2017 Mazda CX-9 Signature Test Drive And Review: Luxury Without The Brand – Forbes
How do you define luxury? In the automotive world, the traditional definition has been brand. Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Jaguar, Land Rover, Audi, Cadillac, Lincoln, Lexus, Infiniti and Acura and others make up the luxury field. Mazda has never been considered a luxury brand, but maybe it’s time to reconsider that classification. The 2017 Mazda CX-9 Signature is the most luxurious vehicle that the Japanese brand has produced to date, defying tradition by offering premium and advanced features that rival accepted luxury offerings.
CX-9 has been Mazda’s flagship three-row crossover SUV ever since its debut as a 2006 model and underwent a complete makeover for the 2016 model year. It returns basically unchanged for the 2017 campaign.
The elegant exterior is an expression of Mazda’s Kodo “Soul of Motion” design language, the same philosophy that helps define the look of the CX-3 and CX-5 crossovers. A big, open-mouthed grille proudly sports a chrome flying “M” badge at center. My test vehicle, a top-of-the-line Signature trim model, was equipped with LED grille accent lighting, which looked great at night. Expressive LED headlights and fog lights peer out from squinting eye ports. The long hood bulges modestly at the center, and a strong shoulder line carries back all the way to the tail lights. Twenty-inch aluminum alloy wheels fill the arches. The greenhouse is a bit squat, and the windshield is raked. The whole impression is of a vehicle in motion, even when parked. CX-9 is elegant and beautifully finished.
Inside, the details stand out. Genuine rosewood trim surrounds the center console, making it feel more like furniture than an automotive filler piece. Aluminum trim in varying satin and polished finishes is lovely to look at and enhances the upscale look without distraction. There’s a minimum of buttons and controls on the center console and center stack, and the upper dash seems to rest on a horizontal aluminum beam that gives a great sense of solidity. Storage space abounds, with several useful covered bins and an open tray beneath the center stack that’s very useful. The 8-inch navigation screen is attached to the top of the dashboard, handily in the driver’s line of vision. The instrument panel is composed of three round sections housing an analog speedometer, tachometer and a digital driver information system. High-quality leather seating surfaces reinforce the comfortable interior. The overall look and feel of the cabin is very harmonious and elegant and would be at home in a luxury vehicle.
Premium status is defined by more than build quality; it is also defined by content. The Signature trim level comes with technology that goes beyond the baseline of luxury. Not only will you find heated Nappa leather seats, premium Bose sound, a power liftgate with adjustable height and keyless entry with pushbutton start, you’ll also find a host of sophisticated driver assistance technology. Most prominent is the Active Driving Display, a head-up information screen that is projected on the windshield. Blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert, High Beam Control (HBC), Lane Keep Assist (LKA), radar adaptive cruise control, rear backup sensor, Smart City Brake Support (SCBC) and Smart Brake Support (SBS) are all included on the Signature trim, optional on some lower trim levels.
CX-9 gets a new engine, the SKYACTIV-G 2.5T. It’s a 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder direct injection unit that’s tuned to produce 250 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque with 93-octane (Premium) gas, or 227 hp with 87-octane (Regular) gasoline. A six-speed automatic transmission with Sport and manual-shift mode sends the power to the wheels. Signature models, like my test vehicle, come with i-ACTIV all-wheel drive, an optional feature for other trim levels above the standard front-wheel drive setup. The engine and transmission combination delivers ultra-smooth operation, with sufficient kick from the turbo to introduce some driving excitement. Mazda’s hallmark is balanced performance, and CX-9 lives up to that with a very nimble suspension (MacPherson struts front/multi-link rear) aided by stabilizer bars front and rear. Standard electronic features like Roll Stability Control, Dynamic Stability Control and Traction Control make the ride even more secure. Should you choose to haul a small trailer with your CX-9 (up to 3,500 lbs), the standard inclusion of Trailer Sway Control will be a comfort.
Mazda states that they’ve installed 53 lbs of noise-deadening insulation below the floor of the CX-9, which must account for the serenely quiet cabin ambiance. I drove the CX-9 on a round trip from Los Angeles to Palm Springs on crowded freeways in extremely inclement weather (for us, that means heavy rain). The CX-9 proved stable, quiet and secure in all conditions, despite wearing all-season tires. I appreciated the rain-sensing front windshield wipers and fixed intermittent rear wiper very much, as I had a good clear view out of the big windows without the need to constantly fuss with the controls.
My second- and third-row passengers praised the CX-9’s comfort and luxury. I had a full load of adults, seven people including me, for a stretch, and those in the rear did not feel penalized for a short ride. Luggage space of 14.4 cubic feet was still available behind the third row. Folding down the third row opened up 38.2 cubic feet, and flopping the second row allowed for 71.2 cubic feet of cargo to be stuffed into the roomy CX-9.
CX-9 is available in four trim levels: Sport (starting at $31,520); Touring (starting at $35,970); Grand Touring (starting at $40,170); and Signature, already loaded at $44,015. Pricing for 2017 hasn’t yet been announced, but it is not predicted to change significantly. Front-wheel drive CX-9s come with an EPA estimate of 22 mpg city/28 mpg highway, while all-wheel drive models like my test vehicle get dinged one mpg to 21 mpg city/27 mpg highway – totally worth the confidence of all-wheel drive.
CX-9 isn’t the only three-row crossover that’s inching toward luxury. The Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander can each be ordered with a significant level of equipment. The Hyundai Santa Fe and Kia Sorento pile on features that would have been unimaginable for a non-luxury brand. The Dodge Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee are also worth considering, and the Ford Flex and Nissan Pathfinder have great levels of equipment.
As distinctions between luxury and non-luxury vehicles disappear, the marketplace gets more interesting and rewarding for consumers. The 2017 Mazda CX-9 stands as an example that luxury is in the eye of the buyer, not in the brand name on the grille.
Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.