You might say the Mazda CX-9 is a poor man’s Porsche Cayenne. For about $20,000 less than the price of the sweet-handling German sport-utility vehicle, you get an SUV with comparable road manners – as well as seating for seven.
The CX-9 is the larger of Mazda’s two SUV models, and the only one with a third row of seating. (With the arrival of the nimble CX-5, the CX-7 has been discontinued.) The CX-9 competes with the Ford Flex, Chevrolet Traverse/GMC Acadia, and a host of Japanese and Korean models.
If you’re old enough to remember a time when all SUVs were top-heavy, ungainly and in general a miserable driving experience, the CX-9 will surprise you. Whatever faults it may have, poor handling isn’t one of them.
Mazda has been a relatively minor player in the U.S. automotive market since the 1970s, never reaching the sales heights of fellow Japanese automakers Honda, Nissan and Toyota, despite frequently earning raves from reviewers. Through April, Mazda had sold 98,177 vehicles, including 1,694 CX-9s. According to a November 2012 Motor Trend magazine report, Mazda hopes to boost U.S. sales to 400,000 by 2016.
One way to do that is to build exceptional cars, and the CX-9, with a fresh exterior look for 2013, certainly qualifies. One of just a handful of medium-priced SUVs with third-row seating, it’s the only large SUV we’ve tested that’s actually fun to drive.
Our test car was a loaded Grand Touring model with all-wheel drive. Its sticker price was $39,755, a figure that brings the Volvo XC90 and Buick Enclave into the mix. A base CX-9 Sport, with front-wheel drive, starts at $29,785.
All CX-9s pack 273 horses under the hood, linked to a 6-speed shiftable automatic transmission. The 3.7-liter V-6 delivers an exquisite balance of quiet yet quick response, without ever seeming to be overbearing. Fuel economy is 16 mpg city, 22 highway, on regular unleaded gasoline with all-wheel drive, and 17/24 with front-wheel drive.
The Grand Touring package moves the CX-9 into the company of luxury SUVs. Standard features include leather-trimmed seats, heated in front; keyless entry and starter; auto-dimming rear-view mirror; three-zone automatic climate control; and blind-spot monitoring system. Sirius satellite radio, available a la carte as a $525 option, was part of a $2,435 technology package with navigation system and power moonroof.
Mazdas have always had a high-quality feel in the controls and interior materials, and the CX-9 is no exception. The interior also looks up to date, and controls are efficiently laid out.
The CX-9, like all Mazdas, has a reputation for reliability. It earned the top rating of “Good” in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash testing but scored “Marginal” in roof-strength tests.
The low, raked roof line reduces interior room somewhat, especially for third-row passengers who may find headroom insufficient. This design also makes it challenging for large adults to climb into the third seat. But the cargo compartment is acceptably spacious, at about 101 cubic feet.
Steven Macoy (email@example.com) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.
Engine: 3.7-liter V-6, 273 horsepower, 270 lb.-ft. torque
Transmission: 6-speed shiftable automatic
Weight: 4,552 lb.
Ground clearance: 8 in.
Suspension: MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear
Wheels: 20×7.5-in. alloy
Tires: P245/50R20 all-season
Seating capacity: 7
Luggage capacity: 17.2 cu. ft.
Maximum cargo capacity: 100.7 cu. ft.
Towing capacity: 3,500 lb.
Fuel capacity: 20.1 gallons
Fuel economy: 16 mpg city, 22 mpg highway
Fuel type: Regular