Mazda CX-9: driving the driver’s crossover

Notwithstanding coming-of-age tales like Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it is frustrating to be overlooked by suitors when you have plenty to offer.

And the 2013 Mazda CX-9 offers plenty, especially to drivers whose circumstances have led them to trade in sporty, responsive sedans for more corpulent conveyances.

Mazda’s wallflower has had difficulty attracting the attention of buyers, but no trouble attracting accolades: the CX-9 was named Motor Trend magazine's SUV of the year upon its debut in 2008.

Still, its sales have lagged behind those of its competitors. In the US, Ford sells more Explorers in two months than Mazda sells CX-9s all year – and this, despite the Mazda feeling lighter on its feet and more responsive to the helm.

A styling update for 2013 brings the aging CX-9 in line with Mazda's current Kodo styling philosophy, which replaced the misguided previous theme, called Nagare. Some of the kinder critics likened the upturned lines in the Nagare-influenced bumpers and lower grilles to the maniacal grin of Batman’s crazed Joker nemesis. Credit Mazda for recognising and correcting its aesthetic overindulgences.

In the CX-9's case, Kodo brings a new grille, bumper and headlights, ridding the car of the unfortunate clown smile. One disappointment, however, is the CX-9's colour palate, which runs the monochromatic spectrum: white, silver, gray and black. OK, there is one colour, Zeal Red Mica.

Inside, Mazda is also making alterations to its corporate design language, with one obvious change being the abandonment – finally – of the BMW-inspired red backlighting of instruments and controls on the dashboard.  The trouble is, it seems like manufacturing inertia prevented a complete replacement of the old red-lit parts. Instruments and radio controls now glow in crisp white, but the display across the top of the dash still glows red, as do the climate controls that sit lower. It is obviously an interim solution as the CX-9 nears the end of its lifespan, to be replaced with an all-new version in coming years.

The front seats in the big three-row family wagon are firm yet comfortable, making long drives easy. This A brand which historically has emphasised driving enjoyment across its entire range, Mazda made certain the CX-9 delivered a dynamic down-the-road experience. The steering is superlative, with excellent road feel and directional accuracy. Contrast this with the awfully artificial-feeling rack of the Toyota Highlander or the numb, over-assisted Hyundai Santa Fe, and the CX-9’s appeal grows. In particular, there is good control that prevents the rear suspension from pogoing over speed bumps.

Unlike so many three-row crossovers, rearward visibility from the driver’s seat is quite good. The side windows at the rear are large enough so that a driver needn’t rely on the backup camera and a leap of faith.

Kudos are also due to Mazda for the Bose surround-sound audio system, which supports a multitude of sources, including both conventional and HD radio, satellite radio, USB-connected mobile devices and Bluetooth-connected devices. The CX-9 even offers an integrated Pandora Internet radio, although the excellent 10-speaker Bose system wasted on streaming radio. The quality of the signal is so poor in contrast to the satellite or HD radio signals that it makes web radio virtually unlistenable. Mazda includes a demonstration CD from Bose that draws an even starker contrast.

The new TomTom-based navigation system is the sort of polarising device whose value may depend on a driver’s temperament toward active or passive navigation assistance. About half the customers surveyed love the system, said Mazda product planner Tim Barnes, and about half hate it. Those who want a GPS to dictate turns to them, with little information about location, direction or much else, will like the CX-9's nav system. Those who prefer to use the interface as an enhanced map, displaying position, surrounding roads, traffic information and other relevant information will be less satisfied, as the device works more like a handheld GPS device.

There is a curious ergonomic miss in the cabin, as well. Window switches are placed so far forward on the door panel that a forward lunge is required for all but the most orangutan-armed of drivers.

The purpose of a three-row SUV is to haul people, and while the CX-9 is an admirable driver’s car, impressions are not as favourable from the passenger’s perspective.

The second-row seats have low, unsupportive pans that feel too small for adults, though the backs do recline to enhance comfort. To their credit, those second-row perches  flip easily forward for access to the third row, where there is a decent supply of leg and head room. Cargo space behind the third row, however, is small for a full-size crossover, with 17 cubic feet behind the third row – on a par with the Dodge Durango but short of the 21 cubic feet in the Ford Explorer. Runs to the airport with a full load of passengers and luggage would be a challenge.

If the rear-seat entertainment system did not show its age so readily – it has been around since the CX-9’s introduction in 2008 – that ride to the airport would not be such a chore. Screen resolution is poor, with graininess that the iPad generation is not accustomed to enduring, and it is also mounted high on the roof liner and rearward enough that second-row viewers must crane their necks to watch The Little Mermaid.

So, the CX-9 is more driver’s crossover than passenger’s taxi. That may sound like a winning formula to some customers, but as the CX-9’s limp sales suggest, backseat drivers tend to peddle outsize influence in this segment.

Vital Stats: 2013 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring FWD

  • Price: $38,925, including $795 destination charge
  • EPA gas mileage: 17mpg city, 24mpg highway
  • Standard equipment: 273hp, 270lb-ft., 3.7-litre V6 engine, 6-speed automatic transmission, 20-inch aluminium wheels, heated seats, bi-xenon high-intensity discharge headlights