There are hundreds of configurations and possibilities for three-row SUVs. There was a time when only American automakers offered large brutes that were capable of posing as minivans in more stylish bodies. Now, you’re a loser if you don’t have a three-row SUV in your arsenal. But these three-row SUVs, they’re really only catering to a specific type of individual – the person that only needs three rows occasionally, likes a spacious vehicle, doesn’t care about how it drives, and wants all-wheel drive and/or a decent amount of ride height for that one day in winter. The 2019 Mazda CX-9 Signature says no thank you to that trend.
Newer SUVs with more tech, more interior space, and more powerful powertrains have entered the market since the CX-9 first appeared in its current iteration in 2016. But few have the same athleticism as Mazda’s largest offering. “Zoom-Zoom” has been out for some time, but the CX-9 proves that owning a seven-passenger SUV doesn’t have to suck. Just because you popped five kids out doesn’t mean your life is over – at least from an automotive standpoint. Purchase a CX-9, and you won’t hate your life every time you drive it.
Compare the CX-9 against its rivals in terms of hardcore numbers and the Mazda will lose the comparison every time. This isn’t a car you can classify by numbers – it’s one of the few cars that surpasses them. Mazda is famous for its MX-5 Miata, which by many, including this cynic, is considered to be one of the best cars ever made, and the CX-9 feels like a natural evolution to the little roadster. Carry seven in luxury and have a chassis that’s fun to drive? Mazda’s leaving the auto industry for witchcraft, because that shouldn’t be possible.
I’m a sucker for Mazda’s current designs. I really don’t think the automaker has an ugly car in its lineup, and that sentiment includes the CX-9. Three-row SUVs aren’t good looking, as the majority of vehicles put things like interior space and good cargo capacity over curvy lines. Mazda’s designers told the world to hold their beer while they made a good-looking SUV.
Curvy and stylish, the CX-9 is one of the more handsome SUVs on the market. It zags the boxy trend of other SUVs for something much more aesthetically pleasing. It does so at a cost, more on that later, but the end result is something that’s not hideous and rugged just for the sake of being different. It’s the right amount of upscale. The CX-9 also shares a lot of the same exterior design qualities as the smaller CX-5 and CX-3, which is a plus, as it’s a clear progression in size, while remaining similar.
The Signature trim is relatively new to the family and brings near luxury features to the SUV. On the outside, the range-topping Signature comes with LED lighting, 20-inch wheels, aluminum roof rails, adaptive front headlights, heated exterior mirrors, and rain-sensing windshield wipers. I’m not 100 percent sure if this is bespoke to the Signature trim, but the SUV came with LED lighting that outlines the front grille. When you unlock the vehicle and the daytime-running lights come on, the grille lights up in a gorgeous way. It’s that kind of attention to detail that makes the CX-9 so special on the outside.
One, I mean me, could argue that Mazda has the prettiest interiors of all mainstream brands. The Signature trim we tested was fitted with Auburn Nappa leather seats that were an incredible color. If I could buy furniture in this color, I totally would. It’s a mix between red and brown and it’s simply divine. But the interior shines beyond the color of the leather on the seats and dashboard. It shines because it’s masterfully constructed and simplistic.
I’m especially fond of the center console and the dashboard that are both elegant yet easy to use. The buttons and dials for the infotainment system and smartly located behind the gear shifter, while the HVAC controls are on the center console and in front of the shifter. So it’s impossible to go change the volume and turn the A/C up. It is, though, possible to attempt to turn the volume up and change the radio station, but that’s another story.
The seats in the first two rows feel great, comfortable and spacious for long journeys, but the third row is a tough place to be. That roofline and those curves wreak havoc for people in the third row, which has some of the smallest legroom for the segment. Cargo space is also on the lower end of things, as it offers just 71.2 cubic feet of space. The newer, boxier Volkswagen Atlas has 96.8 cubic feet of space. Without any context, 71.2 cubic feet sounds like a lot, until you see what 96.8 cubic feet looks like.
