Review: 2012 Mazda CX-9 GT

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If you’re looking for a big sport-ute, you might not have considered this one on your list. But it could well be a contender.

Read to the end, and you’ll see that it might even be a competitor in another category.

The dreaded M-word category, that word that no self-respecting man would utter.

Except me. I love our minivan.

The CX-9 is Mazda’s biggest vehicle. They start at CDN $36,395, but my review sample was a loaded-up GT, and rang in at CDN $48,270. That may seem high at first, but it’s still reasonable, and competitive in this class.

 

Exterior

The sheet metal was striking when the CX-9 came out, but it’s aged a bit and isn’t as fresh as it used to be. That said, the lines remain clean and it’s a handsome vehicle. The smooth curves are nicely offset by the monster 20″ rims. It does have a bit of Mazda’s front-end grin, but it’s not nearly as irritating as it has been on the 3. I like the shape – it won’t get many double-takes anymore, but it works very well.

Chromed and elongated trapezoidal exhaust tips look good and the lines around the rear end seem taut and although it kind of blends in these days, it’s a smart-looking ride.

What impressed me was how well the styling hides the size of this thing. The CX-9 is a big vehicle, inside and out. When you see one drive by, it doesn’t seem nearly as big as it is, and I appreciate that.

 

Under the Hood

There’s only one engine choice here – a 3.7-Litre V-6. It puts out 273 HP @ 6250 RPM, and 270 lb.ft of torque at 4250 RPM. The power is routed through a 6-speed automatic to all four corners through an active torque split full-time all-wheel drive system.

Fuel economy isn’t bad – it’s rated at 12.8L/100 km (18.3 mpg) in the city and 9.0 L/100 km (26 mpg) on the highway. I averaged around 13 L/100 km (18 mpg) during exclusively city driving, with one quick sprint down the freeway. Not bad, considering it’s a behemoth. It’s got a 76 Litre tank, and can actually tow 3500 pounds. Not bad, not bad.

There’s nothing special going on under the hood, or in the drivetrain. The numbers won’t catch anyone’s attention anymore, and that goes for the number of gears in the transmission too. On paper, it seems as though the CX-9 is ready for a refresh.

 

Interior

I quite liked the styling inside the Mazda. Lines were relatively clean and simple, and worked well. Textures are nice to look at, but I was surprised to find hard plastics everywhere! Time to catch up with the competition, Mazda.

The interior is exceptionally spacious. Headroom in the front is incredible, and the seats are very comfortable. The leather upholstery is beautiful, including the stitching – which carries over to the door panels – front and back. The front seats are heated and power adjustable, and the driver’s side has 3 memory positions. The bolstering leaves something to be desired, and they definitely leaned toward comfort over sportiness. You’ll see why that’s unfortunate in the Driving section of my review.

I loved the manually adjustable steering wheel – it had a surprisingly small diameter, and felt sporty. It has controls for handsfree and phone operations, as well as media and cruise controls on it. Behind it sits a bin with simple, highly readable gauges. The instrumentation is red accents on black, and it looks great! Even better are the blue backlit haloes in the gauges at night.

At the top of the enormous and long dash you’ll find an information…. banner. For lack of a better word. It’s a strip of information, and although it seems busy at first, it works quite well. It shows you the climate control temperature setting, the outside temperature, whatever the media system or the phone is doing and a simple trip computer, which lets your cycle through the fuel range, average fuel consumption or average speed. It’s simple, basic and useful.

Below that is a touchscreen, and below that a dual-zone automatic climate control system. The center console is shockingly wide AND high. It’s like a barricade to keep fighting couples apart. It takes up a crazy amount of real estate in this vehicle, and it seems a bit oversized in my opinion. The shift lever is a traditional gated affair.

I liked the styling on the door panels a lot. There is an almost vertical arc of wood trim for a nice change-up.

 

Tech/Convenience

The CX-9, in GT form at least, is pretty loaded and I couldn’t find much missing.

