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Review: 2018 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring

It seems that almost every week someone asks me about three-row SUVs. People want them because they appreciate the extra space as well as the functionality of the third row seats for when they have to transport their kids and their kids’ friends. The questions are pretty much the same. As are my answers. But it wasn’t until recently that someone asked which three-row SUV is the best handling?

Hmm. The likely answer would the BMW X5 or the Audi Q7. But those are so-called premium vehicles, priced out of the range of the typical peasants stuck in 9-to-5-and-all-other-times-because-of-cell-phone-technology jobs. The person who asked the question was curious about the common vehicles such as Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, or Ford Explorer.

I had to really think about this, not realizing that the answer was so obvious. The truth is that none of these vehicles are particularly good handlers. Except one. And it’s the one that’s often overlooked and frequently underrated – the Mazda CX-9.

The truth is that handling isn’t a strong suit of any of those three-row crossovers. By that I mean that they all handle well, they’re all safe, and they’re all predictable. But they’re not what anyone would call fun. They’re not rewarding to drive. They’re nothing an enthusiast would appreciate. Their job is be comfortable, functional, and safe. And all of those vehicles perform that exceptionally well, but no automaker even attempts to make them fun-to-drive.

Except Mazda.

Take a highway ramp at speed in the CX-9 and it responds more like a large sedan than a jacked-up minivan. Quick turns, swerves, and lane changes happen with ease and predictability. Despite the vehicle’s size, there is feedback from the steering wheel, unlike the other SUVs which are completely isolated. The highway tires are the limiting handling factor of the CX-9, because most people who buy three-row SUVs don’t know what Michelin’s Pilot Cup tires are.

New for 2018 on the CX-9 is Mazda’s  G-Vectoring Control (GVC) system. Let’s start with what it is not. It’s not a vectoring system or any other kind of active yaw control system. It’s basically a system that applies a very slight amount of braking to increase the vertical load on the front tires. I am not really sure if it works in any meaningful way but Mazda’s zoom-zooming engineers would likely argue for it. I’d argue that engineering funds could have been spent elsewhere.

The CX-9’s 2.5-liter turbocharged engine makes 250 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 310 lb-ft of torque at a low 2,000 rpm. Should you go cheap with your choice of gasoline, the power gets knocked-down to 227 horsepower on regular gas. That’s enough power to provide torque-steer at slow speeds, something the Mazda could really improve upon, especially on an AWD vehicle. Once moving there is plenty of low- and mid-range passing power, accompanied by a slight turbo whistle.

The power is put down to the wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission. A manual-shift mode is available yet not really needed and there’s Sport mode, which actually does make a difference. A special shout-out here goes to Mazda for using a transmission that has actual gears in it as opposed to those whiny constantly variable transmissions. That itself makes a big difference in terms of how the CX-9 feels.

When not hooning, the CX-9 is extremely (really, it is extremely) quiet and smooth. I’d say that it is the smoothest and quietest riding of its direct competitors. I feel like it is important to state that this smoothness as it isn’t always apparent in a quick dealer road test but becomes visible when stuck in traffic for far too long several days in row.

The exterior design of the CX-9 might its biggest selling point. It is simply a great looking vehicle. Mazda has really developed its own design language, especially in the front and in the light design. It’s different without being too different. My only issue with the front-end is the fact that the grill is likely to suffer damages in the smallest of parking lot bumps, as there is nothing that even pretends to be a bumper in front of it.

The most important part of these vehicle is on the inside, however. Here, the CX-9 gets a few cheers and one big jeer. The cheers include overall comfort and nice quality of materials. The Grand Touring model seen in these pictures seems especially upscale with its soft leather covered seats. Low windshield yields great forward visibility and there is a nice head-up display. Despite this being a top model, the front seats were not ventilated, only heated.

The seats, front and back, are very comfortable. The five main passengers have plenty of space and shouldn’t have anything to complain about. The third is best suited for younger than teenage kids or someone you just don’t like. The access to the third row is pretty good but it’s the getting out that requires some dexterity. Mazda also gets points for a good amount of concealed storage space behind the third row seat, as well as a temporary spare tire.

But the CX-9 gets demerits for the fact that the hatch simply does not open high enough. If you’re over six feet tall, you will likely bang your head on it. And while there is a surprisingly generous amount of space behind the third row seat, much of it cannot be used because of the sloping rear window/hatch design. Had the upper rear end of the vehicle been more angular, the hatch would open higher and the cargo space would be increased. 

The really big jeer is the lack of the much desired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration. Bluetooth or USB connections are the only way to stream music off personal devices. Overall, the infotainment seems dated, and while it tries to mimic the Audi system with large center mounted knob, it is not very intuitive to use at first. If Mitsubishi can have the full phone integration, there is no reason why other makers can’t implement it. There are four USB ports, two front and two in the back, but the rear ones are for charging only. There is only one 12v socket upfront and it is kind of hidden low on the passenger side, away from the driver. There is one more 12v socket in the trunk.

