Car reviews - Mazda - CX-9 - 5-dr wagon range
Ride/handling, refinement, interior/exterior design, comfort/ergonomics, rear-seat space, overall performance, value for money
Room for improvement
Fuel consumption, steering feedback, over-enthusiastic stability control
6 Dec 2007
AMERICANS have never had it so good. Mazda makes no bones about the fact the CX-9, its first seven-seat SUV, was designed mainly for the US.
As such, we expected the big new Mazda, which measures almost 5.1 metres in length but doesn't look all that much bigger than the agile, five-seat CX-7, to be soft-handling like most sport utility vehicles sold in the world's largest vehicle market.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, handling is perhaps the CX-9's greatest strength, thanks to well sorted suspension that's firm enough to ensure an impressive lack of bodyroll, yet compliant enough to return a comfortable ride despite the Luxury variant's 20-inch alloys - the largest wheels to grace a Mazda.
On tight, testing rural roads such as those we encountered on the central Victoria launch loop, the CX-9 seemed at least a handling match for Ford's accomplished Territory and Holden's surprisingly well fettled Captiva, by revealing a confidence-inspiring level of body control that makes Toyota's new Kluger feel a little soft in comparison.
Looking much like an overgrown CX-7 with a few Audi Q7 styling cues thrown in, the CX-9 does a great job of shrinking around its driver on the road, where it rarely feels like the 2000kg-plus wagon it is.
It's not perfect, of course, and though the steering is crisp, responsive and accurate in ways that will impress Captiva and even Territory drivers, it simply lacks the feedback and communication skills of the Falcon-based homegrown SUV. There's also some bump-steer to be found over mid-corner lumps.
But it's still a better compromise than the Kluger's isolated tiller.
Mazda says local "verification" work was carried our for Australia's CX-9, which is built in Hiroshima, but unfortunately this didn't extend to ABS/DSC recalibration because we and other testers found the the CX-9's stability control system to be overly sensitive, shutting down engine power and violently applying the brakes at the merest hint of traction loss from the front-biassed AWD system.
Perhaps the problem here is what Mazda describes as its first ever "roll stability control" system, which supplements the standard traction/stability control system by sensing and rectifying the onset off excessive bodyroll.
Others who drove the CX-9 on gravel roads said the system allowed a surprising degree of tyre slip before intervening, so we can only assume the combination of tyre slip and bodyroll was what spoilt our fun so soon on higher-traction bitumen surfaces.
Either way, for most medium SUV buyers, this over-enthusiastic electronic safety aid and less than talkative steering won't detract from an overall handling package that's overwhelmingly impressive, if not best in class.
It should be said no entry-level Classic versions of the CX-9 were made available at the launch (due to supply reasons, said Mazda), so we can't say if it steers as sharply on its smaller 18-inch alloy wheels.
Nor can we say if its cloth trimmed seats are as comfortable as the Luxury variant's leather-lined pews, which feature eight-way power adjustment for the driver and four-way power adjustment for the passenger, plus heating for both and a power-adjustable driver's seat base with three memory positions.
Over the Classic, the Luxury also adds a Premium 10-speaker 277-Watt Bose sound system, heated mirrors and chrome door-handles and tailgate garnish.
None of which changes the fact the CX-9 cabin is a spacious, comfortable and well isolated place to be. Unlike many medium SUVs, the CX-9 offers plenty of leg and foot room in both rows of rear seats. The third-row twin-seat is as easy to un/stow as any of its rivals', yet sits the highest off the ground and still folds flat into the floor.
Enough space under the sliding centre row for even large feet makes the third-row seat one of the best in the business, easily eclipsing that of the revised Subaru Tribeca, Honda's now-defunct MDX and Mitsubishi's smaller Outlander, which is priced only $1000 below the Classic at $48,990 for the VRX Luxury.
Despite the more comfortable floor-to-hip relationship that makes it suitable for more than just children, headroom in CX-9's third-row seat is probably on par with the well packaged Territory and Kluger, even if the rearmost head restraints nestle into the top rear corner of the cabin. At least they're not positioned directly against the rear window, as in the Captiva.
As with many SUVs, the centre middle seat is tight, but at least every seating position gets a three-point seatbelt and adjustable head restraint.
Of course, cup-holders and oddments cubbies abound within the super-quiet and highly ergonomic CX-9 interior, which is as easy to look at as it is to be passengered in. Lightness of controls and immediate familiarity are key themes here, along with the practicality and flexibility wrought by wide-opening doors, plenty of footwell space and a 60/40-split folding centre-row seat.
Just as refined is the sweet Aisin six-speed auto, which shifts quickly and seamlessly and whose manual-shift mode doesn't override its operater by shifting up at redline. Alas there are no steering wheel gearshift controls, but at least the stick-shifter works in the correct and more natural manner (push forward to change down, pull back to shift up).
This can be important because, depite being the most powerful Mazda ever, the 204kW/366Nm 3.7-litre V6 doesn't have as much bottom-end torque as we expected. Indeed, below 3000rpm, acceleration is best described as leisurely and can make for hair-raising overtaking manoeuvres unless you're prepared to give it a rev.
Do so and you'll be richly rewarded, because the CX-9 V6 really gets going in the midrange and revs cleanly and crisply all the way to 6500rpm, unlike the Territory's bigger-capacity straight six. As with the Kluger V6, which also lacks the Terriotry's low-down flexibility, there's no getting away from the fact peak torque isn't available until a peaky 4250rpm.
So while overall performance is strong, it comes at the expense of fuel consumption, which is officially rated at 13.0L/100km. Of course, we achieved nothing like that on the launch drive, with an average of 14.5L/100km proving to be even thirstier than spirited real-world fuel economy figures we've seen in various Territorys.
As with the turbocharged CX-7, fuel consumption is potentially the biggest single negative factor for CX-9 buyers to consider. Mazda says higher fuel consumption is a given for any six-cylinder SUV, and that it's a cost mid-sized SUV buyers are prepared to pay.
On the flipside, the highly specified CX-9 also has value on its side. Priced at least $10,000 higher than the cheapest Kluger, Territory or Captiva (the latter is a whole $14,000 less for the $35,990 SX turbo-diesel), and the CX-7 too, the $50,000 Classic is aimed right at the heartland of the top-selling Japanese, Australian and Korean-made SUV ranges respectively, and at Nissan's (five-seat) Murano.
But with Honda's seven-seat MDX discontinued since January following the overseas release of a new model (which won't be sold here), the CX-9's only real "premium" Japanese rival is Subaru's Tribeca, which was also launched this week in facelifted guise but in seven-seat configuration it's $5000 more expensive.
It's unlikely fuel consumption alone will dictate the success or otherwise of what is undoubtedly a handsome, dynamic, refined, comfortable and well-priced new addititon to Australia's medium SUV ranks.
As with the Territory, which unlike the CX-9 will eventually become available with diesel power because it's not aimed primarily at the US, it's simply too good a seven-seat SUV to be dismissed on that basis alone.
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