Mazda, the nimblest Pacific Rim automaker, continues offering a wide array of on-road capable crossovers along with the iconic MX-5 Miata, a lightweight two-door drop top serving as the brand’s ambassador/spokes vehicle. Nimble due to its relative diminutive size compared to other manufacturers and a penchant for a sporty drive experience at starting prices attainable by the working class. Mazda’s been offering vehicles in the U.S. since 1970.
Our CX-9 tester this week serves as the largest offering within the Mazda portfolio with three rows of seating standard. The CX-9 has always offered three rows since its 2006 debut. It’s pegged as a mid-sizer within the industry with many rivals offering slightly larger dimensions in this segment. Any loss of girth is more than made up for with spirited on-road feedback. Hard to find a more fun-to-drive seven-seater than CX-9.
Since the 2022 model year, all Mazda crossovers come standard with advanced all-wheel drive marketed as i-ACTIV. It’s not full-time all-wheel drive (powering all four wheels whenever the engine hums) but ‘active,’ all-wheel drive, sending power to front tires during normal situations and summoning the rear tires to join in the charge when sensing slippage.
Five trims for 2023 include Touring, Touring Plus, Carbon Edition, Grand Touring and top-dog Signature. This marks a slight change from years past when a base, ‘Sport’ trim was available. Mazda simplifies the purchase process with each trim adding additional standard equipment from rungs below. Few factory stand-along or package options are on tap other than exterior color decisions. Starting price for each trim generally reflect the ending point as well (accept for pesky dealer fees).
All power generates from a returning 2.5-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine mated to an aging, yet efficient six-speed traditional automatic transmission. This turbocharged four banger is the strongest internal combustion engine this year in Mazda’s under-hood portfolio with no V-6 or V-8s in sight. Horsepower differs dependent upon the octane fuel selected. Regular 87-octane fuel generates 227 horsepower. Upgrade to premium 91-octane grade and horses jump to 250.
Turbochargers help engines generate more horsepower and low-end torque without added cylinders. For instance, a four-cylinder turbocharger may generate similar horsepower output as a heavier V-6. Several mid-size crossover rivals offer a V-6 opportunity. The snaillike turbine assembly sits between the engine and exhaust system, compressing repurposed cooled exhaust gases to spin the turbine and force additional air into the cylinders.
Mileage estimates for this three-row uni-body crossover checks in at 20 miles per gallon city and 26 mpg highway, average for four-bangers within this segment. The turbo provides welcome audio feedback; it’s not the strong silent type, so those thriving a pleasant, at-work engine hum take note. During our week’s testing, it never felt overworked with enough in reserve.
As of yet, Mazda offers no EV (electric vehicle), plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV) or gas-electric hybrid (self-charging, non-plug in) version of the CX-9. Mazda introduced the compact MX-30 EV, its first all-electric product available in the U.S. late in the 2021 calendar year with limited sales volume (under 1,000 units) dedicated within the confines of California where public EV charging stations are better established.
What Mazda offers above and beyond that of the competition is G-Vectoring control, improving handling and stability. This technology automatically reduces engine torque with the gas pedal enacted, enhancing road tire grip already steeler thanks to standard all-wheel drive. Mazda recently added a ‘plus’ element to the equation, helping keep the vehicle and driver in control during lane changes and emergency swerving maneuvers. G-Vectoring Control Plus automatically teases the braking system, increasing the vehicles ‘Yaw” movement to better assist drivers in quickly returning the steering wheel to its natural center position. The CX-9 rates as one of the best handling three-row choice on the market.
A 2023 CX-9 starts at $38,750 for a Touring model, now the entry trim albeit with a nice array of popular equipment. All trims now include power liftgates (with added hands-free guidance in the top-three trims) standard. Our packed-to-the-gills, top-dog Signature trim started at $48,460. The only factory upgrade: Snowflake white pearl-finish paint ($395) bringing the bottom line to $50,130 after a $1,275 destination charge.
Exclusive to Signature: upgraded Nappa leatherette seating surfaces, ambient interior lighting on front/rear doors, front grille lighting accents highlighting a titanium grey metallic finish and larger 20-inch wheels boasting a brilliant silver finish.
The exterior includes circular wheel wells framed by a black composite minimizing stone dings and also protecting lower side doors and bumpers. A large five-sided framed center nose with horizontal slats and Mazda’s M logo figures prominently up front. Narrow headlight housing connects in the two upper corners stretching to the side fenders. The power hatch door includes a small spoiler atop, opening up with minimal available headroom. Wide rear doors open with ample leg room to enter both back rows.
Six or seven rider capacity depends upon the trim selected. The way-back, manually-folding 50/50-split third row remains a two-seat affair. Some other rivals try convincing the general public three can squish in place. When not in use, these backrests conveniently fold flat into the floor. A three-passenger split-bench seat comes standard in Touring Plus and Grand Touring accommodating up to seven. Second-row Captain’s chairs are standard in Touring, Carbon Edition and Signature (while optional in Touring Plus and Grand Touring Plus). The top-trim Signature includes Captain’s Chairs with reclining backrests and handy center console and storage capability.
Our Signature Captain’s chairs seat backs manually folded forward, allowing the entire unit to scoot forward on a vertical floor track employing a good solid manual arm push. My six-foot one-inch frame maneuvered into the way back. Row three lacks solid cushioning of the first two rows of bucket-like seats and best left for those with smaller, younger butts.
The front row/dash includes a familiarity found in most Mazda crossovers. Centering the dashboard in every trim, a 10.25-inch multi-function flat display screen extending up from a in a tub-like groove. Not a touch-sensitive system as dual dials and a series of quick-hit buttons between front buckets control in-screen shadows and cursers (part of the ‘Mazda Connect’ Infotainment System). The sizeable grab handle operating the mechanically shifting six-speed automatic transmission is nearby as is switch moving between normal and sport driving modes. Wireless phone charging assisting Smartphone interplay along with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto interplay also come standard.
Below the screen and two horizontal air vents reside two small twist dials monitoring dual temperatures, a narrow, rectangular information window and a row of a dozen push button both above and below controlling HVAC functions.
The circular, electric start push button resides high on the dash conveniently away from the steering column and includes an illuminating green button. The pleasant, informative, easy-glance instrument panel blends analog orbs at each end with interior white needles together with an animated center circle largely dedicated to speed/speedometer info.
Mazda CX-9 includes many popular safety features standard in every trim including: radar-sensing cruise control (automatically slowing and speeding the vehicle based on the car ahead), lane keep assist, traction control, advanced brake support with pedestrian detection, rear cross traffic alert, blind spot monitoring and side air curtain air bags. Three upper trims include city brake support and a 360-degree view monitor within the deep, upper dash flat screen.2023 Mazda CX-9
Price as tested: $47,855
Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder turbo
Overall Length: 199.4 inches
Overall Width: 77.5 inches
Overall Height: 69 inches
Fuel Economy: 20 mpg city, 26 mpg highway
Curb weight: 4,383 pounds
Powertrain warranty: Five years/60,000 miles