The Mazda CX-9 was Mazda's first attempt at a full size 3 row crossover SUV, intended to replace the ageing MPV. For a first attempt, they have done extremely well, hitting the nail on the head most of time.
Based on the Mazda6 platform, the CX-9, although it looks very similar to the smaller CX-7 (which is based on the 3 platform) utilises very different internals and design philosophy. The CX-7 was designed to be a sporty and dynamic offering in the SUV crowd, where as the CX-9 is a little more grown up, sophisticated and luxurious.
The heart of the CX-9 is a Ford sourced 3.7L V6 that has been assembled and tuned by Mazda in Hiroshima. The unit pumps out best in class 204kW of power and 366Nm of torque, and is mated to a 6 speed AISIN sourced automatic gearbox. The engine and transmission combo work extremely well together, and acceleration from a standstill can be described as brisk, and may surprise a lot of people at how quickly it can accelerate being a vehicle of this size. The transmission is smooth and gear changes are imperceptible, and unlike other transmissions, it is quick to drop down a gear or two when acceleration is called for. In fact, I've found that for normal everyday driving, the manual mode is un-needed as you can pretty much change gears using the accelerator alone. After a while you will learn how far to depress the accelerator to get the transmission to drop down the number of gears you want. It all works quite well.
With all that power on tap, it's transferred to the wheels via Mazda's ActiveTorqueSplit AWD system, which works extrememly well and is pretty much imperceptible. There's the misconception that the Mazda system is front biased until slippage occurs, and only then that the power is transferred to the rears. This is false. Although it is front biased, the system is always transferring power through to the rear wheels, via an electromagnetic center diff that can divert power to the rear wheels for up to a 50/50 torque split between the front and rear axles. And once again the power is split between the rear wheels with the most grip as the CX9 is also equipped with a rear limited slip differential.
Fuel economy isn't great, but with that said, we've never gotten higher than 15L/100km and a long term average fuel usage based on the trip computer pretty much hits mazda's quoted economy of 13L/100km. You could do better, but to be honest? It's too much fun putting your foot down, with this beaut engine transmission pair.
Ride & Handling
Although the CX-9 rides on 20" rims, the ride is surprisingly comfortable. Although the tyres are specified to be pumped up to 33PSI, 36PSI seemed to be the optimal pressure for comfort/handling balance. Over everything but the worst back roads/corrugated roads, the CX-9 feels extremely solid. It doesn't exactly glide over the road, as you do feel a lot of the road, but instead it blots out all the imperfections nicely and you never feel like the ride is harsh. To put it into perspective, a Toyota RAV4, on the same road, you dont feel as many of the bumps from the road. It never feels as busy as the CX-9. However, when you do hit sharp bumps and road irregularities, you REALLY DO feel it, as it jarrs the car and damping feels completely underdone, and in comparison to the CX-9, feels completely harsh. For me, I would prefer the superior damping abilities of the CX-9 over a more cushy ride.
Handling wise, the CX-9 especially with the AWD system handles extremely well. I dont believe there is a vehicle of the same size and price that handles better. For a car that weights slightly north of 2000kg, it doesn't feel like it. It drives very much like a smaller car. At times you forget you are driving a hulking mass, that is until you really push it and feel the weight and higher centre of gravity. But with that said, comparing to anything of a similar size and weight, the Mazda is the most car like and most dynamic in my opinion. I even would go as far as to say it feels more nimble and agile than a Commodore.
Comfort & Interior
The interior of the CX-9 is superb. Everything looks and feels expensive. The switchgear is nicely damped, the knobs have a solid feeling and most surfaces that you would touch are soft padded. The door cards have nicely padded with nice double stitching running across the trim (something that has been taken out of the newer models). The dash itself is hard plastic, but has a beautiful grain that makes it look premium. The interior is illuminated with blue LED's with one in the centre console, and one in each door (another feature removed from newer models) which creates a very nice ambience at night.
The seats are sumptuous and can be described as lounge chair like. The only real issue is that the front passenger seat feels a little short in the seat squab. The 3rd row seats are actually very comfortable as well, unlike a lot of other 3rd row seats in other vehicles. It head room, leg room and shoulder room in the 3rd row is surprising good too! with the only shortfall being a lack of foot room. This can be somewhat compensated for but sliding the second row seat forward.
Overall the interior is a nice place to be, with plenty of space.
Quality & Design
The CX-9 design is understated and elegant. It looks much more expensive than it really is, and wouldn't look out of place parked next to much more expensive premium brands. Every thing feels solid in the CX-9, testament to Mazda's extremely good build quality
Value & Features
Our CX-9 was a 2008 model Luxury, coming in at just below $59k driveaway. For the price, the CX-9 wasn't too bad, but it did lack some features that it should've had as standard, for example Sat-Nav, Xenon headlamps, keyless entry and start. But when you look at it as a complete package, the value equation does start to look a bit better.
The CX-9 is a superb blend of style, space, practicality and dynamic handling. Mazda have done an exceptional job for a first try and foray into this segment. Even after being on the market for almost 5 years, the CX-9 still doesn't feel outdated and still stands out in carparks.
It would have been nice to see a TwinTurbo version based on Ford's ECOBOOST V6 or a turbodiesel though.