Still, despite the tight third row and small cargo area, the CX-9 is so pretty that it’s easy to overlook these flaws. It’s also family friendly, as it has this smart seatbelt system that shows you exactly which seat doesn’t have a seatbelt on. It’s not enough to know that someone in the second row doesn’t have their belt on, but this lets you yell at Timmy in the right seat for constantly forgetting to buckle his seatbelt. Danggit Timmy.
A thick, leather-wrapped steering wheel, Santos Rosewood inlays, LED accent lighting, and those gorgeous Nappa leather seats are bespoke to the Signature. Other standard features include a moonroof, a Bose 12-speaker audio system, a head-up display, ventilated and heated front seats, a heated steering wheel, and a power liftgate.
In terms of tech, the Signature is great, coming with things like an 8-inch touchscreen, a 7-inch LCD display in the instrument cluster, a 360-degree camera, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto (both new additions for 2019), and a full suite of safety features. Unfortunately, there are a few issues with the tech.
For one, the rearview and 360-degree cameras are in like 120 p. If your YouTube video was displaying content in this quality, you’d hurl your phone at the wall and curse at it. It’s awful and is a hindrance instead of an assistant. Then, there’s the fact that the touchscreen isn’t a touchscreen when the car’s moving, forcing you to use the buttons and dials. That’s not a big issue, as the buttons and dials are intuitive, but it’s easier to just touch the screen when you’re driving.
In a segment where V6s reign supreme, the CX-9 may seem like it’s on the back foot with its turbocharged four-cylinder. But that couldn’t be farther from the case. At 250 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, the turbocharged 2.5-liter unit not only produces an ample amount, but its also relatively fuel efficient. Power is routed through a six-speed automatic transmission – a little old for the segment – with all-wheel drive coming as standard on the high-ranging Signature trim. Every other CX-9 comes with front-wheel drive.
While I’m usually against getting all-wheel drive in cars, because it’s more of a safety net and doesn’t really do anything, especially as the majority of states don’t see that much snow, the CX-9 needs all-wheel drive. Why? Because it torque steers. In a nod to front-wheel-drive performance vehicles from the past, flooring the CX-9 off the line reveals a strong tug to the right and some wheel spin. It’s funny to experience the phenomenon in a 4,300-pound SUV. While the all-wheel-drive system didn’t help on dry pavement, I’m sure it would prove to be useful when the weather takes a turn.
The gutsy, punchy engine in the CX-9 isn’t the only impressive thing. This SUV, despite its large size, despite its beautiful cabin, despite the fact that it can seat seven, CX-9 feels like a larger evolution of the MX-5. Its ride is stiffer than other seven-passenger SUVs, which translates to much better handling. And then there’s the feedback from the steering wheel, which is actual feedback. The combination of the engine, firm suspension, and feedback makes the CX-9 fun to drive on a windy road, which is unusual and somewhat unnatural.
I’m sure the majority of consumer don’t care about having a seven-passenger SUV that’s more enjoyable than the majority of sedans on the market. But for the few out there that do, the CX-9 is wonderful. If I had to buy a SUV of this size, it’d be the CX-9 and it all boils down to the way this thing handles.
Fuel economy, as alluded to earlier, is good. Official fuel economy for all-wheel-drive CX-9s is rated at 23 mpg combined. We managed to get 21 mpg, which is bang on.
In a rare showing for the midsize SUV segment, the CX-9 brings something to the table for everyone. It’s relatively fuel efficient, knocking on the door of luxury, and gorgeous (for an SUV). It’s also more fun to drive than any affordable SUV deserves to be. It feels like a larger, more grown up version of the MX-5 with five extra seats. There’s a reason why every person that got into the SUV raved about it – because it’s darn good.
Suffering in areas where other SUVs excel – especially in terms of interior space – the CX-9 requires compromise, similar to an actual sports car. For some, the CX-9 won’t make sense. For everyone else, it’s simply the best in its class. Beyond anything else, it deserves recognition and praise for not making owners hate their lives when shuffling seven people around.