Driven: 2010 Mazda CX-9

November 13, 2009
2010 Mazda CX-9

2010 Mazda CX-9

2010 Mazda CX-9

2010 Mazda CX-9

2010 Mazda CX-9

2010 Mazda CX-9

2010 Mazda CX-9

2010 Mazda CX-9

Mazda's CX-9 can be more than a little deceiving. Get caught up in the driving experience—as you actually can in the somewhat nimble-feeling CX-9—and you might actually think you're driving a tall but reasonably compact wagon.

That is, until you look back from the front seat at the spacious three-row interior or assess from the outside that yes, this really is a large vehicle.

For 2010, the CX-9 gets a few minor design improvements, but inside or out, you'd probably have to park the '09 and '10 side by side to notice the differences. At the front, the CX-9 gets a little more brightwork to frame its grille, lower grille and foglamps, while the detailing of the headlamp lenses has changed a bit. Altogether the result is a slightly upward grin that hints of the Mazda3's controversial front-end look. In back there's a new strip of chrome, a smoother back bumper cover, and different taillamp lenses, but it's otherwise virtually identical to the 2009. Inside, there's a sportier steering-wheel design that better matches the one used in newer Mazdas, plus new seating surfaces, a new double-lid design for the center console, and piano-black accents.

Overall, we appreciate the rakish yet very functional design of the CX-9—especially its sleek, crisply styled snout, which completely eschews the rugged styling cues that some other makers of large and mid-size crossover vehicles are holding on to. Inside, although the CX-9's driving position is just as high up as in other vehicles, the more cockpit-style instrument panel and smaller-diameter steering wheel can make you think you're in something lower and leaner.

The 2010 Mazda CX-9 doesn't at all disappoint in the driving experience. It handles with surprising alacrity and whether moving fast down a twisty road or swerving quickly around an obstacle, it has excellent body control. Power steering boost is strong, with little if any actual feel of the road, and although the steering is light it feels responsive and precise while still being settled on center. Brakes feel firm and capable, but brake hard and you're met with a considerable amount of nosedive.

That last observation underlines a point; although the CX-9 rides quite firmly yet smoothly, there's an underlying softness in the suspension if you really push it—likely to keep the handling safe for such a heavy vehicle. So although you might feel zoom-zoom, you might not actually be moving the CX-9 much faster than the competition.

2010 Mazda CX-9

2010 Mazda CX-9

2010 Mazda CX-9

2010 Mazda CX-9

2010 Mazda CX-9

2010 Mazda CX-9

2010 Mazda CX-9

2010 Mazda CX-9

2010 Mazda CX-9

2010 Mazda CX-9

The CX-9 is powered by the same 273-horsepower, 3.7-liter V-6 that's also available in the Mazda6. In the CX-9 it doesn't quite yield the blistering, class-leading acceleration you find in the 6, but it's plenty quick (0-60 in less than 8 seconds) and has a nice, thick torque curve, allowing it to churn along without downshifting. The most disappointing element about the CX-9 is its transmission, which we found indecisive and hesitant to downshift, especially at low speeds and accelerating out of tight corners. Full throttle passes would require several clunky downshifts—instead of going directly from sixth to third at 50 mph, for example. You can control the shifts by sliding the shift lever over to the left and tipping forward or back, but even then downshifts were delayed longer than they should be.

Another downside to the CX-9 is fuel economy. The EPA ratings of 15 mpg city, 21 highway for our all-wheel-drive Grand Touring test vehicle certainly did not impress. We should add that in about a hundred miles of mostly city driving and short trips, we managed a slightly less distressing 17 mpg, according to the trip computer.

The other issue is price; with a navigation system, moonroof, and rear DVD entertainment system, plus the nifty blind-spot monitoring system, the price of the AWD Grand Touring nudges $40k. At that point, it's with a few thousand of the base Infiniti FX35, a vehicle that's even more fun to drive, though admittedly not nearly as spacious or comfortable. The soft stitched black leather in our Grand Touring model was about the best we've seen in a non luxury-brand vehicle, and the front seats in the CX-9 are excellent. Although at 6'-6" this editor tried to climb into the third row of the CX-9 and felt absolutely claustrophobic doing so, most owners will probably be happy having those seats available for occasional kid-toting and folding them flat to a rather vast cargo floor. The second-row seats are adult-sized and quite comfortable.

What we like about the CX-9 is that it's enjoyable to drive, roomy and, above all, tasteful, with no over-the-top groundwork or ridiculous wheels. It looks mature and responsible yet it feels much sportier inside, especially to the driver. In this case, the zoom-zoom is just fine being your little secret.

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