2017 Mazda CX-9 Signature
A premium level experience that few peers can match
If Chrysler and Mitsubishi didn’t exist right now (although to most they don’t as both don’t offer model lineups that are anywhere near full) Mazda would be the slowest selling auto brand in the U.S. Even Volkswagen outsold Mazda last year, despite being gutted by its own scandalous undoing. As it is, Mazda’s sales are the lowest of any full line brand.
Let me be clear that I’m not trying to bash Mazda at all. I truly don’t understand why they’re not popular. Their products are excellent and have been a cut above most competitors for decades, but for some reason they’ve become the car industry’s version of Rodney Dangerfield, they get no respect.
OK, in some cases they deserved a little disdain. The first-generation CX-9 was decent when it debuted in 2006, but nearly a decade on the road with only a facelift in 2010 and another one in 2013 won’t cut it in today’s market. Making matters worse, it wasn’t even a Mazda under the skin anyway, but instead was based on the Ford Edge. What about now? Let’s just say the all-new CX-9, which is 100-percent Mazda from the ground up, is a wholly better automobile that not only deserves your respect, but should be on every mid-size crossover SUV buyers’ list, even if they’re considering a pricier premium brand.
First off, it looks fabulous. Seriously, I haven’t met anyone who disagrees with me about the CX-9’s styling, and it only gets better inside. Again, those who pay more for the luxury lifestyle should really give their heads a swift shake and look at the CX-9 with earnest interest, as it delivers a premium experience while offering Porsche Cayenne levels of exclusivity. Really, Porsche sold 15,383 Cayennes last year compared to the CX-9’s 16,051 deliveries. But get this, despite being a thoroughly improved SUV that can go head to toe with any mid-size SUV rival, 2016 calendar year sales actually dropped from 18,048 units in 2015, which was down from 18,496 deliveries in 2014, 24,628 in 2013, and a high of 34,421 in 2011. What gives? Comparatively the Ford sold 248,507 Explorers last year, or if you add up the Explorer, Edge and Flex a total of 405,763 mid-size SUVs; whereas Toyota sold 318,778 Highlanders, 4Runners, Prius Vs and Venzas; Jeep delivered 212,273 Grand Cherokees, GM found 205,167 buyers for its aging Chevy Traverse and GMC Acadia; Dodge managed to coax 175,233 consumers into Journeys and Durangos; Nissan lured in 168,654 new Murano and Pathfinder owners; Hyundai sold 131,257 Santa Fes, Honda purveyed 121,498 Pilots, Kia hawked 114,733 Sorentos, and so on. Only VW’s Touareg sold less among full-line brands, but it’s priced higher than a number of premium brands and therefore doesn’t really count.
So what are you doing America? Don’t you realize what a superb bit of kit the CX-9 is? Obviously not, which means Mazda needs to do a better job getting the word out. Of course, advertising is expensive and when you’re a relatively small, independent brand that pulls in less revenue than your competitors there’s no way you can sink as much coin into TV, radio, web and print media than, say, Ford or FCA (Dodge and Jeep) does, so Mazda relies more on word of mouth from satisfied owners and auto writers like yours truly. Full disclosure, like with all manufacturers I receive no monetary remuneration from Mazda, they simply loan me available test vehicles for a week at a time I tell you my unvarnished thoughts. As regular readers will know I can be brutally honest when a vehicle doesn’t measure up to its price point, and alternatively can be very positive when deserving. It just so happens the CX-9 is very deserving.
I’ll let you decide about styling as it’s subjective, but as noted it certainly works for me. Occupants get the same level of upscale visual wow factor that passersby enjoy, albeit with the added benefit of tactile enhancement. It’s a rich cabin, particularly with this top-line Signature trim’s standard Auburn Nappa leather (a chestnut or reddish brown color). That’s right, if you prefer black you’re out of luck, while exterior colors are limited to four in Signature guise too, my tester’s $300 Machine Gray, as well as $200 Snowflake White Pearl, plus no-cost Sonic Silver Metallic and Jet Black Mica. Those who want most of the Signature’s features along with more visual variety can opt for Grand Touring trim that can be had with black or Sand beige leather, as well as three additional exterior hues including no-cost Titanium Flash Mica and Deep Crystal Blue Mica, and $300 Soul Red Metallic.
I actually drove a second-rung Touring trimmed example in Titanium Flash with black leather before this Signature edition, and despite its more accessible $35,970 price tag it still delivered most of the style and interior refinement. The CX-9 starts off at $31,520 plus freight and dealer fees in base Sport trim, incidentally, while above Touring trim is the $40,470 Grand Touring and my as-tested $44,315 Signature. Sure, that’s well into the first threshold of luxury-branded SUV territory, but the CX-9’s final tally is still considerably lower than many competitive mainstream volume brands’ mid-size SUVs, and all that’s offered makes its asking price reasonable.
