Reviews

2015 Mazda CX-9 Driving Impressions

Mazda’s mantra is to build sporty vehicles. That’s easy to do with a two-seater like the MX-5 roadster, but it becomes a challenge with a seven-passenger vehicle that weighs over 4,500 pounds in its all-wheel-drive version. Still, it is a challenge that Mazda engineers have met quite nicely, based on the models we drove, with both front- and all-wheel drive.

The CX-9 comes with a 3.7-liter V6 engine and a six-speed automatic transmission. It’s rated at 273 horsepower. The torque curve surges from 3000 to 6000 rpm and peaks with 270 pound-feet at 4500 rpm. Best of all, the CX-9 runs on 87-octane regular unleaded gas, despite a sporty compression ratio of 10.3:1. EPA fuel economy ratings are 17 mpg city/24 mpg highway with FWD, and 16/22 with AWD. Those numbers are much better than any truck-type SUV but only average for a crossover.

We found the V6 to be well-matched to the vehicle. It provides willing power from a stop, with just the right responsiveness. It doesn’t start with a jolt and reacts readily to throttle inputs. We’d call that linear response. Our only complaint has to do with the transmission, which is usually smooth and responsive. When attempting to pass on the highway, however, we thought the transmission was a bit too slow to downshift to provide the best power delivery.

When it comes to handling, the CX-9 is surprisingly fun to drive for a large vehicle with so much weight up front. That is no small accomplishment. It feels remarkably like a sedan, turning into corners with ease and staying impressively flat through turns.

The price for the responsive handling, however, is a relatively stiff ride on anything but a smooth surface. The passengers will just have to suffer quietly while Mom or Dad has fun at the wheel. Meanwhile, the CX-9 feels tight on rough roads, refusing to quiver even when striking potholes.

For the driver who wants to be a bit more involved, on mountain roads, for example, the transmission shift lever can be moved to one side, which then allows the driver to manually shift gears by tapping the lever. It is a system that works well with the computer doing a good job of blending the upshifts and downshifts to avoid any jerks or stumbles.

There is a slight difference in steering feel between the front- and all-wheel-drive models. The steering in our AWD test vehicle had a feel that could be called rubbery, weakening the connection between the vehicle and the driver. The steering on our FWD model was much better. The steering is tuned a bit differently for FWD and AWD models.

One downside of front drive is torque steer: Push hard on the gas pedal, and the steering wheel tugs to one side as the front wheels scramble for traction. This requires the driver to make minor steering corrections to keep the CX-9 going straight. (This is with the gas pedal slammed down, so it may not even be noticeable in most situations.) Torque steer is eliminated in the AWD models because some of the power is being sent to the rear, reducing the demand on the front tires.

AWD models send most of the power to the front wheels in normal driving. But under hard acceleration, or if the front wheels begin to slip, as much as 50 percent of that power can be sent to the rear wheels. It is an automatic system and does not require the driver to do anything.

We found the brake pedal felt slightly soft but overall feedback was reassuring, and it was easy to trim a little or a lot of speed.

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