It seems that almost every week someone asks me about three-row SUVs. People want them because they appreciate the extra space as well as the functionality of the third row seats for when they have to transport their kids and their kids’ friends. The questions are pretty much the same. As are my answers. But it wasn’t until recently that someone asked which three-row SUV is the best handling?
Hmm. The likely answer would the BMW X5 or the Audi Q7. But those are so-called premium vehicles, priced out of the range of the typical peasants stuck in 9-to-5-and-all-other-times-because-of-cell-phone-technology jobs. The person who asked the question was curious about the common vehicles such as Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, or Ford Explorer.
I had to really think about this, not realizing that the answer was so obvious. The truth is that none of these vehicles are particularly good handlers. Except one. And it’s the one that’s often overlooked and frequently underrated – the Mazda CX-9.
The truth is that handling isn’t a strong suit of any of those three-row crossovers. By that I mean that they all handle well, they’re all safe, and they’re all predictable. But they’re not what anyone would call fun. They’re not rewarding to drive. They’re nothing an enthusiast would appreciate. Their job is be comfortable, functional, and safe. And all of those vehicles perform that exceptionally well, but no automaker even attempts to make them fun-to-drive.
Take a highway ramp at speed in the CX-9 and it responds more like a large sedan than a jacked-up minivan. Quick turns, swerves, and lane changes happen with ease and predictability. Despite the vehicle’s size, there is back from the steering wheel, unlike the other SUVs which are completely isolated. The highway tires are the limiting handling factor of the CX-9, because most people who buy three-row SUVs don’t know what Michelin’s Pilot Cup tires are.
New for 2018 on the CX-9 is Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control (GVC) system. Let’s start with what it is not. It’s not a vectoring system or any other kind of active yaw control system. It’s basically a system that applies a very slight amount of braking to increase the vertical load on the front tires. I am not really sure if it works in any meaningful way but Mazda’s zoom-zooming engineers would likely argue for it. I’d argue that engineering funds could have been spent elsewhere.
The CX-9’s 2.5-liter turbocharged engine makes 250 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 310 lb-ft of torque at a low 2,000 rpm. Should you go cheap with your choice of gasoline, the power gets knocked-down to 227 horsepower on regular gas. That’s enough power to provide torque-steer at slow speeds, something the Mazda could really improve upon, especially on an AWD vehicle. Once moving there is plenty of low- and mid-range passing power, accompanied by a slight turbo whistle.
The power is put down to the wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission. A manual-shift mode is available yet not really needed and there’s Sport mode, which actually does make a difference. A special shout-out here goes to Mazda for using a transmission that has actual gears in it as opposed to those whiny constantly variable transmissions. That itself makes a big difference in terms of how the CX-9 feels.
When not hooning, the CX-9 is extremely (really, it is extremely) quiet and smooth. I’d say that it is the smoothest and quietest riding of its direct competitors. I feel like it is important to state that this smoothness as it isn’t always apparent in a quick dealer road test but becomes visible when stuck in traffic for far too long several days in row.
The exterior design of the CX-9 might its biggest selling point. It is simply a great looking vehicle. Mazda has really developed its own design language, especially in the front and in the light design. It’s different without being too different. My only issue with the front-end is the fact that the grill is likely to suffer damages in the smallest of parking lot bumps, as there is nothing that even pretends to be a bumper in front of it.
The most important part of these vehicle is on the inside, however. Here, the CX-9 gets a few cheers and one big jeer. The cheers include overall comfort and nice quality of materials. The Grand Touring model seen in these pictures seems especially upscale with its soft leather covered seats. Low windshield yields great forward visibility and there is a nice head-up display. Despite this being a top model, the front seats were not ventilated, only heated.
The seats, front and back, are very comfortable. The five main passengers have plenty of space and shouldn’t have anything to complain about. The third is best suited for younger than teenage kids or someone you just don’t like. The access to the third row is pretty good but it’s the getting out that requires some dexterity. Mazda also gets points for a good amount of concealed storage space behind the third row seat, as well as a temporary spare tire.
But the CX-9 gets demerits for the fact that the hatch simply does not open high enough. If you’re over six feet tall, you will likely bang your head on it. And while there is a surprisingly generous amount of space behind the third row seat, much of it cannot be used because of the sloping rear window/hatch design. Had the upper rear end of the vehicle been more angular, the hatch would open higher and the cargo space would be increased.
The really big jeer is the lack of the much desired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration. Bluetooth or USB connections are the only way to stream music off personal devices. Overall, the infotainment seems dated, and while it tries to mimic the Audi system with large center mounted knob, it is not very intuitive to use at first. If Mitsubishi can have the full phone integration, there is no reason why other makers can’t implement it. There are four USB ports, two front and two in the back, but the rear ones are for charging only. There is only one 12v socket upfront and it is kind of hidden low on the passenger side, away from the driver. There is one more 12v socket in the trunk.
The 2018 Mazda CX-9 starts at $32,130 for a Sport model with front-wheel-drive. The vehicle in these pictures is a loaded Grand Touring model with AWD, with the manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $44,175. The differences in prices between the CX-9 and its competition are really minor. In these high-volume models, the final price is really determined by how much a dealer is willing to take off the top.
Fun-to-drive three-row crossover is an oxymoron. But it really shouldn’t be and the Mazda CX-9 proves that. Don’t compare the CX-9 to a BMW X5 M, the AMG Benzes, or the supercharged Range Rovers. Compare it to the Honda Pilots and Toyota Highlanders of the world and you might be pleasantly surprised as the CX-9 is the clear enthusiast’s choice of that market segment.
[Disclaimer: Mazda North America provided the vehicle for the purpose of this review. All images copyright Kamil Kaluski/Redusernab 2018]