- Attractive exterior
- Warm, well-coordinated cabin
- Decent value
- Comprehensive safety set
- Third row is disappointing
- Real-world mpg doesn't match figures
- Fussy infotainment
- Engine feels labored with a full load
With sharp looks inside and out, the CX-9 makes a good first impression—but we are less enthralled with its space utilization inside.
The 2017 Mazda CX-9 is a three-row crossover SUV that provides a decidedly more sporty outlook on hauling passengers than most of its rivals.
In attempting to fulfill that mission, it winds up feeling a little compromised as a family-hauler, though, which is why we've rated it a 6.5 out of 10 overall. It gets high marks for its looks inside and out, but we've docked it because it doesn't really fulfill its three-row promise especially well. The CX-9 is available in Sport, Touring, Grand Touring, and Signature configurations. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
The CX-9 was redesigned last year as the follow-up to a model that boasted above average driving dynamics but disappointing fuel economy. For 2017, its only change of note is the addition of low-speed automatic emergency braking as standard on the Touring model.
Mazda CX-9 styling and performance
The CX-9 makes a great first impression thanks to its elegant appearance with a tall front end that wears a delicate, highly detailed grille with LED lights all models. Tapered fenders and a dramatic, by crossover standards, roofline square up with a wide stance that provides a planted, athletic, and almost Italian look. The extra-large 20-inch alloy wheels on some models heighten the appearance.
Inside, the CX-9 is decidedly car-like with a low dashboard adorned with warm Japanese rosewood and clean aluminum trim at the top of the lineup. Even the Sport hardly disappoints at around $32,500 before any options are piled on. Occasionally haphazard switchgear placement is a minor quibble, but a confounding infotainment that demands extensive use of the control knob is less excusable. Not helping matters is the infotainment screen that sits awkward on the dashboard like the flatscreen TV on a hotel's dresser.
Standing in the face of most rivals, the CX-9 utilizes a small displacement turbocharged 4-cylinder engine rated at up to 250-horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque when running on premium unleaded gasoline. The engine builds power quickly and the quick-shifting 6-speed automatic does it a lot of favors. There's no lumpy shift action or busy torque-converter judders like its 9-speed rivals, but the CX-9 lacks the paddle shift controls its sport positioning suggests it should have.
That sporty marketing doesn't endow the CX-9 with Miata-esque dynamics, although it's certainly more interesting to pilot than most of its rivals. The experience relies less on fancy electronics and more on a simple balance between ride and handling. The steering is hefty and delivers a modicum of feel, but we still find ourselves less entertained behind the wheel than we should. The optional 20-inch alloy wheels provide it with a firm ride that can turn jittery on especially bad pavement.
All-wheel drive is available across the board (standard on the Signature). It's a relatively conventional system that can distribute up to 50 percent of available power rapidly to the rear wheels. There's no low range or off-road mode on offer, meaning that if you're the kind bound to explore a dirt road, you may want to keep shopping.
Mazda CX-9 comfort, safety, and features
Shoppers typically turn to three-row crossovers for their ability to haul seven or more passengers—at least in a pinch. Yes, the CX-9 boasts seat belts in all three rows, but the rearmost positions are best for kids. If adults have to be conned into sitting back there, they'll be eager to get out. Moreover, there's not much space behind the third row, especially against some like-sized rivals. The second row is more on par with class expectations and it may be the best seat in the house since the wide center console up front robs driver and shotgun of some leg room.
All but the CX-9 Sport can automatically stop themselves in the event of an accident thanks to the brand's Smart City Brake Support. That tech is newly standard for 2017 on the Touring and it joins blind spot monitors and rear cross-traffic alert. Grand Touring and Signature models up the safety quotient with lane-keep assist, lane departure alert, and automatic high beam headlights.
That's all about par for the course, but the CX-9 earned a coveted IIHS Top Safety Pick+ nod, which is impressive for the class and should reassure family-focused buyers shopping for a safe pick.
In terms of features, the CX-9 Sport starts with the basics—three rows of seats, push-button start, three-zone automatic climate control, and an infotainment system with two USB ports. Tourings deliver power-adjustable, heated, and leather-covered seats, more USB inputs, and a proximity key. They're something of a bargain within the lineup. The Grand Touring goes up from there with a moonroof, adaptive cruise control, and Bose speakers. The range-topping Signature, meanwhile, lives up to its positioning with rosewood trim inlays, nappa leather, and 20-inch wheels.
All models have power features, a CD-free audio system with Bluetooth audio streaming, and a rearview camera, but no CX-9 is available with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.
With all-wheel drive, the CX-9 is rated at 20 mpg city, 26 highway, 23 combined. Stick with front-wheel drive and those figures climb to 22/28/24 mpg.
2017 Mazda CX-9
The Mazda CX-9's exterior is distinctive and its interior is gorgeous.