For instance, along with that soft Nappa leather, the Signature gets tastefully applied contrast stitching in key areas including cross-stitching detail on steering wheel, beautiful open-pore, matte-finish genuine Rosewood inlays on the center console panel and door switch panels, and LED accent lighting around the shifter, while the exterior is upgraded with exclusive grille illumination, LED courtesy lamps at all doors instead of just those up front, auto high beams, and unique 20-inch twinned five-spoke alloys on 255/50 all-seasons.
Probably most notable with the Signature are a host of standard active safety features including dynamic cruise control, Distance Recognition Support, Forward Obstruction Warning, autonomous mitigating Smart Brake Support (high speed) and Smart City (low speed) Brake Support, Lane Departure Warning, and autonomous Lane-keep Assist, although all of these items are also standard with Grand Touring trim.
The Signature’s bright-finish lower body molding and satin-silver finish roof rails get pulled up from standard Grand Touring trim too, as does the auto on/off headlamps, LED front and rear signature lighting, active cornering headlamps, and LED fog lamps on the outside, plus the superb sounding 12-speaker Bose audio system with Centerpoint 2.0 surround technology, AudioPilot noise compensation, SurroundStage signal processing, and satellite radio. Additional Grand Touring kit pulled up to Signature trim includes real aluminum dash and door panel trim, satin chrome-plated power seat switches, two-way memory for the driver’s seat and side mirrors, a head-up display projected onto the windshield, a color multi-information display within the primary gauges, rain-sensing wipers, navigation, a Homelink universal garage door remote, rear parking sensors, overhead LED illumination, a powered glass sunroof, rear side sunshades, and a black interior roofliner.
Features found on my first Touring tester that carried over to the Signature include a satin-finish grille surround, proximity-sensing keyless access with pushbutton ignition, heatable side mirrors, leather upholstery (although the Signature’s Nappa hides are nicer), an eight-way powered driver’s seat with powered lumbar support, a four-way powered front passenger seat, heatable front seats, driver’s and front passenger’s double seatback pockets, illuminated vanity mirrors, a lined glove box, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, 8.0-inch color touchscreen infotainment with the Mazda Connect interface, two additional USB ports and added storage within the rear center armrest, a powered liftgate, and advanced blindspot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert.
Of note, Mazda’s i-ACTIV AWD only comes standard in Signature trim, whereas the base CX-9 Sport, the Touring and Grand Touring can be had with FWD or optional AWD. FWD gives it better fuel economy, its EPA rating being 22 mpg in the city, 28 on the highway and 24 combined compared to the AWD models’ still commendable 20 city, 26 highway and 23 combined rating, while standard features that should get mentioned include full LED headlamps with off-off and auto-leveling, LED DRLs, LED taillights, UV protecting/noise-isolating front glass, rear privacy glass, dual chromed exhaust pipes, an electromechanical parking brake, powered body-color side mirrors with integrated turn signals, a leather-wrapped multifunctional steering wheel, a leather-wrapped shift knob, variable intermittent wipers, sunglasses storage in the overhead console, tri-zone automatic climate control with rear controls, a wide-angle rearview camera (albeit from a 7.0-inch touchscreen), AM/FM/HD radio (from a six-speaker system), two front USB ports and an aux-in, Bluetooth phone and audio, Aha, Pandora and Stitcher internet radio functionality, SMS text message functionality, reclining second-row seats, Trailer Stability Assist, Hill Launch Assist, tire pressure monitoring, and plenty more.
As you may have noted, even the fully loaded CX-9 Signature is missing some key options to qualify it for top-tier premium status, such as a powered steering column, a surround parking camera, front parking sensors, ventilated front seats, heatable rear seats, a panoramic sunroof, and the list goes on, but it mostly pulls off the luxury brand look. Soft touch surfacing can be found where your fingers might land and sound absorption is most critical, such as the dash top and much of the instrument panel, the door uppers front and rear, plus of course the door inserts and armrests, while the roof pillars are fabric-wrapped too, an unusually welcome addition for a mainstream branded SUV, but not without precedent from mid-size SUV challengers. All of the switchgear is nicely crafted from premium materials as well, with tight fitment and nice high-quality damping, while some is even metal-edged with fancy knurled detailing.
The most prominent of these latter items is the rotating dial for controlling the infotainment system, the layout of which is similar to BMW’s in that the display sits above the dash in fixed-tablet design instead of embedded into the center stack like the smaller touchscreen in lower-end models, while it’s controllable via the just noted dial and surrounding quick-access buttons. The screen resolution, depth of color and graphics are very good, and it’s easy to find your way around its various functions, although sometimes requires too many steps to do simple tasks like setting a radio preset. Its navigation mapping was easy to read, route guidance very accurate and response to changes (like passing by a prompt to turn) very quick, but take note that new industry features like Apple CarPlay and/or Android Auto aren’t included. The upgraded Bose audio system is excellent though, even featuring visible tweeters in the dash-mounted speakers that helped deliver superb sound all-round.
