Mazda is famous for its potent RX-7 rotary rocket and for the pint-sized Miata, a car that brings back the fun of British sports cars without the unreliability. The company has also marketed other sedans and SUVs over the years, including today's compact Mazda3, which earns excellent green credentials while delivering heaps of driving fun for a reasonable price.
Mazda's CX-9, a crossover SUV that seats 7, is meant to deliver more than an average amount of fun for people who migrated from sporty little cars to family haulers when the kids came along.
The CX-9 debuted as a 2007 model, and was based on the Ford Edge, its corporate cousin. Its styling and personality, however, are completely different. From its snakelike tapered nose with sharp-edged headlamp units and five-point grille to pronounced fender shapes to sculpted tail with clear-cover taillamps, it conveys restless energy.
With its long, laid-back windshield, the CX-9 bears little resemblance to an SUV. Although you can order all-wheel drive as an option, it is really not an offroader, but a sophisticated driver's car.
Inside, the sporty Mazda design theme prevails. Close-clustered gauges in a dramatic binnacle sit directly in front of the driver, with a neatly-configured center stack control panel holding the manual controls. Unusually stylish are the vertical features along the doors and center console, almost like buttresses, that add a feeling of fine furniture and at the same time, ruggedness. The right mixture of soft touch and matte finish plastic with silvery accents feels up-to-date and complements the aggressive treatment of the body panels.
To get the right feeling of vigorous motoring, the CX-9 employs a 3.7-liter V6 with 273 horsepower and 270 lb.-ft. of torque. That's up .2 liters, 10 horsepower, and 21 lb.-ft. from last year's model. In day-to-day driving it feels healthy and strong pulling the 4,528 pound SUV around.
You can feed it regular fuel, which is a boon with prices topping $4.00 a gallon. Sadly, mileage ratings are just 15 City, 21 Highway per the EPA, which is pretty typical for vehicles in this class. The EPA's Green Vehicle scores are 7 for Air Pollution and 5 for Greenhouse Gas, reasonably good for a car of this size and power.
Three models are available for your family needs, Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring. All come with air conditioning, power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, cruise control, and six airbags. That's nothing special by today's standards. But there's more. The Sport gets 18-inch alloy wheels and tires, halogen headlamps and cloth seats. The Touring puts leather on those chairs, powers up the front seat adjustment, and brings Bluetooth hands-free capability. That's a good thing, because on July 1, 2008 in California, you can no longer drive and dial. It's hands-free phones only after that date.
The Grand Touring, like my Crystal White Pearl Mica test car, has even more. For one thing, it wears big 20-inch wheels, hardly something expected of an offroad vehicle, but very trendy. Add to that list rain-sensing windshield wipers, an alarm system, memory settings for the driver's seat, wood trim on the instrument panel, and turn indicators on the exterior mirrors.
There's something else on those mirrors. The Blind Spot Monitoring System tells you if there's anybody in your side and rear blind spots. Above 20 miles per hour, it will flash if there's a car in there, and start beeping if you activate your turn signal while the space is occupied. I drive carefully, but it was nice to have the extra alert.
Built for families, the CX-9 gets the full safety treatment. The Roll Stability Control system uses sensors to measure body-roll rate and wheel speed. If something is amiss, the system automatically reduces torque or works the brakes momentarily to avert a rollover. Anti-lock brakes and traction control help you stop in a straight line and maintain traction. Dynamic Stability Control is part of this package too, sharing the power of the built-in computer to prevent oversteer and understeer in emergency situations.
Besides the usual front and side airbags, the CX-9 features three-row side curtain airbags with rollover protection. The CX-9 gets five-star government crash ratings for driver and passengers in the frontal and side crash ratings, and four stars out of five for rollovers.
A Sport model with two-wheel drive and nothing extra starts at $30,050. A Grand Touring begins at $34,005. Add all-wheel drive to any CX-9 for $1,300. My test car, with Sirius Satellite Radio, a navigation system, and a DVD entertainment system for the rear passengers, hit $41,180 at the bottom of the sticker.
If you have to haul a big group safely with a minimum of boredom, there may be few if any better ways to do it than in a CX-9.