When people point and stare at your car on the highway, mouths all agape and cellphones snapping, you know you’re driving something special. It’s even more rewarding when the car you are piloting isn’t some sexy sports car or kick-ass pickup truck, but a purpose-built family hauler with three rows.
When we first test drove the Signature version of the all-new Mazda CX-9 out in San Francisco, it blew us away on almost every level. So when Mazda asked if we wanted to take one on a family road trip, we jumped on the idea of making the most of our Labor Day weekend. Loaded down with duffel bags, coolers, suitcases, baskets full of snacks, an exuberant toddler, and four adults, we began our journey south in Mazda’s seductive SUV.
This isn’t your average soccer mom machine: It boasts a turbocharged four-banger with 3,500 pounds of towing capacity and a tightly tuned suspension for when it’s time for some fancy footwork. You could opt for the Sport version at $31,520 and save some serious dough, but with its hand-carved Japanese rosewood interior, real Napa leather touches, aerospace aluminum accents, premium Bose audio system, and gratuitous tech and safety features, there’s plenty of reason to plop down $45,000 for the top-tier Signature edition.
Mazda’s Kodo design language is the reason why we got so many looks on our trek southward. Chief designer Julien Montousse has taken the SUV game to a new level with the CX-9, as piped LED lamps, understated fog lights, trapezoidal arches, and chrome accent lines etch their way into lamp assemblies to make a multi-dimensional effect.
With its long, sloping hood leading downward toward horizontal grille staves, and a roofline that flows backward between integrated aluminum roof rails, we stand by our opinion that this is the most most attractive Asian SUV on the market today. Regardless of the rest of the car, the CX-9 is utterly amazing when it comes to external styling.
Exterior pros and cons
+ From passengers in other cars taking photos of us on the open road to people stopping us in parking lots, the curb appeal of the CX-9 is undeniably strong.
+ Mazda’s approach to Kodo touches includes sleek aluminum roof rails, multi-layered trim pieces, tasteful touches of chrome, and a grille that glows with LED light at night.
+ Attractive 20-inch alloy wheels, rain-sensing wipers that actually work, heated mirrors, a power liftgate, keyless entry, and proportions that make the triple-rowed SUV look and behave like a much smaller car all win a nod of approval.
– The liftgate doesn’t rise very high, resulting in a painful learning curve for anyone over 5-foot-10. Also, the backup camera gets dirty/rain-soaked easily, and those stealthy fog lamps will likely get packed full of snow and road slush come winter.
– Unpainted lower plastic trim pieces don’t look as good when compared to the piano black aero touches on the Mazda3, rear wiper is not hidden within the spoiler like on the Lexus RX, and miniature round exhaust tips look odd on the trapezoidal back end.
– Side mirrors look nice, but are inferior to the Kia Sorento’s setup: proximity-sensitive, power-folding, and puddle-lamp equipped.
Opting for a turbocharged SkyActiv 2.5-liter engine with four cylinders was a huge gamble for Mazda. In order to stay true to its slogan that “driving matters,” the Mazda did some unique things with the CX-9’s powerplant. While it will run on regular, dumping in 93 octane and flipping the sport switch noticeably boosts performance gains within the walls of 310 pound-feet of torque and 250 horsepower. All six gears shift fluidly, sending power to all four corners, as Mazda’s clever i-Activ AWD system constantly transitions to ensure the best traction and performance gains possible. It may not be an off-road specialist or heavy duty hauler, but for the average buyer, this powertrain is more than enough.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ The 2.5-liter four-cylinder generates 250 peak horsepower, 310 pound-feet of torque, and can tow up to 3,500 pounds thanks to being turbocharged .
+ Runs on regular 87 octane and gets 27 mile per gallon averages on the highway without issue, while opting for premium gives power gains.
+ The six-speed automatic feels seamless, as it holds high RPM when in sport mode, and delivers power to all four corners without hesitation via Mazda’s i-Activ AWD system.
– Engineers tell us that the exhaust system is overly restrictive in order to meet emission standards in states like California, as well as keep exhaust notes and engine drone to a minimum. They admit that this considerably damages both power and fuel economy gains.
– No traction settings for sand, snow, and mud like the Pilot, plus no locking differential.
The Signature edition is highlighted by numerous interior touches that are exclusive to this unique trim line. The third row seating is designed mainly for smaller humans, which shouldn’t be much of a surprise. There were some small, niggling oversights for a range topping model (a heated steering wheel, ventilated seats, no electronically-telescoping steering column), but the quality of materials used and the way in which it’s all put together propels the CX-9 to European luxury levels. Whether you’re looking for a performance- or practicality-oriented SUV, Mazda has done a great job of making this cabin both family-friendly and driver focused.
