After spending a week with the top-of-the-line 2008 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring, we found much that we liked; however, we also found almost every positive thing we had to say about the SUV came with a caveat.
Inside, the CX-9's leather seats and ambient lighting give the appearance of luxury, but the materials feel cheap compared with a true luxury vehicle. The specification sheet touts an impressive amount of cabin tech, but the components don't work well together, creating a confusing experience. Overall, we formed a positive impression of the CX-9, but the vehicle lacks the final bit of polish that would make it truly shine.
Outside, the CX-9 appears performance oriented, and we found that it's pretty nimble for an SUV. Bulging fenders, a steeply raked windscreen, and aggressive angular headlamps create a profile reminiscent of a sports car. The CX-9 looks much smaller from a distance than it actually is. In fact, it was mistaken numerous times for its smaller, yet similar looking, brother, the CX-7. But once you're upon the CX-9 (or in it), the difference in scale is apparent.
Test the tech: Mazda's new Bluetooth system
For the 2008 model year, Mazda added Bluetooth hands-free calling to the CX-9 as a standard feature for the Touring and Grand Touring models. So, we decided to put it the test.
We started digging through the touch-screen interface, looking for an option to activate and pair the system with our phone. After a few moments of searching fruitlessly, we consulted the instruction manual and found that all interactions with this hands-free system are voice activated via a button on the steering wheel.
Putting the manual away, we pushed the telephone button on the steering wheel. Suddenly, the CX-9 started shouting at us in French. As we don't know French, we tried to tell the Mazda to speak English, but because we couldn't understand the prompts, we were shooting in the dark. So, again, out came the owner's manual to guide us toward selecting the proper language. At this point, we'd been in the CX-9 for about 20 minutes and hadn't even got it to pair with our phone.
With the language issues sorted, it was time to link our phone. Following the voice prompts, we were able to activate the Bluetooth system, assign a unique PIN, and link our T-Mobile Shadow relatively easily.
The system didn't automatically sync our address book, but without a screen to view the numbers on, it wouldn't be of much use anyway. What the CX-9 did let us do is to individually transfer numbers to an address book and assign a voice tag to each number. This process was painstakingly slow, so we stopped after a few numbers. A better solution would be to display the phonebook on the neglected touch screen in the center console.
Calls through the hands-free system were loud and clear, but like most speakerphones the system isn't full duplex. This means only one person can be talking at a time while the system switches from listening to speaking modes. Disappointingly, the delay between the switch is almost a half a second long, adding an awkward two-way radio quality to conversation. Adding insult to injury, the system has a hair trigger and a simple clearing of the throat can cause half a statement to be missed.
To further confuse things, in the CX-9, the voice recognition system for the hands-free and the navigation are two separate systems, complete with two separate buttons on the steering wheel.
The Mazda Bluetooth hands-free system isn't flawed so much in execution as it is in design. However, the system just isn't easy to use, which is altogether the point of a hands-free system in the first place. Once you get over the steep learning curve, the system works the way Mazda intended, but we shouldn't have to spend a half hour sitting in the driveway figuring out the phone.
In the cabin
With its folding third-row seats, the CX-9 can seat up to seven passengers, according to Mazda. Even all the way back in the last row, there's room for two adults to sit rather comfortably, though getting all the way back there is a bit tricky. Behind the third row is a spacious 17.2-cubic-foot storage area with plenty of space for groceries. With the second and third-row seats folded flat, the cargo volume jumps to a downright cavernous 100.7 cubic feet.
The cabin of the CX-9 Grand Touring model is less about the appearance of performance and more about the appearance of luxury, with electroluminescent gauges, ambient blue lighting, and a smart-card keyless entry and start system that lets you lock, unlock, and start the vehicle without taking the keycard out of your pocket. Also standard at this trim level are leather seats and trim. Our test model came with a Sand colored interior that looked fantastic, but felt cheap and slick. During spirited driving, we were sliding all over the place. Faux-wood trim and plastic dash materials round out an interior that looks luxurious, without actually being luxurious.