Every car manufacturer has a certain flavor about their cars. No, we don't lick them (if they were Ferraris, maybe), but much in the same way that our DNA makes us look like our parents and grandparents, each carmaker has a distinct DNA that defines how their cars look and, more importantly, how they feel.
Mazda is perhaps one of the best examples of how a carmaker's DNA shines through so strongly. We've sampled how their automobiles have a different style and feel about them; it doesn't matter if you're in the market for something affordable like a Mazda2 or a Mazda3, or you're enjoying your new promotion in a Mazda6 or a CX-5, or even if you were driving down to the beach with the top down in your MX-5. Heck, even the BT-50 has some of that DNA, odd as it may seem.
The CX-9, however, has to take it to a new level. Without a doubt, this is the pride of the Mazda fleet; the flagship vehicle that has to represent the very best of what the independent Japanese automaker from Hiroshima has to offer. But can the DNA that defined its smaller brothers in the Mazda line also succeed in something this big, this bulky, and has an extra row of seating?
Walking up to one, you just know it's a Mazda. There's no denying the DNA shines through from that massive grill, the slim headlights, the long and sleek hood, the stance, and the somewhat shooting brake rear end. Everything just looks purposeful with no outlandish or gaudy pieces of kit or unnecessary design elements; this big crossover wants to cut through the air and move with speed.
One thing I half-expected Mazda to do was make the CX-9 bigger than its predecessor. Carmakers almost always make the next generation of a vehicle a little bigger, but Mazda didn't. This new midsize crossover is just as long as the previous generation at 5,075mm, with very negligible differences in width and height. Despite the near identical dimensions, the 2018 CX-9 actually looks smaller than the one it replaced.
Don't misunderstand my sentiment; I think the impression of its size is perfect. The CX-9 won't seem intimidating to maneuver, something I'll put to the test later.
The first impression I got when I opened the CX-9's exceptionally thick door (it can be tricky to get out if you're in a tight parking slot) is the overall premium air. Some may define “premium” as a having wood panels, exotic leather and high tech lighting, but I quite like how Mazda executes a restrained interpretation of the word by being as minimalist as possible.
The driving position is perfect; you hop in and it just feels right. You put your hands on any of the primary controls like the steering and shifter, and you realize the ergonomics are perfect. There are no fancy details here; sure, there is an abundance of buttons all around, but they're presented and expertly executed into the design so well that despite the presence of so many high tech features, CX-9's cabin is just an uncluttered environment that presents a sense of calm, something I appreciate in traffic more and more.
A customary look around and you'll notice all the functions incorporated into the CX-9 like the central display and its multi-function commander wheel/button cluster. There are buttons to the lower left of the wheel to activate or deactivate systems like stability control, lane keep assist/lane departure warning, the front and rear parking sensors, as well as opening and closing the motorized tailgate. There's even a motorized glass roof above if you want some sun and air on a long drive, though given the storm season we're in, we won't be enjoying it much.
Despite the great cockpit, what I really appreciated was the middle row. Back there, you get plenty of legroom, a center armrest that folds up to become another seat, and your own climate control system. You also get a pull-up sunshade for privacy, if you require. There's also a third row, but that's best left for kids; knee room isn't much to write home about. Most of the time, I just had the third row folded down flat.
Now we can go on and on about how great the CX-9 Grand Touring feels from a features point of view, but the truth of the matter is that it's what's under the shiny silver skin that matters most with the new generation CX-9. And Mazda calls it SkyActiv.
Since 2012, Mazda has been giving us a new spectrum of technologies called SkyActiv. Yes, it sounds like some corporate marketing jargon, but it's much more than that. The principle of the SkyActiv name is simple: pursue improvements by treating efficiency and outright driving performance as one. Old school thinking says that efficiency and performance are on opposite sides of a see-saw; if you improve one, you lose on the other. Mazda found ways to improve both, and in the CX-9, the improvements were clear.
For starters, there's the issue of weight. Crossovers of this size easily tip the scales well over two tonnes (2000+ kilograms); even the 2006-2016 Mazda CX-9 weighed in at just under 2100 kilos. This 2018 CX-9, thanks to the thinner but stronger steel on the structure, lost about 130 kilograms. The CX-9 actually lost so much weight that Mazda engineers actually had the leeway to add weight that came in the form of noise deadening materials and thicker glass. The result was a vehicle that weighed just over 1900 kilos, but is 12% quieter than before at 100 km/h thanks to the extra insulation they can put in.
