can be attributed to the winter Toyo tires.

The active torque split all-wheel-drive system works completely transparently and is primarily front-wheel-drive. However it can send up to 50% of the engine’s power to the rear wheels upon acceleration or slippage.

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Power comes from a responsive Ford-sourced 3.7L V6 with 273 hp  and 270 ft-lbs of torque, unchanged from the pre-facelifted CX-9. The 6 speed transmission shifts smoothly and the programming makes the best out of the engine’s power band. Thank goodness it’s not a CVT transmission as I am generally not a fan of those.

I really liked the gear indicator in the middle of the instrument cluster that tells you which cog you are in; an unexpected sporty touch that is borrowed from the previous generation Mazda6.  I also liked that the manual shift gate is the proper pattern -pull down to upshift and push away to downshift pattern – similar to that of BMWs.

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Fuel economy is not the CX-9’s strong suit however, as this is one area in which the vehicle is most obviously starting to show its age. The Ford sourced engine doesn’t have more advanced technologies such as direct-injection. Even Mazda’s highly touted Skyactiv Technology isn’t applied to the CX-9.

The Hyundai Santa Fe XL’s smaller 3.3L direct-injection V6 engine, for example, outputs 290hp versus the CX-9’s 273hp and yet has better fuel consumption. Mazda has not yet indicated if and when the CX-9 will receive any of its fuel saving Skyactiv technologies.

I averaged around 13.8L/100 kms in the city, and a better 11.5L/100 kms on the highway.

Summary

After 6 years on the market, the 2013 Mazda CX-9 finally gets a refreshed look to balance its sportiness and roominess.

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It really handles a lot of things really well. Whether it’s people or cargo inside, or twists on a curvy road, its car-like driving behavior has remained consistent from its introduction to this refreshening.

So if you’re looking for a mid-sized SUV, don’t strike it off just because it has been on the market for a while. It is worth at least a decent test drive and consideration.

Oh and we did end up making our New Year’s eve party despite having to fight through downtown Vancouver traffic. With 8 minutes to spare no less thanks to the CX-9!

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Andrew Ling
Andrew is a proud car and tech geek who has worked in Surrey for over the last 10 years. He comes from a communications/marketing background and has worked for automotive-related companies such as Edmunds.com, BenzWorld.org since 1999. From track driving, to rally driving to autocross, he has done it all! When he’s not reading about the latest automotive news, he can be found outdoors snapping pictures at various events around town.
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