Peel off the Mazda badges and you could easily convince the uninitiated that the CX-9 is a Jaguar or perhaps something penned in Italy.
It's a good looking design and one we've awarded extra points for its above average exterior and its especially attractive interior. It's an 8 out of 10 overall. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
From the front, the CX-9 is tall and flat, but there's a slight forward cant like the Volvo XC90 and, if you stretch your memory a bit, some BMWs from the 1980s. At the rear, the roof pillars arc upward with minimal fuss. The long hood gives it a rear-wheel drive wagon look, even though it's actually a high-roof, front-wheel drive crossover. Within the Mazda lineup, the CX-9's style makes a lot of sense.
Top versions even feature a grille lit up by LEDs, but all models include LED headlights and tail lights. That's a nice touch at this price point and it solidifies Mazda's attempt to push its lineup to a space somewhere between mainstream and luxury.
A genuinely car-like mood inside is set by the low-set, horizontal, shelf-like dashboard like that used in some of Mazda's more recent designs. Only an infotainment screen—7-inch on Sports, 8-inches otherwise—slapped on the top of the dash like an afterthought spoils the mood. There's no shortage of glossy black plastic, so much so that we'd probably carry a cleaning rag with us at all times.
We haven't spent much time in a CX-9 in base drag, but Touring and above models feature nice leather trim. Opt for the full-boat Signature and you'll get supple nappa leather, Japanese rosewood, and genuine aluminum trim. With the CX-9's extensive sound deadening, it all adds up to an upscale feel. At around $45,000 with everything added to it, the CX-9 Signature isn't inexpensive, but rivals can top $50,000 with a similar feature set.
2017 Mazda CX-9
It's sporty when the road turns curvy, but the CX-9 could use more power and its ride can be firm.
Does the world need a sporty crossover with three rows of seats? Mazda seems to think so. We're not sure we agree entirely, which is why we've scored it a 6 out of 10 for its performance. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
It is, certainly, a pleasure to drive when the going gets twisty. The turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-4 spools up quickly to make the most of its 250 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque on premium fuel. Opt for regular and it's down to 227 hp, but Mazda claims most of that detuned feel is above 4,500 rpm.
The turbo makes use of some tech tricks to produce V-6-esque low-end torque despite its small displacement. For the most part, it's a smooth, quick operator, but it can feel a little growly when pushed and, when loaded up with passengers and their gear, the CX-9 doesn't feel as zippy as some competitors with more power.
There's little lag in the way the CX-9 accelerates, but the turbo can be caught napping in brief windows just off of idle as is standard for engines like this. The 6-speed automatic that's mandatory may come up short on paper compared to rivals with as many as nine gears, but it works well to keep the 4-cylinder within its power band and we applaud it for the smooth shift quality that many 9-speed units simply don't provide.
Sport mode enlivens the drivetrain, moving revs up a few hundred and quickening shifts, but it doesn't exert any control over other driving traits like the suspension or the heft of the steering. Additionally, there are no paddle shifters. For a sporty model, those seem like odd absences.
The CX-9 uses a simple front-strut and rear-multilink design to deliver a well-controlled ride with the standard 18-inch wheels. Opt for the 20s on Grand Touring and Signatures, however, and the suspension runs out of range to dampen bumps with more pronounced wheel movement than in some more softly sprung competitors.
The CX-9's firm power steering winds and unwinds without much feel, but it brakes confidently.
Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring variants come with standard front-wheel drive and offer all-wheel drive for $1,800. The Signature, meanwhile, is only AWD. That system can deliver up to half of all engine power to the rear wheels, but there's no simulated torque-vectoring system like some competitors to limit understeer.
2017 Mazda CX-9
Comfort & Quality
For a three-row crossover, the CX-9 is cramped inside, although its interior is made of high-buck materials for the price.
If it's a five-seat crossover you're after, the CX-9 delivers a luxurious feel even at the bottom of the range. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite deliver what it promises on paper as a people-hauler, meaning we've scored it a not-so-great 5 out of 10 for comfort and quality. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
We've awarded it extra points for its upscale feel and its comfortable second row, but we've subtracted as many for its cramped front and third rows of seats.
The front seats offer a good range of adjustment and a standard tilting and telescoping steering wheel that allows for acceptable room for taller drivers. The seats themselves are firm but not especially supportive.
The second row's seats offer an inch more leg room than Pilot or Highlander, and they recline, but they're similarly flat. The split-fold bench does slide on a track, however, which opens up more cargo room when needed, although you can't leave a child seat in the second row if you want to fold it forward to access the third row. Once back there, the space is really only appropriate for children with not much cargo room behind—just 14.4 cubic feet, and most of it below the window line.
With the third row folded flat, the CX-9 offers 38.2 cubic feet of space.
