2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature
Raising the bar among SUVs and more.
The Mazda CX-9 is not an SUV that drives like a car. No. The Mazda CX-9 is an SUV that drives better than most cars. It’s a brilliant mid-size people hauler with a focus on what matters: you. It’s the superstar and driver’s choice of this incredibly crowded segment that has seen a reinvigorated Highlander and the fantastic Telluride and Palisade twins. None of these competitors though look and drive as good as this magic Mazda.
Do you remember Mazda’s kiddish and silly brand slogan? Zoom-zoom. I recall the TV ads like it was yesterday. There was one in particular that sounded similar to a Baja Men song, and half the words were zoom. But that’s what Mazda has always aimed for catered to: the driving enthusiasts. Not everybody likes Miatas, it’s understandable, but it’s impossible to deny the simplistic form it takes in the pursuit of a purer driving experience. Mazda has always wanted to be the fun choice, and for the most part, they have.
Today, just about every offering they have has claim to be the most fun and best driving car in its class, from the CX-3, CX-5, this CX-9, as well as the Mazda 3 and 6 sedans. The engineers just know how a normal, practical car should behave on the road. And in the past decade, they also know how to style one. The CX-9 is simple in its base form. There are no hard lines anywhere that sprout from nowhere; everything just makes sense and seems so naturally flowing. A Palisade and Highlander look vulgar in comparison, and a Pilot obtuse and boring. It’s sculpted like Italian marble of the neoclassical era. And in Soul Red as it’s called, the result is stunning, yet still so elegantly understated as all things elegant should be.
There is a tradeoff for these runway looks, though, and that is in practicality. The CX-9 is not small, measuring an inch longer than a Highlander, but the interior feels almost shrunken next to the Toyota. The third row of seating is there, but you won’t want to sit there. Kids might be fine, but I don’t think they’d look forward to it. Rear cargo space takes a hit, too. If space is the name of your game, the CX-9 might not cut it.
Let’s get back to the interior, because there is one thing that will cut it; the looks and quality do not end on the outside. Inside, you will find perhaps the most well-finished and luxurious SUV south of $50,000 no questions needed. It’s gorgeous. The Parchment Nappa Leather reminds me of my favorite Rawlings Heart of the Hide baseball glove. The fit and finish is exemplary and everything you touch yields a sincere touch of quality.
Of course, this has the normal suite of active driving assists. The infotainment system uses a rotary wheel to control it, which I greatly prefer to a touchscreen. It’s simple to use after the first day, but I did notice small instances of lag when bouncing around between screens. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is comfortable and right where it should be. In fact, the driving position itself feels precise and natural in nature, with the seats giving great support and comfort. You don’t find your shoulders rolling out of its confines every corner like you would in that Atlas Cross Sport I tried recently.
A wonderful, wonderful, feature I must point out is the radar adaptive cruise control. I dislike radar cruise controls. I could write a whole article why they don’t work. The Mazda CX-9 has radar cruise control, but guess what? You can switch it off. Magnificent! I have never been in another car that you could switch between the radar system and a normal conventional system. Mazda believes in the driver, thank you!
Power comes from a 2.5 liter inline-four bolstered by a turbocharger. Power is 227, but torque is a motivating 310. 227 doesn’t seem like much when rivals have nearly 300, but the CX-9 never feels slow, and the strong midrange from the turbocharger make accelerating a literal breeze. The six speed automatic might be short on gears when most others have 8 ratios, but the transmission still works surprisingly well, and also shifts smoother than most 8 speeds. 0-60 happens in 7.25 seconds, with 50-70 pasing requiring 3.9 seconds. Up a steep grade, that time slows to 5.5 seconds. Fuel economy hit 28.5 MPG on level freeway at 71 and I averaged 22.6 in my normal driving to work and back. That average is better than the Highlander V6, but the highway fell slightly short, and that’s where an extra gear or two would help with highway mileage.
Now, to driving - it’s brilliant. Most cars seriously do not drive this well nor with the same intent. The steering is wonderfully direct with excellent weighting. There’s even a small amount of feedback even. Changing direction quickly, the chassis and its i-ACTIV all-wheel drive respond beautifully. Handling is more neutral than an SUV has any right to be, with the nose following your every command. Yet, with all this handling prowess, the ride quality should be bad, right? Nope, it’s fine, hardly harsh. It’s weird how well this thing can drive. It makes me yearn for a MazdaSpeed CX-9. The most important thing perhaps is the way the CX-9 inspires confidence to the driver. You’re never in doubt of the vehicle and what its doing. A remarkable achievement for a car in this class.
So there you have it, the CX-9 is the best looking, best driving, and best finished vehicle in its class. The lack of vastness in this class of people-movers though is a hit that many will not be able to look past unfortunately. At an as-tested $46,810, it isn’t cheap, but also is competitively priced when Pilots and Highlanders can easily break $50k now. A Kia Telluride remains the more practical choice for most, but what it doesn’t have is the emotion that the CX-9 so boldly evokes. Zoom-zoom, Mazda.
2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature
Road Beat rating 4.5/5
Pros: The Driver’s Choice for SUVs, Knockout looks and luxurious interior
Cons: Lacks the space of competitors, Kia Tellurides