Next, SkyActiv improved performance by focusing on the powertrain. The old model used a 3.7-liter V6 that, quite frankly, loved to send you again and again to the fuel pump. This one uses a much smaller turbocharged 2.5-liter straight-4 that makes a very neat 231 PS and 420 Nm of torque; that torque is more similar to a diesel motor, and peak torque comes in at an early 2000 rpm too. The 2.5L turbo comes matched with a 6-speed automatic; by our estimation, Mazda's SkyActiv 6-speed autos are some of the best in the market for response, smoothness, and efficiency. And the CX-9 proves all of it in town.
The CX-9 just moves silently on the daily grind to and from the office. The ride is just right; comfortable but not wallowy. That gearbox is slick; the driver in you would love how it responds so quickly and intuitively. But the best part about the CX-9 in town is that it has a special turbo system that can spool up more quickly (eliminating turbo lag) at low RPMs by forcing exhaust gases through smaller ports, making them hit the turbo's impeller with more speed. Think of it like the little straw on your juice pack or little chocolate milk box versus the bigger straw you get from your favorite pearl milk tea place; it's easier to sip quicker with the little straw.
Remember what we said about fuel economy? The high peak torque at low RPMs is what makes diesels generally be more fuel efficient, and that's what works so well for the gasoline-powered CX-9. Even with heavy traffic, yielding just an average speed of 16 km/h, the CX-9 was able to yield 6.0 km/l. At a higher average speed, that goes up to 7.1 km/l (22 km/h average). It's not bad for a big vehicle that doesn't have an automatic idle start stop system; Mazda saw fit to not include it because, quite frankly, a lot of us generally deactivate it anyway. And when you do get on the highway, a fuel economy that hovers around 12.2 km/l (87 km/h average) will be a great addition to the smooth manners and quiet cabin.
Now that the boring stuff is done with, we get down to the real driving impressions on an open road and let that DNA shine through. I'm willing to put it out there that this is the best handling big crossover/SUV that doesn't have a BMW logo on the hood.
When you give the throttle some more pressure on an open road, something special happens with the engine; that metaphorical small straw becomes much bigger to give the turbo more boost at high RPMs. The CX-9's engine does this by opening up more valves at higher engine speeds, giving you more power until you hit 5000 rpm. The result is quite a bit of acceleration that's perfect for this big crossover.
Weight is something that the CX-9 truly defies. Yes, I said the CX-9 is lighter than its direct competitors in price and size, but 1900+ kilograms is still a lot of heft to try and maneuver around corners. Thankfully, the suspension is superb, allowing a driver to finesse the big CX-9 around corners with speed that isn't expected of it. And of course, the brakes do well to match. But what I did like was how Mazda executed their smart all-wheel drive system.
Of course Subaru (Mazda's most direct competitor) has a great edge with symmetrical all-wheel drive, but what's interesting with Mazda is the intelligence of their system; it predicts slip or understeer, depending on the situation. Without you knowing it, the torque will adjust intelligently, giving the driver more positive control. We tried this in the snow at Mazda's proving ground in Hokkaido, and if it can work in those conditions, it can work wonders on rained in tarmac.
The best way to tell is how the nose of tucks into a corner when you enter it at a speed that's about 5-10 km/h more than the generally accepted safe limit. The CX-9 will deal with the understeer before you even recognize there's understeer. Of course that's not something we recommend you try out, but it's good to know that there's something there that can compensate if you overcooked a corner on a winding road.
The 2018 CX-9 AWD Grand Touring is no land yacht with the way it moves, even though its size says otherwise. The price for this stylish, nimble, and efficient CX-9 AWD is PhP 2,830,000 simply because it doesn't qualify for the tax benefits of JPEPA (the minimum engine size is 3.0L); there's a new front-wheel drive version that's more affordable, but you do lose a lot of the goodies. Mind you, the price can go up if you opt for Machine Gray, but it's minimal given the clientele. Surprisingly, the CX-9 is not available in Soul Red or its newer variation: Soul Red Crystal.
It's been too long since I've been behind the wheel of a CX-9 for a lengthy test drive. Actually, after doing a quick search, I found my original review of the previous generation from (almost) exactly 10 years ago. I liked the CX-9. Sure, it's big. No, it wasn't fuel efficient. But I enjoyed driving it.
This new generation CX-9 addressed all the gripes we had about its predecessor, and improved on quite a few more, showing us why it really is the pride of Mazda's fleet.