2017 Mazda CX-9: Style and Agility

The second-generation CX-9, introduced last year, picked up where the first generation left off in regards to driving dynamics, but adopted a new SKYACTIV powertrain to replace the old, not-too-frugal V6 engine.

It also boasts new styling that looks rich, refined and very European, as Mazda arguably is the Japanese manufacturer with the most creative designers. Or at least the ones with the most creative freedom. Ok, the CX-9’s nose is a little long, a little pointy, but the rest of the SUV’s bodywork is svelte and well-proportioned.

There isn’t much visual distinction across the various trim levels, which include GS, GS-L, GT and Signature. That’s good if you’re buying the base version, but those opting for the pricier ones won’t get any bonus stares. The CX-9 offers 18-inch wheels as standard, while the GT and Signature get 20-inchers in addition to lower-body chrome trim. Oh, the Signature’s front grille is illuminated, so there is a noticeable distinction for the top-shelf CX-9 – at night.

New for Mazda: real wood
The 2017 Mazda CX-9’s tasteful interior design picks up styling cues from other of the brand’s products. The switchgear feels solid and pretty much everything is ergonomically placed. The driver instrument panel is straightforward, the climate control system gets easy-to-use rotary dials for setting temperature and there’s a conventional-style (read: intuitive) shift lever instead of a confusion row of buttons we’re starting to see appear in today’s new vehicles.

Every CX-9 except the base GS receives leather upholstery, but the Signature trim boasts nappa leather seating with more elaborate stitching. While we’re at it, the CX-9 Signature also gets real rosewood trim on the doors and around the centre console panel. It’s not much, but it does give the cockpit a slightly more upscale look.

Space is adequate front and rear, and I had no problem shuttling to family of five—which includes three teenagers—to New Hampshire and back without any fighting for precious cubic feet. A three-row SUV is perfect with three kids, as long as one is willing to climb into the rearmost seat. There’s 407 litres of cargo volume behind the third-row bench, which is good, but below the category average. Even with the rear seats folded down, the CX-9 is one of the least spacious amongst midsize, three-row SUVs. It does feel bigger than the numbers suggest, though.

The Mazda Connect infotainment system works very well, although some features aren’t the most easy to use, such as the navigation system. The touchscreen only responds to finger poking when the vehicle is at a standstill, which is a hassle for the front-seat passenger, but for the sake of reducing driver distraction, the measure is understandable. Once you get the hang of the menu layout, the multifunction knob is a marvel to use and the volume button is never far away.

In regards to the cockpit, we wish the centre console instrument panel wasn’t as large, as our leg is constantly rubbing against it. The second-row seat mechanism is a stiff and the kids had to use some extra elbow grease to flip and slide them in order to access the third-row seat. While the second-row bench armrest conceals two USB ports—the kids could keep their portable devices juiced-up—there or no power points for third-row occupants, and a 120-volt power outlet would’ve been nice, too. An integrated rear-seat entertainment system isn’t available, either.

True to the brand’s philosophy
The CX-9 is amongst the lightest seven-passenger SUVs in its category, up there with the Honda Pilot and the GMC Acadia. Obviously, performance and handling are positively affected.

The turbocharged, 2.5-litre SKYACTIV engine develops 227 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, or 250 hp if it’s fed with 93-octane super unleaded fuel—which not many gas stations offer. The modest number of ponies is largely compensated by the generous amount of torque, which peaks at just 2000 rpm. Mazda figures no CX-9 driver will be constantly revving the engine to its redline with the family on board, and that makes perfect sense.

The 2017 Mazda CX-9 is no rocket, nor does it have to be one. The turbo four can handle the task of getting the SUV up and down mountain roads easily, and sips fuel on the highway, thanks in part to the slick six-speed automatic transmission. The only downsides here are that it doesn’t sound as meaty as the competition’s V6 engines, and towing capacity is limited to 3500 lbs. (1588 kg), while most of its rivals can pull up to 5000 lbs. If you own a boat, you might want to check out the Dodge Durango or the Nissan Pathfinder instead.

On the other hand, the CX-9’s forte is handling and driving dynamics. It feels lighter than it is, it’s agile and for those times when the progeny or the spouse isn’t on board, it has no problem tackling a few twisty country roads. Fuel economy is also very good, as we averaged 9.5 L/100 km during our 750-km round trip to the United States.

Despite not being the roomiest seven-passenger SUV on the market, the 2017 Mazda CX-9 is one of our favourites because it’s fun to drive, of course, but also because it’s refined and attractive. Starting at $35,600 before freight and delivery charges, or $38,100 with AWD—which we strongly recommend for any SUV—the CX-9 is also priced right, and includes a slew of advanced safety features. The Signature trim is may not be accessible to everyone’s budget at $50K, but it does come fully loaded, with the exception of the few convenience and connectivity items mentioned above.

By the way, the 2018 model, which should soon be on sale, will get some equipment package changes for extra value as well as the addition of heated second-row outboard seats and Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control handling software.

If we need to haul the family, but don’t want to give up driving pleasure, the CX-9 is the way to go. If maximum cargo space and towing abilities are required first and foremost, there are some more capable choices out there.