At first glance the primary gauges appear pretty stock, at least until realizing the rightmost dial is actually a color TFT multi-information display (albeit monochrome in my first tester). Its lower third incorporates a digital fuel gauge, the odometer, estimated range, and an exterior temperature readout, while the upper two thirds is configurable to your needs via steering wheel controls. As noted earlier, a helpful head-up display projects info onto the windscreen, the posted speed limit indicator situated next to actual speed an especially good reminder to rein in the CX-9’s natural inclination to move quickly.
Ergonomics are excellent, with plenty of rake and reach adjustability from the manual tilt and telescopic steering column, and even more adjustability from the powered driver’s seat. The seat itself is inherently comfortable and plenty supportive, while overall front seat roominess should satisfy the majority of body types. I found the second-row seating area quite accommodating, especially when the third row wasn’t in use, as the middle row needs to be pulled forward to best house third-row passengers. The second-row seats pop up and out of the way to do so, providing fairly good access to the back, which is much roomier than the previous CX-9.
The 50/50-split third row lies flat by tugging on nice big, chunky handles that automatically flip down the headrests, this growing cargo capacity from 14.4 cubic feet to 38.2, while dropping the 60/40-split second-row seats flat provides up to 71.2 cubic feet of gear-toting space. If you plan on towing, the CX-9 is capable of an industry average 3,500 lbs of trailer weight. The cargo area is very nicely finished too, with high-quality carpeting on the load floor, seatbacks, and sidewalls, the latter of which are carved out to create more space. Mazda includes some grocery bag hooks on each sidewall too, while below the removable load floor is a shallow but useful hidden cavity for stowing valuables, winter blankets, first aid and/or roadside assistance kits, or what-have-you.
Top-line CX-9 Signature trim was the clear winner over the Touring when it came to pampering, but it also drove a little bit better with a slightly more planted and responsive feel. This was all to do with its two-inch larger diameter rims (base and Touring models use 18s) because there’s no mention of any other upgrades made to the CX-9’s fully independent MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspensions, both incorporating stabilizer bars, or its engine-rev-sensing variable power assist rack-and-pinion steering.
To be honest, I initially didn’t find the CX-9 very sporty, because it’s sole four-cylinder engine is set up for fuel-efficiency first and foremost, causing it to download early in order to minimize consumption, but then I pulled the gear lever over to manual mode, flicked the metal rocker switch on the lower console to “SPORT” mode, pressed hard on the throttle and it really got up and went with more verve than its 250 horsepower (or rather 227 hp with regular unleaded, which is probably how the last journo filled it) lets on. This is because it’s maximum torque is a magnificent 310 lb-ft, making the CX-9 one of the more potent performers in its class, which is an especially impressive feat considering its engine displacement of only 2.5 liters. Small engines have come a long way over the past half decade, this the most powerful of Mazda’s reduced resistance Skyactiv-G designs that combines relatively high compression at 10.5:1, with a Dynamic Pressure Turbo (DPT) for linear V6-like performance with a bit more fun-loving attitude.
It really feels lively through the corners, and I don’t mean “live axle” lively, but agile and confidence inspiring. Even when thrown into fast left, right, left transitions it kept its composure, while high-speed panic braking proved stable and secure. The CX-9 lacks paddles, even the top-line Signature trim, which seems strange being that it’s Mazda’s most expensive product and the brand could’ve easily sourced a set from one of its cheaper models like the 3 or CX-3. Yes I know, most CX-9 drivers will never use them, but it’s about marketing after all.
That autobox is probably the drivetrain’s weakest link as it only incorporates six forward gears in a world that’s steadily gravitating to seven-, eight-, and even nine-speed automatics, but it still provides amply quick shifts and will likely prove more reliable than some of the multi-speed units currently on offer by competitors. As noted both my testers featured AWD, a system that goes mostly unnoticed until slippery conditions cause it to come into play. I’d get it just so I wouldn’t have to chain up on snowy drives up to the ski hill (mandatory where I ski if you don’t have AWD or 4WD), but, if purchasing a base model, probably wouldn’t bother if I didn’t regularly hit the slopes as the CX-9’s standard assortment of active safety gear, such as traction and stability control, make urban winter driving pretty easy.
I’ve been mostly talking performance, but keep in mind both Touring and Signature trims were also comfortable and compliant over rough patches of road, plus quiet and easy to drive, which is exactly what the CX-9 needs to be in order to pull more seven-passenger SUV buyers into the Mazda fold. Unfortunately for reasons unknown, it’s not achieving the numbers its maker likely envisioned, as noted earlier, something we can guess with near certainty after a complete redesign during a particularly strong SUV purchasing trend. Just the same, if you dare to differ from your Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander, and Nissan Pathfinder equipped neighbors, take a CX-9 for a drive, as you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised. It stands out in the crowd for all the right reasons, and rewards with a premium level experience that few of its peers can match.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press Inc.