For years, Mazda has been the underdog of the Japanese carmakers, steadily churning out great—sometimes even phenomenal—cars that, undeservedly, rest just slightly beneath the radar for most car buyers.
Case in point here is with the company’s largest vehicle, and in one of the most competitive segments – The 3 row family SUV.
Mazda raised the bar for the seven-seat segment when it launched the CX-9 in 2016 as a 2017 model. Its competitors have mostly caught up in most areas, yet Mazda is pushing forward with further updates for its market-leader having already introduced a round of improvements early on.
Being a smaller and arguably more nimble company does have its benefits. Every manufacturer wants to make more money by selling more vehicles, however since Mazda isn’t necessarily burdened by the same requirements to meet massive sales quotas, one could say that they are able to experiment more with their vehicles.
The Mazda CX-9 is just one of these models that is able to stand out in a hotly contested segment. It is a great-looking, comfortable, and well-built seven-seater that feels better to drive than any other big SUV near its price.
Its turbocharged gasoline engine is economical and feels surprisingly sporty. Even the third row of seats will accept adults.
The CX-9’s handsome shape evolves the Kodo design language seen on the smaller CX-3 and CX-5. With sharper creases, details more chiselled, and the corporate grille pushed further forward, the CX-9 looks instantly familiar to others in the family but yet more premium. It’s a design that therefore fits perfectly into Mazda’s existing line-up.
Engineering advances for 2019 include thicker headliner to further reduce noise levels in the already quiet cabin, and adjustments to steering hardware that correct the sometimes unnatural feeling early cars had, while honing off-centre response.
There is also a new instrument cluster with a massive LCD display that does a brilliant job of mimicking a minimalistic analogue speedometer, or one that supplements additional driver data should you wish to see more.
For 2019, Mazda finally also makes available a 360 degree surround-view camera system that lets you negotiate tight blind corners and parking spaces Available adaptive LED headlights enhances your vision in the dark.
My test vehicle included a comprehensive collection of active safety features including a blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability, and an automatic emergency braking system with pedestrian detection.
Through the Mazda Connect infotainment system interface, owners can calibrate the sensitivity levels and how they issue warnings. For example, the lane-departure warning system can beep or rumble when you drift out of your lane.
On the chassis hardware front, subtle suspension tweaks aimed at increasing stability and ride comfort were difficult to assess in isolation. Nonetheless, the CX-9’s progress remains smooth over mixed surfaces including gravel, even on the CX-9 Signature’s standard 20-inch wheel and tire package.
As mentioned, right off the bat, one can see that the CX-9’s entire trim range continues to have the material quality to make buyers of premium SUVs think hard about the value of a badge.
This ritzy CX-9 range-topper elevates the Mazda’s star seven-seater’s upmarket feel even further, sporting hand-stitched Nappa leather upholstery in brown with black detailing, genuine timber inserts (Santos Rosewood if you must know) applied to the shifter surround and doors, real metal door pulls and dash trim, matching steering wheel stitching and ambient lighting.
If there is one minor criticism, it is that the main areas are so good that if you look too closely at some of the lesser touched/seen lower dash areas, the premium treatment can appear a little patchy. There are still some hard lower dash plastics, especially in the third row seating area.
The transmission shifter and the infotainment controls are raised as if on a platform, elegantly flowing down from the dashboard.
Overall in terms of design, the tested CX-9 Signature’s cabin impresses with its fully adult functional third row seats, beautiful materials and upscale furnishings.
New for 2019, Mazda finally incorporates Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity into its infotainment system. The MazdaConnect is system is now mainly controlled with a multi-function control knob located on the center console, flanked by auxiliary buttons for navigation, music, phone, and the home screen.
Why not use the touch-screen display? When you’re driving, Mazda disables it so that you can focus on the task at hand. The only other options are using voice controls (which are pretty good, actually) and steering wheel controls. Notably, the 8-in. display, located on top of the dashboard, features crisp, modern graphics that has a premium feel.
I’m always a fan of head-up displays as they help to keep your eyes on the road instead of going back and forth from the instrument panel to the windshield. My CX-9 test vehicle projected my speed, traffic sign information, and other useful details for easy reference.
In keeping with their driver-focused concept, Mazda specifically limits the heads-up-display data to just speed/traffic related details including blindspot warning alerts. You won’t find other auxiliary data that the company deems to be more of a distraction, such as audio displays.
Power comes from an unchanged and strong 2.5-litre turbocharged SkyActiv four-cylinder engine producing up to 250hp. Only one engine is offered across the board, meaning there’s no major penalty when shopping at the low end of the CX-9 range.
In order to reduce lag, Mazda has developed a dual-path manifold that restricts exhaust flow at low revs, increasing pressure to quickly spin the turbo. It results in a fantastic 310 lbs-ft of torque from just 2,000rpm.
The result is a rapid build-up of thrust, though power does trail off at higher revs. That presents a problem when overtaking as the engine sometimes runs out of steam during passing manoeuvres.
That wouldn’t be a problem if the gearshifts were slick, but it’s a bit of long wait for the six-speed auto to change up and drop the engine back down into its powerband unless you have the vehicle’s performance set to Sport mode.
It should be noted that this engine only produces maximum horsepower when fed with premium 91-octane premium gas. You can run the engine on 87-octane regular gas, however, doing so knocks down the engine’s power rating to 227 horsepower. Either way, the engine makes 310 lb.-ft. of torque whether on premium or regular fuel.
Mazda says that their i-Activ AWD system analyzes road conditions and transfers torque between the front and rear axles for enhanced traction over slippery surfaces.
What about handling? Happily, the CX-9 was designed with Mazda’s jinba ittai philosophy of oneness between vehicle and driver. The steering has that lovely precision we’ve come to expect from Mazda, though you can feel the CX-9’s heft as you turn into the corners.
On curvy canyon roads, this Mazda is much more enjoyable to drive than many of its midsize crossover competitors, but it falls a little short of the athleticism we’ve come to expect from the automaker. Because of its considerable weight and SUV-style centre of gravity, the body tends to rock and wallow a bit when pitched into a corner with a bit of speed.
Notably, the CX-9 gives you 8.8 inches. of ground clearance, which should allow you to drive over snowy drifts that might impede vehicles with lower underbellies.
If you really, really need to buy a family SUV, you can do a hell of a lot worse. And spend a hell of a lot of money you really shouldn’t have, just to do a lot worse.
The CX-9 feels athletic and engaging, which is something infrequently said about midsize crossovers in general.
With the improvements made for the 2019 model year, the CX-9 remains as convincing as ever, with even less scope for buyers to nit-pick now that its minor spec discrepancies have been addressed.
Mazda has put together an extremely convincing model line-up with the CX-9. Virtually every variant has something going for it, meaning shoppers can simply set a budget and buy accordingly.
The flagship Signature trim version won’t appeal to every CX-9 buyer, but in the context of posh alternatives from European brands, with which it competes on spec and challenges for refinement, the Signature doesn’t seem unreasonable.
The only thing holding it back in that fight is good old badge snobbery.