Interior pros and cons
+ Napa leather touches, knee padding on sides of the center stack, heated front power adjusting seats, an automatic liftgate, aluminum and real wood accents, and LED lighting speak volumes.
+ Steering wheel looks and feels rally-ready, and is not a breeding ground for a billion buttons and switches.
+ Comfortable and quiet cabin, with twin USB ports up front, electronic e-brake, and a custom Bose audio setup that crushes eardrums.
– No panoramic sunroof or ventilated seats, steering wheel is unheated and must be manually adjusted, center console is fairly shallow, and climate controls sit quite low and are easily bumped when putting a cell phone in the unlit pocket beneath them.
– Sliding the second row takes a lot of work, and folding it out of the way to access the third row is a laboring process compared to the outstanding one-touch systems found in Nissan’s Pathfinder.
– While limited storage space in the rear is a concern, the fact that Mazda put LED interior lamps in every sconce save for a single lamp on one side of the liftgate in the cargo hold is puzzling. LED lamps on either side of the hatch and in both side cubbies would make a huge difference.
Tech and safety
Another reason why the Signature line is so damn good is its standard sweep of tech and safety goods, which are all easy to use and fine-tune. Everything from variable cruise control and lane keep assist to having the option of navigating the touchscreen via fingertip or command knob make a strong statement, as do things like trailer stability controls and Mazda’s automatic brake support. Unfortunately, we did unearth some annoying missteps in both tech and safety departments, but none were overly concerning as Mazda readies program patches and a refresh down the line.
Tech pros and cons
+ Cross traffic alerts with backup sensors, blind spot monitoring, variable cruise control, lane keep assistance, emergency braking at any speed, and three rows of side curtain airbags.
+ Heads-up display is adjustable and detailed, and when getting turn-by-turn directions graphics fade in and out fluidly.
+ Gauge cluster is sharp looking, responsive, and half analog and digital, with ample amounts of infotainment and stats for the driver. The touchscreen is easy to navigate, can be accessed via fingertips or command knob, and sports smooth flowing 3D mapping.
– Automatic braking and adaptive cruise are overly sensitive one moment, and clueless the next. Adaptive high beams are also finicky, as they tend to come on prematurely when passing semis, thus blinding drivers via their sideview mirrors.
– Touchscreen is not touch-friendly all the time, especially when streaming music via Bluetooth or after opening certain menus.
– No surround view cameras, and lane keep assist is built to help you not crash — not drive the car for you. So don’t expect it to keep you in line after it nudges you the first time. After all, Driving Matters.
Twelve hours behind the wheel is no easy task, but with steering inputs that are just as direct as the SUV’s suspension and spooling turbo setup, we were able to keep ourselves entertained. This is not a massive family hauler, and having driven the new CX-5 earlier this year, it is safe to say that the CX-9’s driving characteristics are that of a much smaller vehicle. Body roll is minimal thanks to the suspension being tuned to a fine point, and the way in which all 310 pound-feet of torque hit the ground makes accelerating off the line a lot of fun.
The adaptive cruise control being a bit slow to respond when a car cuts you off was a bit worrisome, and in sweeping turns the CX-9 would sense cars in other lanes, autonomously panic brake, and cause everyone in the car to jump. It also felt a hair heavy for the stock brake system, so it may be worthwhile to install a more aggressive set of pads and rotors if you plan on hauling passengers, beach gear, and a 3,500-pound boat all at once and regularly.
Wrap up and review
Closing arguments regarding the CX-9 Signature are almost all positive. Our little Labor Day jaunt unearthed a handful of previously unnoticed oversights and tech quirks, but Mazda has been proactive in addressing them with the aforementioned software patch. For being such a small operation, Mazda does a great job of punching well above its weight, and the CX-9 serves as one hell of a knock-out. From the fit and finish of the lightweight aluminum and rosewood trim pieces, to the practical cabin layout and lust-worthy exterior lines, the quality of craftsmanship that goes into this vehicle is unprecedented.
After speaking with the engineers that made Mazda’s return to turbocharged technology happen, it’s evident that this 100% Japanese built SUV has a ton of untapped potential. Based on what we were told, just a few basic bolt-ons and a tune can push the drivetrain north of 400 horsepower, and while consumer interest in a high-performance CX-9 is minimal at best, it shows the potential this vehicle holds. But forget about the future: This vehicle is already plenty brilliant and beautiful today, earning it a top spot in the race for family car of the year, and a must drive spot on any SUV shopper’s list.