The Good: Quickness, distinctive styling, safety, ergonomics
The Bad: Fuel economy, price
The Bottom Line: Dollar for dollar, the hottest of the new crossover SUVs
"Trucks seldom earn a berth on our all-stars list," notes Automobile magazine. Yet, there's the 2008 Mazda CX-9 amid the Corvettes, BMWs, and Mercedeses on the magazine's newly released annual Top 10 vehicles list, which is included in the January issue. The CX-9 is described as a "deviant crossover with the devil in its heart."
The prose is a bit purple, but the description is fairly accurate. In designing the CX-9, Mazda has accomplished a difficult feat. It's a seven-person people-hauler that's safe, stylish, and spacious enough for carpooling and hauling bulky loads on the weekend—but also terrific fun to tool around in.
Driving Mazda's new crossover SUV, moreover, just became a little more fun. The CX-9 only came out a year ago as a 2007 model, but for '08, the company has juiced up its V-6 engine, raising its horsepower rating by 10 to 273 hp. The original CX-9 was quick; the '08 is a bit quicker. Adding to the new Mazda's driving appeal, the more powerful engine is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual function that lets you do the shifting yourself.
The CX-9's exterior styling reflects its sportiness. The big, 20-in., alloy, spoked wheels on the upscale Grand Touring model (18-in. wheels are standard on other versions) look like something designed for a Hot Wheels toy. The windshield is raked sharply forward, and the side windows become progressively narrower as they move toward the back above the vehicle's sculpted flanks.
The CX-9's safety rating, on the other hand, is decidedly mainstream suburban. The vehicle comes standard with stability and traction control, antilock brakes, and cabin-length side curtain air bags. It also earned five-star ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for both passenger and driver in frontal collisions, as well as for both front and rear passengers in side collisions, and a four-star rating for the risk of rollover.
The CX-9 has a few downsides. It isn't cheap, for one thing. The most basic Sport version starts at $29,995 with front-wheel drive and $31,295 with all-wheel drive. Next up the ladder is the Touring model ($32,210 FWD/$33,519 AWD), and top of the line is the Grand Touring ($33,950 FWD/$35,250 AWD). Start adding optional gear, such as a $2,650 rear-seat entertainment system with an upgraded Bose audio system, and the tab can easily top $40,000.
Fuel economy isn't great either. The '08 CX-9 is rated to get 15 mpg in the city and 21 on the highway with AWD, and 16 city and 21 highway with front-wheel drive. In 500 miles of mainly highway driving in my all-wheel-drive test vehicle, I only got 18.3 mpg. To my surprise, though, the owner's manual recommends inexpensive regular gasoline, rather than premium.
Still, rising gasoline prices haven't kept the CX-9 from being a hot seller. Mazda sold 22,501 CX-9s in North America during the first 11 months of 2007, which the company says "exceeded expectations." That's good news for troubled Ford (F), which controls Mazda.
The CX-9's sales are a drop in the bucket compared with Toyota's (TM) Highlander (BusinessWeek.com, 8/30/07), which saw its U.S. sales fall 4.5% to 113,164 during the same period. But the Mazda isn't far behind the 24,560 Buick Enclaves (BusinessWeek.com, 8/24/07) that General Motors (GM) has sold so far this year, though the Enclave only hit the market in June and is selling at a faster monthly clip.
Behind the Wheel
I liked the feel of the CX-9 from the first moment I slipped into the driver's seat. Mazda aims to become known for its fun-to-drive, sporty vehicles, and the CX-9 is a classic of the genre.
This is a big, heavy honker of a 4,500-lb. SUV, but it moves fast. I timed the CX-9 at about 7.6 seconds in accelerating from 0 to 60.
That's a tad faster than the '08 Highlander, which I clocked at just under eight seconds, and decidedly faster than the Enclave, which GM says can do 0 to 60 in 8.2 seconds and which I clocked at a pokey 9.6 seconds.
On dry pavement, the CX-9's ride is amazing. The steering gives you a remarkable feeling of connection with the road. The suspension is sport-tuned without being as hard as in other sporty SUVs, such as the Acura MDX (BusinessWeek.com, 2/13/07). The CX-9 handles bumpy backroads without jolting and jostling its occupants.
The CX-9 isn't a heavy-duty off-roader, but ground clearance is a respectable 8.1 in. I drove it in snow and on ice under some very nasty conditions and it handled amazingly well. If you put snow tires on the CX-9, as the owner's manual suggests during wintry weather, this thing would really plow through the muck.
The CX-9's interior looks upscale, even though the faux wood trim looked a bit too obviously fake (the real wood trim in expensive luxury cars usually looks fake to me, too). The black leather in my test CX-9 GT was very nice, and a number of striking design elements take the interior out of the ordinary. Examples include brushed metal bars along the sides of the center console and across the doors, and the faux-wood-trimmed struts that curve down off the dash and integrate with the trim on either front door. The latter look like flying buttresses on European churches.
However, what I really like about the interior is how simple it is. The center stack is uncomplicated, as are the controls on the steering wheel and dash. I didn't once have to crack the owner's manual to figure out how something worked. It's obvious how to operate the entertainment system because the little remote control that comes with it is exactly like one of the simpler ones you get with a TV. The remote and the wireless headphones that also come with the system actually work exactly as they're supposed to, which isn't always the case with these systems. Ditto for the navigation system.
One technological advance I'm not enamored of is the CX-9's Blind Spot Monitoring System, which as in Volvos I've test-driven (BusinessWeek.com, 10/29/07) is too sensitive. It's frequently activated by trees and even snowdrifts along the side of the road.
Unlike some people-haulers, the CX-9 can genuinely seat seven adults in comfort. The front seats are well-bolstered on the sides and very comfortable. The second-row seats are split 60/40, and both sections move backward and forward separately, giving you a lot of latitude in adjusting the leg space available to rear-seat passengers.
Sliding the second-row seats forward also makes it relatively easy to climb into the third-row seats. I'm 5 ft. 10 in. tall, and I had plenty of knee space in the third row, even with the second-row seats way back. Head space, however, is tight.
The CX-9's hauling capacity is voluminous. Even with all three rows of seats up, the CX-9 has 17 cu. ft. of luggage space in back. That expands to nearly 50 cu. ft. with the third-row seat folded down, and about 100 cu. ft. with both rows of rear seats down. That's more than the '08 Highlander's maximum 95 cu. ft., but well behind the 115 cu. ft. that the Enclave (and its sister models the GMC Acadia and Saturn Outlook) provides.
Buy It or Bag It?
If driving fun and a stylish exterior aren't big priorities, there are numerous less expensive alternatives to the CX-9, including (dare I even suggest it) Chrysler's fancy new Town & Country minivan (BusinessWeek.com, 11/26/07), which sells for an average of around $30,000.
If you absolutely want a crossover SUV, the CX-9 is one of the pricier offerings. Its average selling price of $34,743 is $761 above the average for the segment, according to the Power Information Network. (PIN, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).)
The number of crossover vehicles on the market is rapidly expanding, but the two rival models I'd be sure to consider are the Buick Enclave and Toyota Highlander. The new Enclave is more expensive ($38,504 on average, according to PIN) and less fun to drive, but also plusher inside. The '08 Highlander is much improved over the previous Highlander, and its $32,040 average price is considerably lower than the CX-9's.
Other good and less expensive crossovers include the Enclave's sister model, the $33,117 Saturn Outlook, the $32,733 Subaru Tribeca (BusinessWeek.com, 6/11/07), and the $31,073 Ford Edge.
However, if pep and handling are important, the CX-9 has the advantage. Dollar for dollar, it may be the hottest crossover on the market.