The refreshed SUV deserves to be a much greater success, writes Kevin Hackett.
A quiet victory
Unlike many manufacturers, Mazda doesn’t really shout about itself from the rooftops. It just quietly goes about its business, making (truth be told) excellent and interesting cars that almost make it the Saab of the Japanese motoring industry. Far from being downtrodden underdogs, however, Mazda owners must feel a sense of satisfaction knowing that they’re not following the herds, just enjoying being individuals with a keen eye for value for money.
A case in point is the CX-9 crossover SUV – a physically enormous vehicle that, by rights, should be a sales success in the Middle East. But when was the last time you saw one? Probably when I used it on the commute between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, although onlookers might not have known what it was. But that’s no indicator of worth, is it? And the CX-9, although it’s been around in basically the same guise since 2007 and has recently been treated to its second facelift, has a great deal to offer the discerning family motorist.
The refresh is basically limited to a revamped rear, plus a new nose design that, while looking ever so slightly awkward, is a big improvement on its messy predecessor and brings it into line with the rest of Mazda’s range. The drivetrain remains the same, being a Ford-sourced V6 that displaces 3.7L, mated to either the front or all four wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission.
Mazda’s interiors are functional rather than flashy, but they’re pleasantly designed (the hard dashboard plastics are unwelcome, though) and the inside of the CX-9 is cavernous. Three rows of seats make it ideal for larger families, although the rears can be a bit of a squeeze for anything other than children, and when the seats are folded down there’s enough space to hold a conference. There’s even a hidden compartment in the floor that’s big enough to house your laptop and a few other bits and pieces – intuitive, intelligent design abounds and it’s quite welcome.
On the move, the biggest of all Mazdas is really well-behaved and handles well (for such a large vehicle at least), seeming to be much smaller when you’re behind the wheel. Performance isn’t exactly breathtaking, even with such a large engine, and it does like to drink, consuming around 15 litres for every 100km (official figures claim 12.3 litres, which still isn’t brilliant). But it does eat the roads as well as drink the fuel, making a great long-distance cruiser that’s quiet and refined at speed. The ride is supple, just on the verge of being firm, which helps negate its sheer size and weight when negotiating roads that aren’t arrow straight.
One thing that really does seem odd about the CX-9 when it’s at speed, though, is the steering feel. When crawling around city streets, it feels heavier than when you’re flat out on an empty highway, which is surely the wrong way around. The upshot is a tendency to drift about at high speeds and a need to constantly correct the wheel but, like many things, it’s something that you get used to over the course of a few days.
Despite its four-wheel-drive pretensions, this is never going to make a decent off-roader, and Mazda doesn’t pretend otherwise. Instead, it’s a load-lugging, family swallowing, flat cornering car that, as mentioned, feels smaller than it actually is – quite a feat to carry off. When you find yourself nitpicking over things to find fault, it’s usually the mark of a decent car and, apart from the odd steering feel and the car’s thirst, the only other thing that I can complain about is the touch-screen infotainment system. Made by TomTom, it’s a satnav that doubles up as a sound system control pad, and it’s a bit fiddly to use. But the worst aspect of it is that it looks like a total afterthought that’s just been fitted at a car accessory shop during your lunch break. Having said that, there are 10 Bose speakers in the CX-9, and the sounds that they make are uniformly excellent.
Would you consider buying one? Obviously it’s a vehicle for a specific kind of customer and it isn’t as “in your face” as its competitors from the US, which might put some people off, but despite its plain and fuss-free approach to design, it’s probably the best of its type. If you’re in the market for a vehicle that seats seven human beings in comfort and safety, ignore the CX-9 at your peril, because it offers a great deal for not much outlay.
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