The 2018 Mazda CX-9 starts at $32,130 for a Sport model with front-wheel-drive. The vehicle in these pictures is a loaded Grand Touring model with AWD, with the manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $44,175. The differences in prices between the CX-9 and its competition are really minor. In these high-volume models, the final price is really determined by how much a dealer is willing to take off the top.

Fun-to-drive three-row crossover is an oxymoron. But it really shouldn’t be and the Mazda CX-9 proves that. Don’t compare the CX-9 to a BMW X5 M, the AMG Benzes, or the supercharged Range Rovers. Compare it to the Honda Pilots and Toyota Highlanders of the world and you might be pleasantly surprised as the CX-9 is the clear enthusiast’s choice of that market segment. 

[Disclaimer: Mazda North America provided the vehicle for the purpose of this review. All images copyright Kamil Kaluski/Hooniverse 2018]

  • Zentropy

    My wife’s looking to replace her venerable Volvo XC90, and is considering shrinking to a 2-row crossover next time around. Regardless of the intended downsizing, I’m keeping the CX-9 on the short list of cars for her to try. Mazdas just have a pleasantly crisp feel to them.

    • 360_AD

      The folks at Mazda would disagree, but the CX-9 is really a incidental 3-row SUV. What I mean is it’s an athletic spacious 2-row at heart. The 3rd row is best suited for full-time child-duty. Adults would not want to spend too much time back there. And stuffing two teenagers back there is probably just asking for trouble anyway. The CX-9 is a very strong value when you consider the conventional competition. And the 2019 model is getting some updates that will make it even sweeter. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay is very likely (already announced). See clues in the review for other upgrades.

  • Harry Callahan

    I am on my third Mazda now. My wife actaully got us started on them, and we have had good luck with Mazda products.

    I would be curious to know why 3-row SUV shoppers don’t buy a CX-9.

    I am pretty sure it is because Mazda has never been able to create a meaningful brand image. “Zoom Zoom” works with the Miata enthusiasts, but is meaningless for potential buyers of all the other Mazda products. Honda Pilots sells on the image of Honda engineering prowess. Highlander for Toyota reliability, others for low price/value…whatever. But ask the average head of family about what Mazda stands for…and you will get a blank stare.

    Unless and until Mazda invests in some serious and competent brand wrangling, they will remain 1-3% market share player in USA…even with great products like this.

    • crank_case

      To be fair, Mazda has near Toyota/Honda levels of brand recognition, but is actually a very small company punching above its weight. It’s more comparable to Suzuki and Mitsubishi than the bigger players and in that light, it’s not doing so bad, but yes the 6 is a weird thing that seems to serve little purpose. Needs an MPS version again at least.

      • Zentropy

        Is “MPS” the same thing as “Mazdaspeed” in the US?

        • crank_case

          I think so, but I’m not sure, it was a high performance version of the first generation car with a 2.3 litre turbo and 4WD, sort of a grown up alternative to a WRX that suits if you want something that shifts the balance to civilized discrete AWD daily driver that can be fun when you want rather than shouty angry rally special that’s been tamed (though the WRX probably did soften from when Subaru actually was in WRC).

          I kinda think if you wanna position the car as premium (and objectively, this car is no worse than an Audi A4 and probably not much cheaper to build), you need a car like this, even just as a halo for cooking models. It’d also be a great Subaru Alternative. I also think they need to ditch the faddish 4 door coupe thing, make it a proper saloon with decent rear leg and head room (not just me being cranky here, you gotta think of that Chinese market) and then bring back a coupe, like the 626 coupe back in the day, or even the MX6 though I think having it as a coupe model rather than trying to create a separate MX model would probably help the saloon more, while not confusing what an MX5 is about in peoples heads.

          • kogashiwa

            A Mazda 6 coupe, with this turbo engine (with a different tune so it isn’t emulating a diesel), a six-speed manual, and a nice interior … oh my. Why do we need the Audi A5 again?

            • 360_AD

              Not going to happen for as long as the market is obsessed with SUVs.

            • Harry Callahan

              Coupes are not exactly a hot commodity in the US market right now.

      • 360_AD

        I think recent updates to the 6 had been in the works long ago. Probably already set in motion when this generation of the model was initially launched. Same goes for the plan to move upmarket.

    • 360_AD

      It’s a public perception and marketing problem. People who are shopping for 3-row SUVs are family oriented. Meaning they shop predominantly based on family-friendly features and less about things that make the driver happy. The major players in this segment sacrifice the driver’s needs to provide optimal packaging to suit all the other occupants. The CX-9 is designed and positioned to parents who don’t see themselves as parents only. It’s personality is one that of a large premium sport sedan that can also pull family duty when called upon.

      As for brand image, it doesn’t help when they try to rebrand every few years. And going premium, whether you like it or not, has merit. If they are to remain 1-3%, as you say, they need to increase their profit margins by going upmarket.

  • neight428

    In profile, they look almost wagon-ish in proportions, which I like. Tend to agree that there doesn’t seem to be a good market niche for cars that are made to drive better without some sort of luxury/premium cache on the top. That’s really sad.

    • 360_AD

      That’s pretty much what all SUVs/CUVs these days are—high riding wagons based on passenger car (sedan) platforms.

