Overview: Introduced in 2007, updated in 2010 and again for 2013, the Mazda CX-9 remains one of the few three-row crossovers we actually find fun to drive. Even Mazda calls the CX-9 “the elder statesman” of its lineup, and it shows its age enough that its replacement is expected to appear at the Los Angeles auto show this fall. Although too old to reflect Mazda’s latest Skyactiv approach, the CX-9 is lighter than most competitors and still enjoys the advantage of a rigid structure. It’s also bigger inside than you’d guess from looking at its raked windshield and carlike shape. Its 3.7-liter V-6 makes 273 horsepower, routed through a six-speed automatic to either the front or all four wheels. Sales fell to just under 18,500 units last year. The 2011 peak of more than 34,000 was anomalous—in most years, about 25,000 buyers have found the CX-9’s mix of utility and dynamic mojo just right. That makes it a niche player in the un-minivan segment of seven-seat SUVs that includes the Ford Explorer, the Dodge Durango, the Toyota Highlander, and the (eight-seat) Honda Pilot. In comparison tests, the CX-9 beat all but the Pilot, and we still harbor fond memories of driving a 2008 model for a 40,000-mile long-term test.
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What’s New: A new optional Recreational Accessory package (including roof rails and crossbars, a cargo net, and stainless-steel rear bumper trim) appeared on our 2015 test car, an all-wheel-drive model in the top, Grand Touring spec. The new package is $650, but that gets discounted to free if you get the $2435 GT Technology package, which brings touch-screen navigation, a 10-speaker Bose audio system, and a power sunroof. Real recreational users would also opt for the Tow Prep package (optional on FWD Grand Touring, standard on all AWD models), which increases towing capacity from the standard 2000 pounds to 3500 pounds and includes a heavy-duty transmission cooler, a revised engine-cooling fan, and a remapped ECU. It also requires a receiver hitch ($425), which was not found on our test car, perhaps because it would have pushed the price over $40,000. Otherwise, the CX-9 remains as it has since our 2013 track test, when the styling was revised to replace the “smile” face from 2010 with the latest Kodo design language.
What We Like: By the numbers, the CX-9 is a competitive performer, but it’s really the subjective elements of steering feel, handling response, brake feel, and a general sense of agility that set it apart. The six-speed automatic shifts crisply and the gauge-cluster display always tells you what gear is engaged, even if you’re not using manual mode. The rear doors open wide for easy access to the sliding second-row seats and the kid-sized third row.
What We Don’t Like: The 5.8-inch touch-screen seems small by modern standards, and the in-cabin and safety technology offerings were already a half-step behind in 2013. The interior on this top-level model remains handsome but the layout reflects its age. The 20-inch wheels on the Grand Touring model impede ride comfort without appreciably improving performance.