Overall, the CX-9 is spacious enough for those who only need to carry four or five passengers with regularity, but the CX-9 comes up shy of class-leaders like the Honda Pilot and Toyota Pilot in terms of space and utility overall. In short, if you're buying a three-row crossover to haul the kids and their friends, the CX-9 won't be for you.
By the numbers, the CX-9 stretches 199.4 inches long, which is longer than the Pilot or Highlander, and its massive 115.3-inch wheelbase also stretches beyond those two. With those figures, you'd expect more space for humans in all three rows. We wish it was available in a five-seat variant.
On the other hand, the appointments are top notch—especially considering the CX-9's price point. Materials throughout are a step above what we've come to expect and the Signature's supple nappa hide and delicate rosewood wouldn't feel out of place in a crossover $10,000 pricier.
2017 Mazda CX-9
The CX-9 offers lots of safety tech, but it hasn't yet been crash-tested.
For 2017, the Mazda CX-9 democratizes safety even further by making additional active safety tech standard on the Touring trim level. That's great news, and it helps the CX-9 manage an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ nod. Federal testers haven't yet weighed in, so the CX-9 earns a 7 out of 10 for safety until more data becomes available. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
In addition to the expected airbags and stability control, the CX-9 includes a standard rearview camera plus a trailer-sway assistance program built into its traction control system.
The Sport trim level lacks the low-speed automatic emergency braking tech we'd like to see, but that feature now comes on the Touring and above. Those models also feature blind spot monitors and rear cross-traffic alert. The Grand Touring and Signature add lane departure warning, lane keep assist, and adaptive cruise control.
Mazda doesn't offer surround-view cameras, parking assist, or front parking sensors on any CX-9, omissions that seem a bit odd until its reasonable price point is factored in.
2017 Mazda CX-9
Well-equipped on all models and luxurious at the top, the CX-9 is let down by its subpar infotainment.
The Mazda CX-9 is a high-value crossover that offers a lot of standard and optional tech, but it is let down by an infotainment system that is decidedly behind the times. We've added points for standard and optional equipment, but we've had to deduct one for its mediocre connectivity, bringing it to a 7 out of 10 overall. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
At the bottom end, the CX-9 Sport includes the expected equipment of power windows, locks, and mirrors, cruise control, three-zone automatic climate control, and a rearview camera. Nice features for the money include 18-inch alloy wheels, a 7.0-inch infotainment system with two USB ports, and LED headlights. Optional on the Sport are heated seats (power for the driver) and heated exterior mirrors.
The Touring adds about $4,500 worth of leather upholstery, blind spot monitors, automatic emergency braking, a proximity key, power seats, a power liftgate, and an upgraded infotainment system with an 8.0-inch screen. An option package adds automatic headlamps, LED fog lights, navigation, Bose speakers, automatic windshield wipers, a sunroof, and SiriusXM satellite radio.
The Grand Touring builds on the fully-optioned Touring with adaptive headlamps, 20-inch alloy wheels, a heads-up display that projects relevant information onto the windshield, adaptive cruise control, and lane keep assist, among other features.
The Signature, meanwhile, goes full-luxe with nappa hides, real rosewood trim supplied by a Japanese guitar manufacturer, and a few other goodies.
Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring come standard with front-wheel drive and offer all-wheel drive; Signatures are all AWD.
No model boasts what we'd consider to be great infotainment. In front of the driver sits a 4.6-inch mini screen with some trip computer functions, but most controls are accessed from the 7.0- or 8.0-inch displays that poke out of the dash like an afterthought. The software itself is needlessly menu-intensive and the simple act of programming audio presets is time-consuming. Moreover, the CX-9's navigation is a generation or two behind what some rivals offer. Much of this would be rectified with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto connectivity, but the CX-9 offers neither.
2017 Mazda CX-9
The Mazda CX-9 is fairly thrifty for a three-row crossover, but its turbo can guzzle in real-world situations.
Per EPA figures, the Mazda CX-9 is among the segment's thriftiest, but we've seen slightly lower numbers in real-world use.
We've scored it a 6 out of 10. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
The CX-9 comes in a single powertrain configuration, with a turbo inline-4 and a 6-speed automatic. That setup, paired with front-wheel drive, nets EPA ratings of 22 mpg city, 28 highway, 24 combined.
With all-wheel drive, those figures fall slightly, to 20/26/23 mpg. All of those numbers are a bit lower than what the EPA quoted last year thanks to some minor changes in the way the federal agency administers its fuel economy test.
In our time behind the wheel, however, we've not quite met the combined figure of the all-wheel drive models we've tested. That's no doubt due to the turbocharged engine that provides zippy throttle response but requires a good deal of spooling up the turbo. That's a sure-fire recipe for using more gasoline, although the CX-9 is still among the least thirsty crossovers of its size.