The touchscreen handles the media and the navigation systems, as well as the back-up camera. Graphics and text are pretty blocky and crunchy – they feel like they’re about 5-10 years old and are definitely a ways behind the competition. The system works well, and it’s easy to use – it’s just a shame it’s a horror to look at.

The Bose stereo system, which includes a subwoofer and center channel, sounds pretty awesome. It feeds off AM, FM, satellite, CD, auxiliary or Bluetooth streaming inputs. The one exception was Bluetooth streaming – I couldn’t get it to sound good. Ever. It always had a staticky, feedbacky thing going on and sounded crappy. The touchscreen tilts out of the way to expose the CD loading slot, which felt a bit gimmicky and unnecessary and is probably just something that could go wrong over time.

12V plugs can be found at the bottom of the center stack, in the armrest bin (along with the auxiliary plug) and in the trunk.

Of course, door locks, mirrors and windows are powered, as is the overhead tilt and slide sunroof. The HID headlights are nice and bright, and very effective.

Other than that, you’ll find a blind-spot monitoring system with warning lights in the side-view mirrors, a HomeLink garage door opener and a keyless FOB system. Interesting twist – it’s not a push-start ignition – there’s a false key in the steering column that you twist like a normal one, it’s just not removable. Unique approach, but it works well.

 

Storage

I have to start with the cargo capacity because it is astounding. Pop open the powered trunklid, which can be done from the dash, and prepare to be surprised. Like I said, this thing is bigger than you might think. With the two back rows up, you have a solid 487 Litres (17 cubic feet). Keep in mind, that’s with the third row in use. But fold the second and third rows flat (the second row splits 60/40 and the back row 50/50), and you’ve got a gargantuan 2851 Litre (100 cubic feet) space. Feel free to move in. Or have your kids live there. There’s additional underfloor storage too.

Oh, and that powered trunklid can be closed with a button on the hatch at the back.

Outside of the room-for-rent trunk, you’ve got a big glove compartment, small-ish door bins and a nice big open bin at the bottom of the center stack. There are two massive cupholders in the console, with a lid to hide them, and a handy little flip-out change bin on the left underside of the dash.

Another unique Mazda take on things is the clamshell lid for the armrest – it’s split down the middle, and the 2 sides swing out of the way to expose a decent storage bin underneath. The armrest is very comfortable too, and sits quite high due to the enormous center console.

 

Rear Seats – Second Row

Getting into this row is easy – the doors open very wide and the step-in height is very nice. The seats are beautiful, and very comfortable and even the armrests in the doors are upholstered and stitched with great attention to detail. There are 3 seats, 3 seatbelts and 3 headrests. The area feels very spacious and head and legroom are amazing. You can actually stretch out, and that’s helped by the reclining seats. You could actually fit 3 adults in there, but 2 would most likely be most comfortable. Fitting 3 kids is no problem at all, and there are 2 sets of LATCH connectors.

There are small door bins, 2 seatback map pockets, overhead reading lights and the middle seatback folds down to create an armrest with 2 cupholders and a lidded storage bin.

At the back of the center console sits an automatic climate control system for the rear seats’ separate zone – nice touch!

The seats also slide forward and back. As practical as that is, there’s also a problem with it. The way Mazda solved the sliding seats issue is to provide tracks for them on the floor. Well, those tracks extend forward through virtually the whole area you’d be putting your feet when sitting in the second row. It’s not nearly as nice as smooth, uninterrupted area with carpet, but worse yet, those tracks are open and exposed, meaning any sand, dirt, grit, spilled milk and food bits from your kids and other passengers will head straight for those open rails and will be difficult to clean out afterwards. I’m not sure I like the thinking behind that.

Rear Seats – Third Row

Here you’ll find 2 seats, 2 headrests and 2 seatbelts. Obviously it’s not as spacious as the second row. Headroom is OK, but perfectly fine for kids. The seats themselves are surprisingly comfortable, especially compared to the afterthought that most third row seating areas are.

