When it comes to sporty driving, the folks at Mazda have always had a knack for balancing sporty virtues with enough value and style to make their vehicles a compelling choice for budget minded enthusiasts.
For a while, that tradition didn't necessarily apply to their SUV/CUV offerings. But with the recently revamped CX-5 and CX-3 blowing a blast of fresh air into this segment, it was only fitting that the CX-9 would embrace this wind of change with vigor.
Does the 2017 CX-9 gain some new tricks from its suite of updates, or does this people hauler lose out against a growing pool of rivals?
The exterior styling of the CX-9 was redesigned back in 2016, so 2017 models like our Machine Gray hued tester arrive with minimal changes.
We're glad, since the CX-9's exterior styling is a tasteful presentation with a sharply angled front grille, long hood, steeply raked windshield, as well as the rear mounted roof spoiler which all do a good job telegraphing the CX-9's fun seeking intent. The bold suit of clothes also gives the CX-9 an aggressive side profile that is sorely lacking in other CUV entries.
The front fascia has really stylish headlights, but the tail lights do stumble a bit due to their small size, as well as the way they clash with the bloated dimensions.
The heavy lift gate can be a problem for shorter occupants, but Touring and above models do feature power operation as well as an electronic height adjuster to help remedy this problem.
The chiseled lines of the CX-9 also hide its bulk, which only appears in certain parking situations, where small or tight parking spots required delicate maneuvering and patience to get the big Mazda in and out effectively. Overall, the exterior is a massive improvement over its predecessor, and allows the CX-9 to finally have a suit of clothes that it is proud to show off both to rivals and prospective family buyers.
The interior of the 2017 CX-9 also sees its fair share of updates, and they help transform the cabin into a near perfect space that offers outstanding interior quality, and equally sensual design. The soft touch plastics are blended with brushed aluminium accents, swaths of leather trim, as well as our tester's genuine rosewood trim (a Signature exclusive feature.)
The dashboard is reminiscent of other Mazda offerings, and is very handsome with an eight inch touchscreen and heavily contoured areas to spice things up further.
All the controls are within easy reach of the driver, and are also easy to use which is a rare feat in a segment where ergonomics are traditionally cast aside for style or vice versa. The leather wrapped steering wheel is a bit on the thin side, but the metal finish as well as the contrasting stitching help it retain a high degree of sportiness.
The front seats offer average amounts of leg and headroom and it was very easy to find a comfortable driving position during our time with the CX-9. While the Ford Explorer currently offers more head and leg room than the Mazda, it also loses out on some of the Mazda's cool factor in lower trims.
The second row seat is also very pleasant, but taller passengers will have a tough time entering and exiting the space especially with the drivers seat fully adjusted. As for the third row (the reason why the model has "9" in its name) this space is best reserved for children on long road trips.
Adults that manage to awkwardly climb, or rather fall into the third row will be rewarded with low levels of leg room, as well as equally cramped headroom for their trouble.
Unlike many of its rivals, the second row does not have optional captains chairs, and the lack of rear seat heat is a noticeable omission, especially since it is becoming more prevalent these days in many cars and SUVs.
Performance for our tester comes from a 2.5 liter turbocharged four cylinder engine. Unlike many of its rivals, Mazda has chosen to take a risk by making this engine the sole choice available for buyers versus adding an optional V6 power plant. In theory and at least in initial practice, the 2.5 liter is a pretty solid engine with a healthy 250 horsepower on tap as well as a decent amount of low end punch thanks to tweaks Mazda engineers made to the engine.
However, the boost fizzles out as the rpms climb higher, and as a result, the CX-9 lacks the eagerness that defines some of its corporate siblings. Thankfully the 6-speed automatic transmission is smooth, and really sharpens up when Sport mode is engaged. While it is in turbulent waters with the eight and nine speeds already in the marketplace, it is refreshing to see a gearbox that actually puts both shift quality and smoothness over outdoing its rivals in cog count.
But if the engine is not as feisty as other Mazdas, and if the transmission is not the star of the show, then where's the CX-9's trump card?
Well, it lies in an area that many CUV entries routinely ignore and neglect, the handling. Wheras many of its competitors wallow and body roll their way into mushiness, the CX-9 is surprisingly light on its feet, and there were times where we felt like we were driving a much smaller SUV versus a full sized 9-passenger people hauler.
The suspension is firm but it still retains a high degree of suppleness which should help eliminate complaints from passengers when going over rough terrain.
The steering lacks some of the feedback that defines Mazda's more iconic entries like the MX-5, but it is still miles ahead of rivals, especially when pushing the CX-9 into twisty corners. Braking was also strong with the CX-9 producing smooth and steady stops.
Pricing for the 2017 Mazda CX-9 starts at $31,520 for the base Sport model with Touring and Grand Touring models representing the middle of the range. Top tier models like our Signature grade tester have a base price of $$44,315, with our all-wheel drive equipped tester having a final sticker price of $45,855.
This pricing puts it in the hunt with rivals such as the Honda Pilot, Chevrolet Traverse, as well as the Dodge Durango. While the Durango may have more muscle and cylinders (especially in SRT guise,) it is a blunt instrument, especially when compared with the more svelte and deliberate way the CX-9 approaches performance.
Another potential rival is the 2017 Ford Edge which offers more power under the hood as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability. However, it lacks the CX-9's nimble handling, and its styling is a bit more cluttered than the shapely Mazda.
With its unique take on performance as well as its slick styling, look for the 2017 Mazda CX-9 to be a compelling entry for family buyers.
In an age where handling and fun have been sacrificed for fuel economy and family practicality, it is nice to see vehicles like the CX-9 that buck this trend and give their owners a unique driving experience that still allows them to embrace their wild side on the weekends.