The new crossover segment encourages car makers to be more creative than they have in years. Witness the 2007 Mazda CX-9, Mazda's largest car sporting a unique exterior look that embodies the company's "zoom-zoom" theme. The CX-9 works as a minivan replacement, and has three rows of seats for maximum people-carrying capacity.
The CX-9 looks like a larger version of the company's previous crossover, the CX-7. A much larger version. With its 20-inch wheels and over 16-foot length, it looks big when it rolls up next to you. Its unique Mazda styling gives it a sporty look, although its narrowed rear windows and large D pillars seriously hamper rear visibility.
Heavily padded seats make it a comfortable car to sit in, and it offers a pretty smooth driving experience. Its engine moves this big car with little effort, while the six-speed automatic's high gears keep engine RPMs low during freeway driving. The stereo controls are the same poor layout we saw in the Mazdaspeed3, but the Bose audio system sounds very nice.
Test the tech: Working at the beach
Two tech items caught our eye when we got a hold of the CX-9: standard Bluetooth cell phone integration and an optional AC outlet. With our trusty laptop and cell phone, we did what we've always wanted to do: spend a day working at the beach. Bluetooth wasn't entirely necessary for this operation, but it made the car feel more like a mobile office. The AC outlet would keep our laptop running for as long as we needed.
We loaded up our equipment, forwarded our office phone to our cell, told the boss we would be online soon, and drove out to Rockaway Beach, on the Pacific coast just south of San Francisco. It was a day only a surfer could love, with cold wind and an overcast of fog making outside activities out of the question. But it made for some nice office scenery as we sat in the CX-9.
Laptop powered-up and cell phone linked to the car, we prepared for a day in our mobile office.
Before we set out, we paired up our Samsung SGH-D807 phone with the car, using its voice command system. The car shows visual feedback about phone pairing and numbers dialed in an LED display at the top of the stack. When we got to the beach, we plugged our laptop into the car's AC outlet and slid a Sprint Mobile Broadband card into the laptop's PC card slot. All communications were online.
The front and middle row seats feel like big recliners, and were more comfortable than our office chairs. We chose to work from the front seat so we could use the phone button on the steering wheel whenever we wanted to answer or place a call. Moving the seat back all the way and telescoping the steering wheel in gave ample room for our laptop, although some kind of fold-down desk would have been nice. Well, the CX-9 isn't exactly an executive limousine.
During our time in the car, we worked on this review, used the Web, and kept in contact with the office through our cell phone. The call quality was very good--we could easily hear and be heard. We had music on hand through the car's stereo system and, although we were tempted, we didn't make use of the rear-seat entertainment option.
In the cabin
With the size of this car and the big, comfortable seats, the interior feels like a well-furnished living room. But the interior decorator must have been schizophrenic, as interior accents combine fake wood, aluminum-looking strips, and glossy, piano-black panels. Someone needs to tell Mazda to either go with the wood or with the aluminum look, but not both, and we can do without the glossy-black plastic entirely.
The 'key' for this car is a credit card-size piece of plastic--an RFID transmitter that lets you open the doors and start the engine without taking it from your pocket. We like the convenience of these keyless start systems, and the shape of the Mazda transmitter makes it fit easily in pockets, wallets, and purses.
The auxiliary audio input is securely and conveniently placed for hooking up an iPod.
The stereo in our review car uses the same horrible arrangement as in the Mazdaspeed3, with the volume knob placed in the center, tuning on the left, and audio settings on the right. If the navigation option were present, the LCD would replace the stereo interface. The six-disc changer doesn't play MP3s, a surprising omission in any modern car. But the stereo is prepped for satellite radio, and an auxiliary audio jack is mounted in the center console, making it a good place to keep an iPod.
We were impressed by the audio quality. As part of the rear-seat entertainment option, the car also got an upgraded 296-watt 11-speaker Bose audio system, with 5.1 surround sound. This system produces a refined sound, without overwhelming bass or highs. The separation is good, and Bose's CenterPoint technology helps fill the car's cabin.
Playing a DVD in the rear-seat video system, the audio sounded even better. The speakers seemed designed to produce a theater-like experience. But we weren't too impressed with the video quality from the ceiling-mounted LCD. We noticed jaggy edges and horizontal lines running through the picture.
Although the sound quality was excellent with the rear-seat DVD option, the video quality was a little weak.
We mentioned the Bluetooth cell phone integration, standard at the Touring and Grand Touring trim levels. This system is easy to use through its voice command system, but it won't copy over your phone book. You have to make entries one at a time into the car's phone book.
Our review car didn't have the navigation option, but we've seen Mazda's system before in the CX-7, and found it worked well. We also made use of the third-row seating for one trip. Mazda took pains to make access to the third row easy, but the ride in back accentuates the stiff nature of the suspension, which is mitigated somewhat by the large, 20-inch wheels.
Under the hood
Although the CX-9 seems big, its 263 horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine has no problem moving the car along, giving it enough strong acceleration to power through freeway on-ramps and take off fast from a traffic light. Its six-speed automatic shifts smoothly and keeps engine RPMs reasonably low at freeway speeds.
But fuel economy isn't that great, with an EPA-rated 16mpg in the city and 22mpg on the highway for the all-wheel-drive version. We didn't get an accurate reading while we had the car, but it seemed we were tending toward a number in the mid-teens. The emission rating is better, with the car getting a ULEV II rating from California's Air Resources Board.
The powertrain is very modern in the CX-9, using variable-valve timing and a six-speed automatic, but the mileage isn't impressive.
As mentioned above, the suspension in the car is pretty rigid, in keeping with Mazda's sports car ideals. The ride can be jouncy, but the 20-inch wheels help smooth things over. Our car also felt a little jerky when starting from a stop, but that could be due to the included towing package, which changes the engine characteristics to add torque at low speeds.
The steering wheel feels nice and tight, with good feedback and control over the wheels. The car is a little big for really hard cornering, though, and we weren't bold enough to push it too hard.
During parking maneuvers, we weren't happy with the rear visibility, which is seriously compromised by big D pillars and narrow windows. But this problem can be solved with the optional rear-view camera, which comes as part of the navigation package. Standard parking assistance would be a very useful feature on the CX-9.
The 2007 Mazda CX-9 comes in three trim levels, starting at $29,630, but the tech doesn't really start getting interesting until the middle, Touring trim level, which includes Bluetooth cell phone integration standard. Our CX-9 was the top-trim Grand Touring, with all-wheel-drive, for a base price of $33,875. Also included: the Rear Seat Entertainment package--which adds the Bose sound system and six-disc changer for $2,550--and the Towing package, for $525. Along with a $595 destination charge, the total came out to $37,555.
Although on the pricey side, we liked the comfort and drivability of the Mazda CX-9. It's a good-looking car that we were happy to spend time in. We would have a hard time choosing between it and the Chrysler Pacifica, a comparably priced crossover with similar technology. We also think the CX-9 compares favorably to the Mercedes-Benz R350, a much more expensive car.