The 3-row CX-9 is Mazda’s largest vehicle with seating for up to 7. But this generation is now in its 7th model year and though there’s much here that I still like Father Time is taking its toll.
If you’re like me you generally stray from popular trends instead preferring individuality and exclusivity in your purchases. And that doesn’t mean having to spend lavishly; it simply reflects your desire to not follow the herd.
Case in point; the CX-9. 265,000 Americans decided to buy a Toyota Highlander last year and rightfully so…it’s an excellent, family-friendly 3-row SUV.
But you like stuff not everyone else has and Mazda sold only 35,000 of these in 2021 and it’s not because it can’t compete with the top-sellers it’s just an underdog story from a small Japanese automaker. Now, I’m not here to tell you it’s better than the competition – it has some interior packaging and feature faults for sure – plus it doesn’t offer and powertrain choices – but if you have to check the license plate before getting into your SUV in the store parking lot just to make sure it’s actually yours, the CX-9 is an intriguing alternative.
For 2022 the front-wheel drive option is gone so all 6 trims have the same mechanical setup: a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder turbo, 6-speed auto and all-wheel drive, starting at $36,855 for the CX-9 Sport.
And at the other end of the CX-9 spectrum is this one: the Signature trim with all available features as standard equipment – MSRP: $49,380. Yes, the Soul Red Crystal Metallic paint is a $595 upcharge but just look at it – it’s worth every penny.
The Signature is the only CX-9 to receive 2nd row captain’s chairs with a center console…lesser trims offer the 2-seat option but with a center walk through to the 3rd row. Other Signature exclusives include these gorgeous, soft, quilted Nappa leather seats, rosewood trim and other special garnishes, Brilliant Silver wheels, larger exhaust pipes, and grille accent lighting.
It’s a good-looking cabin; quiet and comfortable for up to 6.
Even the 3rd offers enough leg- and headroom for kids and the occasional adult with small feet as long as those in the 2nd row slide up and straighten out the seatback.
There’s only a little less passenger volume in here than in the Highlander but there’s far less cargo room despite the CX-9’s longer wheelbase and greater overall length.
You might expect to see some power folding action to these seats at this level but the job is a manual one though easy enough to accomplish with fixed grab handles.
You also get a foot activated liftgate, some grocery bag hooks and some added space under the floor to keep items from flying around. But wouldn’t a panoramic roof be nice…always a smart pairing with a 3-row in order to add airiness but Mazda doesn’t offer one here.
But there is a wide array of features in here including many favorites such as an around view monitor with separate activation button, ventilated front seats, heated front and 2nd row seats, heated steering wheel, head-up display and simple yet effective ambient lighting. The Mazda Connect interface, however? A heavy, wet blanket.
Not being a touchscreen is the foundation for failure…you work this knob and associated buttons down here… and though the screen is sized nicely navigating its features is distracting and potentially dangerous. There’s no wireless phone projection either though I must say the 12-speaker Bose stereo sounds quite nice in here.
As for power, feed the CX-9 premium fuel and it’ll give you the full 250 horsepower and impressive 320 pound-feet of torque. Use 87 octane and those numbers drop to 227 horsepower and 310 pound-feet. Either way, the CX-9 feels quick and refined and though the 6-speed is certainly several gears short of being modern gas milage of 23mpg in combined driving is right there with the segment’s heavy hitters.
The styling and the drive are my favorite parts of the CX-9. It still looks amazingly sharp and this Soul Red paint is incredible. And then from this seat, the turbo and 6-speed work together in a more organic Skyactiv way that reminds me of the old zoom-zoom days. For a larger vehicle this is a fun, dialed-in drive with the standard all-wheel drive system and torque vectoring improving handling and steering response and an off-road traction assist feature for light trail work. And these Falken tires actually look meaty enough to do some of that.
There’s a sport mode but it’s gruff and not much fun without paddle shifters but the CX-9 has that agile, excitable driving demeanor the brand used to hang its hat on.
It looks like a complete redesign is a couple of years away at which point the CX-9 will likely grow in size and change its name to CX-90. Until then, maybe this is the 3-row alternative you’ve been looking for.
2022 MAZDA CX-9 TEST DRIVE BY CAR CRITIC STEVE HAMMES | TESTDRIVENOW.COM 2022(c)