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.
There are two separate voice recognition systems activated by two separate buttons.
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.
The CX-9's center stack is nice to look at, but at times frustrating to use.
The addition of the Assist package adds a DVD-based navigation system with voice command and touch screen. The navigation system's interface has a pretty steep learning curve with many options located in places we didn't expect. While the system allowed for relatively simple entry of addresses, the point-of-interest database was very limited and difficult to access. Specifically, the navigation made searching for a specific POI difficult as it defaulted to showing the map littered with icons instead of a searchable list once the POI category was chosen. While this may be good for finding something like the nearest gas station, it was a nightmare to find, for example, a specific restaurant where you didn't already know the location.
Once we'd gotten past Mazda's backward destination selection system, the device performed beautifully, showing crisp maps and overlays detailing the next step. We especially love how the navigation system only speaks driving directions through the front left speaker, directly at the driver without interrupting the music for other passengers. It's a shame that the front end of this interaction isn't smoother.
In a vehicle as large as the CX-9, there are huge blind spots toward the rear of the vehicle, and to combat this our vehicle was equipped with a back-up camera, which saved us from a few bumps, and a blind spot detection system that illuminates an LED on the side view mirrors if a vehicle is in your blind spot. If the turn signal is activated while the CX-9 detects a vehicle, the system alerts the driver with a chime. We found this system to be invaluable for merging in heavy traffic. We simply clicked on our turn signal and merged when the chime stopped.
The next option we appreciated on our CX-9 was the Rear Seat Entertainment Package with Bose. The name is misleading because this package adds just as much to the front of the audio system as it does at the back. Specifically, it upgrades the stereo system to a 296-watt Bose system with a six-disc, in-dash changer and 11 speakers. Listening to MP3 CDs, we found the system to be more than adequate. The system really shined when a standard audio CD was inserted and the Bose system was allowed to work its full range.
Those who want to use their MP3 player with the CX-9's stereo will be sad to hear that the CX-9 offers no USB or iPod support. Instead they'll have to use the aux-in jack hidden in the center console. Oddly enough, if the CX-9 is equipped with Sirius satellite radio, such as ours was, the aux-in is disabled, leaving confused owners with what amounts to a dead jack.
A fold-down DVD player provides entertainment for second- and third-row passengers.
Second- and third-row passengers are treated to a 9-inch flip-down DVD player with two sets of wireless headphones. DVD playback was crisp and clear. Sound was good coming through the headphones and great when piped through the 5.1-surround Bose system.
Under the hood
On a winding road is where the 2008 Mazda CX-9 stands apart from other SUVs. The suspension is tuned to keep the vehicle relatively flat in the turns, not sports-car flat, but flatter than most SUVs we've tested. This, coupled with an all-wheel-drive system that shifts power around on demand, means that it's pretty easy to end up going faster in the turns than a vehicle this size should. Once you have reached that point, the various traction control systems step in and all but shut down the engine, bringing the vehicle to a crawl. While such an electronic nanny would be inexcusable in a sports coupe or sedan, we can understand why Mazda wouldn't want drivers power-sliding through turns in a 4,500-pound SUV.
Its 3.7-liter V-6 engine sends power through a six-speed automatic transmission. Understandably, 273 horsepower in a vehicle this size does not make the CX-9 a quarter mile star, but there's more than enough torque for freeway merges. Interestingly enough, the CX-9 felt faster than the smaller, but similarly powered,, but this is probably because of the Murano's continuously variable transmission being tuned for economy over performance.
The CX-9's trip computer does not come with the now-requisite mpg meter, so we measured with thewe happened to be testing simultaneously. The Environmental Protection Agency rated the fuel economy at 15 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway; our meter showed an average of 17.5 mpg over a mixed driving cycle.
The Mazda CX-9's cabin electronics just feel tacked on and unfinished. The CX-9 owner faces the daunting task of learning two flawed and independent interfaces if they want to fully utilize what on paper is a strong list of features. For this reason, we have to give the CX-9 a low design score, which is sad because we absolutely love the muscular aesthetic the vehicle possesses. We were also impressed by the road-handling capabilities and performance.
In the Grand Touring model, Mazda garnishes the CX-9 with chrome trim, fog lamps, HID headlamps, and enormous 20-inch wheels, all of which works together to enhance the sporty look. Our test model was bathed in Crystal White Pearl Mica, a $200 premium-option paint. While the color looked great, paying extra for what is essentially a white vehicle raised a few eyebrows. Adding up the base price ($34,655), the Assist package ($2,500), the Rear Seat Entertainment package ($2,500), and the various other options (Sirius, paint, etc.) brings us to a total MSRP of $41,180.
For about the same amount of money, the prospective CX-9 owner could have a similarly equipped 2008 Toyota Highlander Limited. The cabin tech is better integrated and there are many more neat touches that make living with the Highlander more pleasant. Plus, fuel misers have the option to drop an extra $5,000 and spring for the Highlander Hybrid, which boosts fuel economy to 27 city mpg and 24 highway mpg. On the other hand, the Highlander looks and drives like an appliance, while the CX-9 is probably the best looking and performing SUV in its class. If Mazda can fine tune the cabin tech and improve the interior amenities in the next revision cycle to make them work with each other and, more importantly, with the driver, it'll have a winner on its hands.