I suffered a nearly fatal narcissistic injury to the journosaur gland when I arrived at the Oakland airport last Friday night, only to find out that my press-loaner 2018 Mazda CX-9 was the Grand Touring model instead of the Signature.
Why does this matter? Well, as any self-respecting Mazda fanboy knows, the Signature has a center console made from rosewood provided by Fujigen, the famous Japanese guitar maker behind Pat Metheny’s infamous Roland GR-808, the bulk of Fender Japan production across the Eighties, and several different models of Electra six-strings. I happen to be an avid collector of Japanese guitars, with over one hundred and five Electras, Westones, and Grecos in my basement. I’m also semi-obsessed with Metheny’s Roland GR-808 sound, to the point that I’ve assembled some remarkably expensive hardware in order to precisely duplicate the tone found on tracks like “Are You Going With Me?”.
In other words, if ever there was a crossover capable of capturing my heart, it would be the CX-9 Signature. Oh well. I’m sure I’ll get over it eventually. In the meantime, let’s take a look at how Mazda’s newly-refreshed version of its still-youthful three-row CUV handles a brief trip to California’s central coast.
Pricing for the CX-9 ranges from $32,130 for a FWD Sport all the way to $44,315 for the AWD Signature, with this AWD Grand Touring slotting in just beneath the top at $42,470 plus $595 for the Soul Red Crystal paint.
This particular finish is complicated enough to require some specialized equipment; when the new CX-5 was released in Malaysia last week the company noted they had to invest several million dollars in an upgrade to the paint shop just to offer Soul Red on locally-produced variants. Of course, the home-market plant that builds the CX-9 has been capable of doing Soul Red for a few years now. It’s the only color I’d personally consider for this car, mostly because it does a better-than-average job of showing off the slim but noticeable hiplines and fender creases that differentiate the big Mazda from the slab-sided and flame-surfaced competition.
For 2018, Mazda has made considerable efforts to make the CX-9 more comfortable in its forty-grand competitive set. There’s increased sound insulation, a heated steering wheel, and a suite of sensor-based safety features including low-speed auto-braking and blind-spot sensing. There’s also G-Vectoring, which sounds like it should be the name of a rapper from Compton but in actuality does the following, according to Mazda: “GVC uses the engine in conjunction with steering and throttle inputs to minutely reduce engine torque, putting more weight on the front wheels and making the steering feel more linear and direct. As a result, the driver is able to gain more confidence and control behind the wheel.”
I think that means the engine will adjust turbo pressure and output torque to keep you from inadvertently pushing wide in a corner.
Speaking of turbo pressure… Remember the old Mazda CX-7? Remember how it made 244 hp from a turbo 2.3-liter four-cylinder? Remember how everybody said that was crazy and how only a V6 would make the grade in that segment? I actually have fond memories of the CX-7, because brother Bark had one for about half a decade during my first marriage. It was a good car — eager in the corners and clearly aimed at the enthusiastic driver, but let down a little bit by the unfortunate realities of pushing a big crossover with a tiny turbo four.
Well, it turns out that the CX-7 was that proverbial unevenly-distributed future, because now everybody expects a puffed-up four-banger to motivate two-ton vehicles. Mazda is no exception to this recent rubric. The 250-hp 2.5-liter turbocharged Skyactiv inline-four motivates the CX-9 in willing but not particularly eager fashion, G-Vectoring or no. I have no problem stating my preference for a V6 in this kind of car, such as the 3.7-liter Duratec that powered the old CX-9 in its final years. This new model feels most lively at light-to-middle throttle pressure, letting the torque push you along and delivering steady but unspectacular mileage figures in the very low twenties. Floor the gas pedal and you’re likely to be disappointed; like most of its compatriots from BMW to Benz to Chevrolet, this pressurized engine runs out of steam remarkably early in the rev range.
It’s a shame, really, because the CX-9 really does have a playful, buttoned-down approach to coastal-road antics. The steering is light and relatively communicative, while the brakes are easy to modulate and unaffected by repeated hard use. There’s a remarkable amount of intelligence in the six-speed automatic, which is good because there are no shift paddles on the wheel. It’s a good, honest chassis, ready and willing to cash whatever modest checks the powertrain is able to write.
The lower trim levels of the CX-9 represent solid, characterful alternatives to the Equinox/Terrain crowd for not too much more money, but the Grand Touring and Signature butt right up against the cheapest variants of the Lexus RX350.
So why pick the Mazda? Well, the equipment load is better, and there’s a third row available, but for me it’s probably a matter of interior design and execution. The CX-9 offers a sleek and starkly futuristic cockpit that equals or betters what Audi and Mercedes-Benz offer in the mid-crossover segment. You touch a lot of actual metal when you drive this car, and you operate a lot of expensive-feeling switches as well. The seats are brilliant in the first two rows and kinda-sorta livable all the way in the back. It’s a sporting, tasteful choice and it’s cheaper than the barest-bones Acura MDX.
At its heart, however, the CX-9 exists primarily as a place for Miata owners and Mazda 3 loyalists to go once they have to haul a few kids around. In that respect it’s similar to that swoopy second-generation Mazda 929 that graced these shores twenty-odd years ago. Like that car, the CX-9 is handsome and satisfying without being unreasonably pricey or excessively complicated. If you’ve ever owned one of the good Japanese guitars, like a Westone Spectrum FX, you know pretty much what the CX-9 is like, from the painstaking build quality to the slightly odd ways in which some of the secondary controls operate. It’s recommended for anybody who wants a Japanese-built three-row crossover with a little bit of style baked into the mix.
[Images: © 2017 Jack Baruth/The Truth About Cars]