When car companies project the myth of the open road, it’s often a delusion. You see it in commercials all the time – an abandoned cityscape, the latest model cutting a swathe through concrete byways, unhindered by any other traffic.
Well, real life’s not like that.
For Mazda, which has long staked its reputation on being fun to drive, the gas-brake-honk of the average commute is a colder reality than for other manufacturers. Elsewhere, safety and resale are trumpeted first and foremost, but Mazda would like you to think that there’s a touch of lissome Miata in every car they make. All well and good, but you’re not going to carve that corner any quicker than the six beige Corollas in front of you.
Thus, with the refreshed CX-9 three-row crossover, the big news isn’t the hardened bushings for the steering rack, the enhanced steering knuckles nor a host of minor tweaks to the front and rear dampers. Instead, shoppers looking at adding the CX-9 to their list based on its stylish looks will be happy to note that Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are now, finally, part of making your Mazda-powered commute less wearing.
Actually, Mazda isn’t just pitching to consumers in the three-row segment here. If you already have a Mazda vehicle with their most recent infotainment system, the Apple and Android interfaces will be available as a dealer-installed upgrade for a cost of $445 ($250 as an introductory price for Mazda6 and CX-3 owners). The upgrade’s availability stretches back as far as 2014 for the Mazda3, which is great for current owners or buyers looking at the used compact-car segment. It’ll also apply to new Mazdas going forward.
But let’s suppose you’re looking for a three-row family schlepper that can handle every practical need yet doesn’t put you to sleep. The new CX-9, launched in 2016, has been a sales success for Mazda simply because it looks so good. Priced to jostle with Hondas and Toyotas, it’s perhaps a better direct comparison with Acura and Lexus in terms of style and presence.
The upscale feel translates to the interior, which features well crafted elements like real wood and a minimum of cheaper plastics. Yes, Mazda is an engineer-run company, but they’ve also managed to adopt a cohesive approach to styling that makes some other marques look fussy and unfocused.
After a few weeks shuttling small kids around, however, the CX-9 reveals a few drawbacks. The lack of grab-handles in the rear makes for a steep climb for little legs, and using the third-row seats is something an adult will have to set up. The Honda Pilot and the new Subaru Ascent are a little friendlier if you’ve got a young family. However, in terms of space and amenities, the CX-9 doesn’t ask you to compromise.
And from a technology standpoint, it delivers. While other marques have moved to a touchscreen approach, Mazda sticks with a rotary knob controller with five buttons clustered around for quick access. At the beginning of the week, the controls took some getting used to, as simply looking for and pressing an on-screen icon is what drivers people are most familiar with.
However, after a few more days of use, the rotary knob became a no-look proposition, just like the faithful volume or tuning knob. Combined with a heads-up display for vehicle speed and cruise control, and a high-mounted screen, the CX-9 felt designed around the idea that the driver should keep their eyes on the road. What a novel concept.
Then, when your eyes behold that most rare of jewels, an uncluttered side road, the CX-9 really is a great driving machine. Especially compared to Toyota’s heavy-feeling Highlander, Mazda’s crossover is surprisingly light on its feet, with excellent steering and a chassis that drives at least one size smaller than it is. If the road’s windy enough, you can easily make your passengers seriously car-sick.
Which, of course, is the other drawback of a nimble-handling crossover. Instead, connect your smartphone, put on your favourite podcast about racing, file into traffic and enjoy the CX-9′s quiet cabin and readily available torque.
Open roads will have to wait for the weekend, but the biggest Mazda now stands better ready to take on the reality of your weekday.
- Base price: $36,700
- Engines: 2.5L four-cylinder turbo
- Transmission/Drive: Six speed automati/All-wheel
- Fuel economy (litres/100kms): 11.6 city / 9.1 hwy
- Alternatives: Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot
Somehow, the company that once built the boxy 323 compact car has turned into a styling powerhouse. The long nose and sleek greenhouse of the CX-9 give it a slick profile, and the shield-shape grille is more handsome than aggressive. 20-inch wheels now come standard on mid-grade models.
Nicer than you’d expect from a mainstream brand, the CX-9 does a great job of hiding away any cheap-feeling plastics. However, the third row isn’t as roomy as in boxier-looking competitors, and the cabin is more driver-focused than family-friendly.
Under its long hood, the CX-9 carries a 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine that makes 250 hp with 93 octane fuel and 227 hp on regular-grade gasoline. Torque is a hearty 310 lb-ft at 2000 rpm, regardless of fuel, and the unobtrusive six-speed automatic makes the most of it. The turbocharged four-cylinder is not as smooth as a six-cylinder but has ample power and returns surprisingly good fuel economy.
Adding Apple CarPlay and Android Auto to its tech suite gives Mazda owners an even easier way to connect to their smartphones. There’s also a free five-year subscription to XM’s Travel Link services, which show traffic and weather conditions through the navigation.
Practical enough, but not the most roomy in class, the CX-9 has 1082 litres behind the second row of seats or 408 with the third row deployed. There’s a useful flattish storage compartment in the rear floor that’s perfect for umbrellas or other items you wish to carry daily.
More fun-to-drive than the average mid-sized crossover, now with the technology to make the regular commute less of a grind. And it still looks great.
You’ll like this car if ... you need practicality, but also want a bit of stylish fun.