      • neight428

        True, but some are more offensively oblong than others (like a Ford Edge). The roof height of the CX-9 looks more wagonly proportional to its length to my eye.

  • wunno sev

    recently I rented a CX-5 and was impressed with the ride, steering, and feature set. I was almost ready to say I think it’s possible to have a decent midsize crossover…until all of the aforementioned led me to try tossing it into a tight corner, right upstream of an onramp. the tires slid, the car understeered hard, and all of my fun was ended vigorously.

    the problem is, this is inherent. the high CG means an increased rollover risk. every carmaker puts garbage tires and super conservative stability control on everything they make to prevent you from having so much fun that you roll the car.

    and this is a sensible policy: until the last 5-10 years you were safer in a sedan, but check the fatality rates and you can see how the introduction of stability control has made modern CUVs significantly safer than their sedan contemporaries. finally they can reap the benefits of that extra mass and high, flat nose. after years of assuming the hulking “jeeps” must be safer, the public is finally right.

    that moment, with the CX-5 skittering across the road while I stabbed at the brakes to get it back under control, shattered the illusion for me. even the best-handling CUV cannot get hold a candle to an okay sedan. it’ll understeer into the hedges because that’s the only way to make the safety equation close. put better tires on it, switch off stability control, and you’ll flip it and die in a fire.

    I can’t buy that anything with as high a CG as modern CUVs can be as fun to drive as a traditional sedan-height vehicle. as a daily driver for the a-to-b set, sure, they can probably provide the benefit that most of them were getting out of a sporty sedan: good steering, firm brakes, a well-damped ride. but as an enthusiast, when you want to loosen your tie and have some fun, they just can’t do it.

    • Zentropy

      Which is why I think station wagons are at the top of the automotive evolutionary ladder. A wagon based on a sport sedan is about as good as it gets, in my opinion.

    • Hmm. From you described you took the corner way too fast. You were breaking while turning and the vehicle did what it was designed to do, it understeered. It’s done for safety and in that case all modern cars would behave the same, including oversteer kings like the Hellcats.

      • wunno sev

        i certainly did take the corner too fast. i was trying to have fun. but i wasn’t carrying an obscene amount of speed through the corner.

        the issue isn’t that it understeered when pushed beyond the limit, it was that the limit was so low. it caught me completely off guard. no sedan i’ve driven has given up on lateral g’s that quickly. there are sedans that roll more and ride more squishily than the CX-5 i was in, and there are sedans that have cotton balls for steering feedback where the CX-5’s was good. but they’ll corner if you ask them to. an SUV simply cannot do it at the same level. i interpreted all of the confidence-inspiring signals in the CX-5’s handling to mean it could dance if i asked. it could not.

    • 360_AD

      There are strong indicators that the CX-5 will be getting the CX-9’s heart. Mull on that for while. 😉 Oh and the diesel received CARB certification.

  • When we moved into 3 row cross over land for a few years back in 2010, I really wanted a CX-9. Good looks and a good driving experience were compelling. However, our priorities were space and towing and the CX-9 falls short in both relative to the competition. We ended up with a 2010 Saturn Outlook.

    • Harry Callahan

      I find the 3500lb towing for my 2011 CX-9 a disappointment too. Seems 5000lbs is the norm these days. Its the difference between being able to pull a car trailer or not….

  • outback_ute

    From what has been happening with other Mazdas, I’d say that next year’s model will have the connectivity included.

    • 360_AD

      CarPlay and Android is rolling out of the factory with MY18 Mazda6 in the later half of this year. The rest will follow. And it other markets it has been made official that some older models can be retrofitted. Probably safe to say similar announcement for US market isn’t far away.

  • SlowJoeCrow

    Unfortunately crossovers are the dominant format in the US right now. I would have gladly replaced our totaled Mazda5 with another Mazda5 but they were no longer sold, so I have a CX-5 and while it’s very good for a crossover it’s still poorly packaged compared to the Tardis like Mazda5 and the back seats are nowhere near as comfortable. On the bright side it has good acceleration and solid handling and the AWD is helpful on gravel roads and in the winter.

    I actually like the current Mazda infotainment but then I mostly listen to the radio or CDs so phone integration is less important and the limitations don’t preserve me from our teenage daughter’s Hamilton obsession. The positive of Mazda’s setup is they still have actual knobs for HVAC and audio volume.
    I’m a little surprised the the CX-9 doesn’t have a better 12V socket setup, although the later CX-5 setup is equally stingy. They used to put a socket in the cubby in front of the gearshift alongside the USB ports but ditched that in 2016 so we just have a socket in the console, which is actually quite useful for phone charging and one in the rear compartment.

    • 360_AD

      As much as you love the 5, majority of the market doesn’t want a miniature minivan. Hell, look around, not many people are buying minivans… period. Mazda is a small company with limited resources. They might as well just shut their doors if they build cars only a small minority wants to buy. Minivans in general are not even strong sellers now. That ship sailed at least 10 years ago.

      • Zentropy

        I wanted a manual Mazda5 when we were family-car shopping, but unfortunately we grew our kids a little on the large size.