With three rows, four cylinders, and lots of tech, this SUV still raises plenty of questions.
Wander to any grocery store, mall, or soccer field, and you’ll come across plenty of three-row family SUVs that likely cover a dozen different manufacturers. This seven-seat SUV segment is flooded with so many options against the Mazda CX-9, including the Ford Explorer (which I recently reviewed), Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, and Hyundai Palisade. Back when Mazda introduced the CX-9 in 2006, it was based on the same platform as the Ford Edge, and shared the same V6.
While this big Mazda CX-9 offers the features parents look for, has decent looks, and focuses on reasonably enjoyable driving impressions, to sway buyers from other manufacturers, it has to assemble a package to make itself attractive, practical, affordable, and fun. There’s no shortage of crossovers in Mazda’s lineup, with a couple appealing introductions in the past year. With this second generation CX-9 still rolling around since its update in 2016, does it keep up with its rivals?
Some Useful Figures
Mazda powers the CX-9 with the same turbocharged 2.5-liter SKYACTIV-G engine that produces 227 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque when filling the tank with 87 octane regular unleaded fuel, and bumps up to 250 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque when opting for 93 octane. Paired with a 6-speed automatic and all-wheel-drive, Mazda also fits the CX-9 with its version of a torque vectoring system to give drivers more confident handling.
At a curb weight of 4,409 pounds, the Mazda CX-9 tips the scales at a similar figure to its rivals. The CX-9 has 3,500-pound towing capacity, which is a bit less than much of the competition. Despite having a turbocharged 4-cylinder under the hood, the 2022 Mazda CX-9 has EPA fuel economy estimates of 20/26/23 (city/highway/combined).
For 2022, Mazda made the starting price cheaper for customers while adding all-wheel-drive as standard equipment, now at a base of $35,280. In its most loaded Signature trim, this tester starts at $47,210, and after adding Machine Gray Metallic paint for $595, the total MSRP is $49,030 after destination.
Family Practicality Over Fun
The 2022 Mazda CX-9 has a reasonable footprint for a seven-seat family SUV, and doesn’t feel massive inside or out. When on the road, there’s a sensation that it weighs a bit more than it truly does, and I think much of that is because of how firmly sprung the CX-9 is, even though there’s a good bit of body roll in the corners. Given the same steering wheel as the Mazda 3 models that compete with cars like the Honda Civic, the CX-9 could use a larger diameter unit instead, to help with steering effort around the city. Slower 90º turns took more work to complete, with much more input required than I expected from a car in this class. The Bridgestone Ecopia all-season tires wrapped around 20-inch wheels aren’t sporty either, focused more on efficiency. There are drive modes, including a sport option, but there wasn’t much a difference in overall driving personality when toggling the sport setting.
Mazda defines its driving experience in the CX-9 as Jinba-ittai, a philosophy that lies at the heart of Mazda’s development, which describes the relationship between a horse and its rider. The challenge is that the 2022 CX-9 doesn’t truly feel as engaging as the “Zoom Zoom” sensations that used to get me excited about Mazda’s offerings. From the same company that provides a pure driving experience in the iconic MX-5, the CX-9 doesn’t make any drive more engaging. Equipped with the same engine as the Mazda 3, the CX-9 is downright underpowered as a three-row SUV. Having to spend more on premium fuel to get the most of its engine, the CX-9 is still woefully slow against a few of its competitors, facing a 30 or 40 horsepower disadvantage against several that don’t require premium unleaded to enjoy better power.
For parents who aren’t concerned about having a lot of fun on errand runs or trips to drop the kids off at school, the Mazda CX-9 provides a reasonably comfortable cabin, with decent space for stuffing kids in the rear two rows. Mazda is smart to make the second row seats adjustable on a slider, in case slightly taller passengers hop in the back, and even in that forward position, adults won’t feel too cramped. The CX-9’s cargo space is good too, with 14.4 cubic feet of space with all the seats up, 38.2 cubic feet with the third row down, and a whopping 71.2 cubic feet of storage volume with the second row folded flat too.
Mazda provides a 10.25-inch infotainment screen that has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto installed, but uses a knob and buttons below the shifter to adjust settings and controls, rather than being a touchscreen. There’s wireless charging in a compartment ahead of the gearshift, but if you want to make use of it you’re losing CarPlay functions as wireless CarPlay isn’t available in the CX-9.
Good Details And Trim On A Reasonable Budget
In this Signature trim, Mazda gives the first- and second-row seats Nappa leather treatments, with nice stitching patterns and good lateral support. I like the patterns of the contours too, finished with white piping along the bolster edges. Touches of wood accompany nice polished metallic trim along the CX-9’s interior, giving it a hint more class than its competition.
I appreciate the three-zone climate control system working quickly and effectively, in addition to the heated and ventilated front seats met with heating functions in the middle row. The 12-speaker Bose audio system incorporates active noise cancellation, which was great for quieting outside disturbances along busy downtown streets.
The Highs and Lows
To provide the second- and third-row passengers more space, Mazda seemed to compromise cabin volume for the front two seats. A look at the CX-9’s profile will show how short the front doors are versus the rear, making it easier for the rear passengers to get in and out, but I felt cramped in the driver’s seat. At 5’11”, the front seat was far too high off the floor, making my head feel too close to the roof while being far above the dash. The side view mirrors are also too far back, making me have to look all the way to my side to check my blind spot. Mazda should have mounted them a good ten inches further ahead, to provide more natural visibility.
Mazda describes its interior design as the result of studies on how humans move, attempting to engineer its cars to feel like a natural extension of the driver’s body, which is clear when using any of the CX-9’s controls. While I appreciate this focus, I don’t love that the pieces in the top-end CX-9 are the same stuff used in the Mazda 3 that competes with a more basic Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla. At nearly $50,000, the CX-9 needs to feel like a premium model. As several manufacturers have switched to capacitive touch components, Mazda is sticking with more functional switchgear. The digital instrument cluster uses the same white color for the rings, numbers, and increments, so it all blends together. Having some contrasting color or larger speed indication would help a lot.
Getting a stack of safety systems is pretty common in family SUVs, and Mazda makes sure the CX-9 gets adaptive cruise control, pedestrian detection, and collision mitigation features to keep you moving smoothly with less chance of incident. Having tested a few of the Mazda’s competitors over the past year, the lane keeping and adaptive cruise features weren’t great when tested on the freeway. The lane keeping aid didn’t seem to function most of the time I tried it along a well-defined stretch of expressway, even in a toll lane with dividing posts.
This Family SUV Just Isn’t Good Enough
In its base trim, the Mazda CX-9 is a more attractive buy for the family on a budget, but as the trim levels and price go up, the value proposition of this three-row SUV goes down. At just shy of $50,000, the CX-9’s price is on-par with its rivals’ best offerings, but that’s inching toward a higher segment of car. For nearly the same money, one could get a 2022 Acura MDX in its lowest–yet still impressively equipped–trim. The only sacrifice would be ventilated seats. I’d go that route instead, or at least consider a loaded Honda Pilot.
Mazda provides a good looking, nicely equipped, and safe family SUV with the CX-9, but it’s lagging behind its competition. The driving impressions don’t capture any of the “Zoom Zoom” sensations of Mazda’s past, and the interior switchgear isn’t as nice as it should be. Riding on a reputation of quality cars a family can afford while being fun, the 2022 CX-9 doesn’t get the job done. Mazda needs to give its top model a heavy update that includes significantly more power and a nicer cabin, and if it did that, it would be a contender again.