Legroom back there is tight for anyone but kids – also, if you need enough room for adults to sit back there, you’ll need to slide the second row so far forward, that it becomes tight in the second row. It’s best reserved for kids, doubly so because you need to be a contortionist to get back there – ingress and egress is not a joyful activity for big people.

There are 2 cupholders on either side for third row occupants.

 

The Drive

I don’t know why, but I was very pleasantly surprised by the driving experience in the CX-9. Mazda tends to sell themselves as a company that places value on the driving experience – the ZOOM-ZOOM. It’s a bit weird to carry that over to a behemoth like the CX-9, but it does!

First and foremost, this thing is smooooooth. I found everything it did was done very smoothly. The engine, the transmission and the ride were all exemplary – smooth and quiet.

Although it rides very well, it also handles surprisingly well. If you can ignore the body roll, you’ll be happy to find quite a canyon carver in the CX-9. It would be a great road-trip vehicle that wouldn’t complain at all when you throw it around some sweepers in the mountains. It feels as though it’s happy to play, which is unusual for a vehicle this big. Road manners are very well controlled, grip is impressive and I loved the dead pedal – thank you Mazda! Too bad the seats aren’t bolstered enough – throw it around a corner, and you’ll slide around on that lovely leather.

Around town, the CX-9 felt torquey, responsive and very satisfying to drive. It’s a luxo-barge though, and it gets a little grumpy when you poke it. It’s happier taking its time to get to speed, and if you’re in a rush, or if you need to pass someone in a hurry, you’ll be frustrated. Put the hammer down, and you’ll get more noise and breathless wheezing than results, and it’s just not a particularly fast vehicle. But as I said, although it seems soft and underpowered when passing at higher speeds, it’s perfectly competent for city driving and highway cruising.

The smooth automatic transmission does offer a manual shifting mode, which is slow and seems a bit pointless on a vehicle like this. I thought the gearbox was well programmed and suited to this vehicle, and I was happy to let it do the shifting itself.

 

Nitpicks

Most of my complaints come from things that are missing in the Tech/Convenience department.

A beast this big should come with audible distance parking sensors. The CX-9 does not. I’m not sure if it’s an option, but it should be standard equipment. On top of that, there are no distance markings on the back-up camera screen, which is just ludicrous. Sure I can see what’s behind me, but I have no guides to help me gauge how far away stuff is? The distance markings HAVE to be part of a back-up camera package!

I was surprised by the lack of USB/iPod input to the sound system, and that there wasn’t a 12V or 110 plug for the rear passengers. It drives me crazy when car manufacturers leave that out, especially if they’ve made a significant effort already by putting an automatic climate control system back there. A rear plug should be standard for every vehicle on the market, never mind a big SUV with three rows of seating.

The volume and tuning knobs on the stereo are quite small, and worse, they don’t stick out far enough. Mr. Sausage-Fingers Wildsau had a tough time using them, and that’s just annoying. Yes, I know there are controls on the steering wheel, but that doesn’t negate the requirement to make the primary controls functional. Does it?

 

The Verdict

I was very happy with the Mazda CX-9. It’s a smooth operator (cue Sade song here). You’ll find a soft, comfortable SUV with plenty of room, a usable 3rd row for kids, acceptable fuel economy and fantastic handling.

I give the CX-9 an 8 out of 10, and I would definitely recommend it if you’re shopping in this class.

I appreciate that Mazda does things somewhat differently, and I like that they put their own touch on styling, performance and even the little touches like electronics. The tech needs to catch up with the times, as does the touch screen, but otherwise this big boy is aging gracefully and remains competitive.

WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) was very high. She loved how easy it was to a) get in, b) load up kids, and c) drive. This next statement meant a lot to people I talked to, and might be more important than I had first considered: my wife thought it was a valid competitor to her beloved Honda Odyssey minivan. Something to think about.

 

Disclosure:  Vehicle was provided by Mazda.

If you enjoyed this review, feel free to check out my other vehicle reviews under the car reviews tab at the top of my blog.

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