Language is imprecise and fungible. One person’s SUV is another person’s crossover. One company’s mid-size crossover is another company’s full-size SUV. In other words, marketing materials and commercials don’t tell the whole story when it comes to the most popular car segment in the US. I recently spent a week behind the wheel of a 2018 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring AWD. Mazda calls it a three-row, mid-size, seven-passenger SUV. Volkswagen makes a very similar looking vehicle named the Atlas and also calls it a three-row, mid-size, seven-passenger SUV. And while they’re also priced within a few thousand dollars of each other, they may as well inhabit different universes.
Last year, we looked at the CX-5, Mazda’s most recently revamped SUV aimed up-market. The year before that vehicle debuted, Mazda took the same luxury-aspiring design philosophy and aimed the CX-9 at the mid-size SUV segment currently occupied by the likes of the Audi Q7 and Acura MDX. Unlike the Audi or Acura, you can get into a very nicely specced-out CX-9 for under $50,000. Is it a worthwhile alternative at that price?
Let’s start with the looks. While not unattractive, nothing about the CX-9 jumps out. It’s kind of thick-looking, with a gently sloping roofline and a cabin that tapers inward at the rear. Head-on, you can see Mazda’s Kodo design language in action—the SUV gives the impression of a smart, metallic being that has just decided what kind of shenanigans it’s about to get into. The familiar Mazda grill blends into the LED headlights to form the eyes of the face, while metal trim several inches below the grill accounts for the crafty smile. On the back side, Mazda uses a piece of metallic trim to join the taillights and another bit of trim just above the twin exhaust pipes. From the side, the CX-9 looks vaguely Q7-ish.
We’re just four paragraphs into the review, and you’ll have noticed the Q7 has already come up a few times. There’s a reason for that—Mazda has apparently paid a lot of attention to how Audi builds a quality SUV/crossover and has worked hard to put its own spin on that vehicle type. But the CX-9 is so much cheaper. Where the Audi Q7 starts at $49,900, the CX-9 begins at just $32,130. With the Grand Touring trim, the sticker price is $42,270. Add $1,995 for a pair of LCDs to keep the middle-row passengers occupied, another $300 for Machine Gray Metallic paint, and the unavoidable delivery fee, and you’re at $45,540.
That 45-large gets you a 2.5-liter Skyactiv-G twin-turbo that cranks out 227hp (169.3kW) and 310lb-ft (420.3nM) of torque. It comes with a six-speed automatic transmission, 20-inch wheels, power seats, a backup camera, and all of Mazda’s active driver-assist features. Getting the equivalent stuff on a Q7 moves you close to $60,000. But with Audi, you get more—and that’s the theme I kept returning to as I found myself behind the wheel of the CX-9.
The CX-9 interior is very polished. When you sit down in the driver’s seat and close the door, it makes that satisfying, quiet “thunk” you hear from a well-built luxury car. The interior color palette is muted as well: there’s no brown, orange, or red anywhere—just black, chrome, and brushed gunmetal-gray aluminum trim accents that pair nicely with the sand-colored seats and black headliner.
All in all, the CX-9 offers a very muted and sedate environment for both drivers and passengers. Mazda’s designers pay a lot of attention to the idea of “visual noise,” and they go to great pains to make sure typefaces, textures, and grains are consistent throughout. The seats are comfortable and supportive, although only the driver gets lumbar support. The back seats get their own climate control and a pair of USB ports in the center armrest.
Adults will find the back seat fairly comfortable, but there are tradeoffs to be made between adequate front-seat and back-seat legroom when four adults are in the car. The third row? That’s only for preteens and adults who have wronged you. Legroom in that row is minimal, and getting back there requires sliding the second row forward, tilting the seats, and squeezing through the narrow opening to your fate. It’s a far cry from the roomy third row of the VW Atlas but very similar to the Q7, both of which have almost exactly the same external dimensions as the CX-9. The only difference is a bit more width in Audi’s third row at the shoulders, as the Mazda body curves inward, creating even less space.
There’s not much room for cargo when the third row is occupied, either, with just 14.4ft3 of space. Drop the third row and that increases to 38.2ft3, maxing out at 71.2ft3 with the second row flat.
