After establishing a decades-strong, results-proven reputation in the sports car sector with the rotary-engine RX-7 and the wildly successful MX-5 Miata roadster, Mazda has been rebuilding its entire lineup of cars-and SUVs-to deliver as much driving fun as possible under the now-famous company philosophy of "zoom-zoom."
With room to carry seven passengers in reasonable comfort, the new CX-9 crossover utility vehicle was Mazda's biggest challenge to date: delivering a formidable player in the increasingly popular CUV segment that retains the attitude brand marketers define as the "Soul of a Sportscar."
The CX-9 joins the relatively new CX-7 midsize crossover that debuted in fall 2006. Despite design similarities, the CX-9 is not simply a longer, wider version of the CX-7. Mazda wants to assure the buying public that the CX crossovers are two distinct vehicles designed for two different customers. At first glance it might be easy to mistake a CX-9 for a CX-7; however, parked side by side as they were during Mazda's CX-9 press launch, the differences in styling, as well as size, become more apparent.
Fifteen inches longer, 2.5 inches wider and with nearly five inches of extra wheelbase over the CX-7, the CX-9 delivers aggressive styling for an SUV, although the stylistically sharp edges of the CX-7 have been smoothed for a more integrated look.
While the prominent wheels and tires of the design still loom large in the CX-9's overall appearance, the fender lines are not as extreme as the CX-7's, so the net effects are elegance and refinement. According to the CX-9 design team, key goals were an emotional, sporty expression that embraces versatility and safety. In addition, the smoother design was intended to make the larger SUV appear smaller than its dimensions might suggest.
Shared Platform, Distinct Personality
Powered by the same 263-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine found in the Ford Edge, Lincoln MKZ and other Ford Motor Company products, the CX-9 architecture stems from the relationship between Mazda and Ford. (Ford owns an equity stake in Mazda.)
Although the 3.5-liter V6 gets shared with other Ford products, the CX-9's throttle control is specific to Mazda, with emphasis on better throttle tip-in (meaning the throttle is more responsive). The Aisin transmission is particularly impressive, delivering smooth, quick shifts perfectly matched to engine speed. When a driver's throttle input requires a lower gear, the gear change remains quick and smooth-and the driver has the option of shifting manually.
The 263-horsepower 3.5-liter engine delivers good but not excessive muscle, and while cruising the 6-speed Sport AT transmission will downshift a gear or two to maintain momentum on an incline or to pass another vehicle. EPA mileage estimates are 18 mpg city and 24 mpg highway with front-wheel drive, and 16/22 mpg city/highway with all-wheel drive.
The CX-9 shares common underpinnings with the Ford Edge, and under the skin they are the same from the firewall to the front bumper. But behind the firewall, the CX-9 is based on the latest version of the Mazda MPV minivan sold in Japan. From the outset, the CX-9 is intended to be a vehicle supporting three full rows of seats-a feat which automakers sometimes accomplish by shoehorning a third row into what was designed to be a two-row vehicle.
The Edge and the CX-9 share common rear suspension design and brakes, but Mazda has changed the springs, shocks, wheels and tires for the U.S. market. Although the components are shared, Mazda tweaks them to achieve a sporty attitude and produce a vehicle that will satisfy a driving enthusiast. Mazda paid particular attention to areas such as chassis tuning, throttle response, steering and transmission mapping to achieve desired results.
One example of this can be found in the CX-9's Aisin-sourced automatic transmission. Similar to the transmission of the CX-7, the 6-speed unit gets mapped differently to work with the 3.5-liter V6 engine, which offers a manual-shift mode-a feature not offered on the Ford Edge or many of CX-9's other competitors.
Transmitted through a classic three-spoke steering wheel, the speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering feels quick and responsive while still delivering straight-line stability. MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link rear suspension are tuned with Tokico dampers. Eighteen-inch aluminum alloy wheels are standard. (The Grand Touring trim has 20-inch wheels as standard equipment.)
Mazda's Active Torque Split All-Wheel Drive, originally developed for the MAZDASPEED6 and also offered on CX-7, automatically adapts to changing driving conditions. The system monitors factors such as wheel slippage, steering angle, lateral acceleration and available torque to deliver up to 50 percent of the available torque to the rear wheels. In normal driving conditions, 100 percent of the torque gets delivered to the front wheels.
Style, Versatility and Safety
The interior design reflects the CX-9's exterior intentions of refinement and elegance. The surfaces are smooth and flowing, including a single hood over the instrument cluster that houses two large, round primary gauges flanked by two smaller ones.
From the edges of the dash, trim panels angle down into the doors-a look reinforced by similar panels that flow into the center console. The angled panels intersect metallic-looking horizontal bars in the door panels and center console for a more high-tech element. The design message conveyed is one of clean, smooth refinement.
The instruments also include metallic-looking trim and feature indirect blue illumination. The center console has large, easy-to-use controls for the entertainment and climate control systems.
Third-row access and cargo capacity with the third-row seats in use were priorities for this model, and Mazda has done a good job in both these areas. For access to the third row, the second-row 60/40 split-folding seat features a lever on either side that can be operated with one hand to slide the seat section forward and provide 26 inches of room between the folded seat and the C-pillar. The second-row seat includes about 5 inches of seat travel. When the seat is returned to the seating position after third-row access, it automatically latches in the forward position to provide the most room for third-row occupants.
With the third-row seat in position, the CX-9 offers 17.2 cubic feet of cargo area. When more room needs to be devoted to gear rather than bodies, the third-row seat folds easily-and without the need to remove the head restraints. Both second-row and third-row seats fold to create a flat load floor.
Since CX-9 is the largest vehicle of the Mazda lineup, it comes as no surprise that standard safety features include roll stability control, ABS with 4-wheel discs, dynamic stability control and traction control. Six airbags are also standard, including side-curtain bags that extend from the first to third rows. The CX-9 incorporates Mazda's Advanced Impact-Energy Distribution and Absorption System to help prevent cabin deformation in a collision.
Trims, Packages and Pricing
The CX-9 has three trim levels: Sport, Touring and Grand Touring, in either front-wheel or all-wheel drive. Standard equipment includes air conditioning, power windows, power door locks with remote keyless entry, cruise control, and either a black or beige interior.
The Touring adds leather seat trim, power front seats and indirect interior lighting, and the Grand Touring receives 20-inch brightly finished aluminum wheels, bright exterior door handles, rain-sensing wipers, an anti-theft alarm system, exterior mirrors with turn indicators, driver's seat memory, Mazda Advanced Keyless Entry and Start System, a wood instrument panel trim, and a silver finish for the side surfaces of the rear console.
Options include a towing package, a power sunroof, a Bose audio system, and a rear-seat entertainment system. The Assistant Package with DVD navigation, a back-up monitor and a power liftgate is available for Touring or Grand Touring trims.
The CX-9 is now on sale, starting with the Sport trim at a base MSRP of $29,630, the Touring at $31,730, and the Grand Touring at $33,270. The all-wheel-drive versions start at $30,830 for Sport AWD, $32,930 for Touring AWD and $34,470 for Grand Touring AWD. All prices include destination charges.
Since a traditional minivan is no longer offered by Mazda, the CX-9 now becomes Mazda's family hauler, as well as a solution for the driver who needs the utility of a van and the versatility of an SUV but longs for more style.
Although the CX-9 fits well with Mazda's "zoom-zoom" philosophy, make no mistake-this crossover is not a sports car. An enthusiast won't likely choose the CX-9 over an MX-5 Miata for an early morning solo run up a favorite two-lane mountain road. But if the whole family goes on that drive to the mountaintop, the CX-9 will shine in the face of the current crossover competition.