Test Drive: Mazda’s new CX-9 is spacious

Mazda’s CX-9 is one of the softer-selling midsize sport-utility vehicles in its market segment. This is something of a mystery because it has so much going for it. “At $45,215, our CX-9 carried a premium price tag, but it’s also premium goods,” we said of the 2016 CX-9 — the first model year for the current design. The same is true of the 2018 CX-9, and we were pleased to note it was priced about $1,300 less than the 2016 test car.

Specifically, CX-9 sales came up just short of 26,000 in the United States last year, compared with more than 271,000 for the Ford Explorer and 215,775 for the Toyota Highlander. Ford, Toyota and a number of other automakers have stronger dealer networks than Mazda does, but better midsize SUVs? Test-drive them and see for yourself.

In truth, we found the pre-2016 CX-9 to be underwhelming. Built by a brand known for vehicles that handle crisply yet ride comfortably, the earlier incarnation of the CX-9 seemed awkward and inefficient, not only in terms of fuel economy but in its use of space. The current model delivers much better gasoline mileage — up to 26 mpg with all-wheel drive — without sacrificing performance.

Our latest test car was a Grand Touring model with all-wheel drive. With three rows of seating, it can transport seven people, five of them fairly comfortably. People who have a small child or two will find the third-row seat useful. Indeed, we’ve noticed the kids we sometimes ferry around in our test cars seem to enjoy riding back there.

The CX-9’s standard equipment left little to be desired: leather upholstery, power driver’s seat with lumbar adjustment, heated front seats, adaptive cruise control, 3-zone automatic climate control, 8-inch color display with rear camera, navigation system, and satellite radio. As always, we made extensive use of the Commander control, a conveniently located dial in the center console that operates the audio system and other systems.

Major safety systems include blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, rear parking sensors, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, and Smart City brake support. These systems helped the CX-9 earn a Top Safety Pick rating by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Built in Hiroshima, Japan, the CX-9 comes in three trims – Sport, Touring and Grand Touring. All have the smooth, responsive 2.5-liter Four with 6-speed shiftable automatic gearbox. The base Sport, with front-wheel drive, starts at $32,130. Even in base trim, the CX-9 comes with features that often are optional in competing models; among them are push-button start, rear-view camera, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and Smart City brake support.

With automakers increasingly leaning on their SUV and pickup-truck lines to sustain their profit margins, medium-priced SUVs like the CX-9 have plenty of competition. Beginning with the popular Explorer and Highlander, they include the Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder, Chevrolet Traverse/GMC Terrain, Dodge Durango, Subaru Ascent, Volkswagen Atlas, Hyundai Santa Fe and Kia Sorento.

2018 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring AWD

Price: $43,905

Engine: 2.5-liter turbocharged inline Four, 227 horsepower, 310 lb.-ft. torque

Transmission: 6-speed shiftable automatic

Drive: all-wheel

Ground clearance: 8.8 in.

Weight: 4,361 lb.

Suspension: MacPherson strut front, double-wishbone rear

Wheels: 20-in. alloy

Tires: 255/50R20 all-season

Seating capacity: 7

Luggage capacity: 14.4 cu. ft.

Maximum cargo capacity: 71.2 cu. ft.

Maximum towing capacity: 3,500 lb.

Fuel capacity: 19.5 gal.

Fuel economy: 20 mpg city, 26 mpg highway

Fuel type: regular unleaded gasoline

Steven Macoy ([email protected]) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.