You’ll interact with the Mazda Connect infotainment system via a dial and a few buttons on the center console, but the UI on the included eight-inch color display looks spartan. Navigating through the layers of menus requires a lot of twisting and clicking, and Mazda could have done a better job with it. There’s also a noticeable lag between turning the ignition and the infotainment display being ready for use. There are some puzzling quirks, as well, like song and artist titles not being displayed in full, despite ample room on the screen. I also got an Import Contacts progress bar each time I started the car up. Android Auto and CarPlay are not available in Mazdas, so you’re stuck with Mazda Connect and the built-in GPS system. It’s adequate but out of sync with the luxury vibe the CX-9 puts off.
Like the CX-5, the instrument cluster consists of a speedometer in the center, tachometer at left, and a multifunction display on the right. The latter can be tweaked to show trip stats, driver-assist info, and current mileage. But it could be more useful—stuff that you’d see in Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, like tire pressure, radio station, and a simple interface for making phone calls, are notably missing.
The leather-wrapped steering wheel can be adjusted manually, and Mazda reserves the left side for controlling the radio and multifunction display, while the right is devoted to driver-assist features. It’s also heated, but I only felt the warmth at the 8-, 10-, 2-, and 4-o’clock positions.
Rollin’ down the road
The Grand Touring trim comes with Mazda’s heads-up display, which shows the usual speed, navigation, and driver-assist data. The HUD also has a visual blind-spot warning, which I found useful. Mazda touts the CX-9’s traffic-sign recognition, which is a mixed bag. When you approach a stop sign, you’ll also see a stop sign in the heads-up display. But the CX-9 I drove found speed-limit signs confusing. There’s one stretch of tollway, Interstate 355 in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, that has three different speed limits, depending on the type of vehicle you’re driving. The signs are always positioned three in a row, and I noticed the speed-limit sign on the CX-9 change from 70mph to 60mph and finally 65mph in the span of a few seconds. (The actual speed limit for cars is 70mph.)
Sight lines are about as good as they get with a crossover-slash-SUV of this type.
On the road, the CX-9 offers a smooth if unexciting ride. You’ll feel somewhat insulated from rough spots of pavement thanks to Mazda’s dynamic stability control. Cornering is on par for a kitted-out mid-size SUV. You’re not going to attack curves aggressively, but if you end up cornering faster than you’d like, it’s stable enough. Mazda includes a sport-mode switch on the center console. Flicking it changes up the throttle control and shift points, resulting in really aggressive acceleration with a bit of tire spin when flooring it from a dead stop. It’s also loud.
Speaking of loud, Mazda has done a fine job insulating the cabin from road noise. Indeed, the CX-9 is one of the quieter crossover/SUVs I’ve driven lately, approaching the noise levels of an Audi Q5 or Range Rover Velar.
Mazda rates the CX-9 at 23mpg: 20mpg in the city and 26mpg on the highway. I got 22.1mpg in about 400 miles of driving, including a 130-mile cruise on interstates and rural highways that clocked in at 24.2mpg.
Driver-assist on the Mazda is good enough. The adaptive cruise control is marketed as stop-and-go; if you come to a dead stop in traffic, the indicator will change from green to white and you will have to hit the resume button on the steering wheel to begin moving again. I found the lane-keep assist system underwhelming, however. The CX-9 I drove was equipped with lane-keep assist in addition to lane-departure warnings, but the correction is so minor as to be unnoticeable in some cases. At least I’d get a good, solid vibration from the steering wheel when the CX-9 began to wander out of its lane.
The blind-spot warning was somewhat over-aggressive. At one point, it flashed when a car two lanes over came roaring up; another time, it flashed at me when I drove past a trashcan in my alley at 10mph. I did appreciate seeing the warnings in the heads-up display, however. A standard backup camera is paired with collision-avoidance warning, and there are also sensors in the front of the car to assist you in close quarters. But I found myself guessing how close I actually was to an object without the 360° camera view.
Mazda has done an admirable job with the fit and finish of its biggest SUV, and the initial positive impression I got when I first sat down in it held up throughout my driving. And the price is certainly right if you compare it to an Acura MDX or Audi Q7. But it lacks that last bit of polish you would expect from a luxury car. Turn off the ignition while the window is being rolled up and the window stops in place. The infotainment system is spartan and unpolished, with no support for Android Auto or CarPlay. That said, if you’re in the market for an upscale mid-size SUV and don’t care about people suffering in the third row, the Mazda CX-9 might be a fine choice—especially if you don’t want to spend Audi money.
Listing image by Eric Bangeman