SENIOR ROAD TEST EDITOR NATALIE NEFF: My art-professor friend, Jessica, was visiting from Austin, Texas, during my stint in the Mazda CX-9. She happens to be in the market for new wheels and has been spending a lot of time researching and test-driving all sorts of vehicles to really nail down something she likes. I don't think she has ever owned a new car, and instead has spent the last, oh, 15 years or so driving a variety of “pre-loved” Honda Civic hatches and a hand-me-down Pontiac Vibe, all of which she sincerely enjoyed. Like me, she's a hatchback girl at heart.
But here's the thing: She recently made tenure and wants to reward herself for all the years of abstemiousness (read: she's an artist) with, in her words, “a little bit of luxury.” Oh, and she's a new-ish mom and often has to tote around her 4-year-old (and all the gear that goes with) well as all of her artist stuff, so she needs at least a little bit of room.
She took one look at the Mazda and immediately responded to the interior. It helped that our particular model sported creamy light-gray leather seats with matching door panel inserts and headliner, which definitely lends the trucklet a richer feel than the more common all-black getup, but to her civilian eyes (sorry, my term for non-auto-journo), it read like pure luxury. At the time, she was already leaning toward getting a new CX-5. She loved the way it handled when she took one for a test drive; I just hope her heart isn't broken to learn that creamy CX-9 interior isn't available on the smaller ute.
OK, so that's a lot of intro to my own thoughts on the 2014 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring, but I do love to see how civilians respond to the things I bring home. For my own part, I think Mazda does a great job in packaging. It's a bit bigger a vehicle than I'd probably like to drive on a daily basis, but for a three-row ute, it feels a lot more compact than something like a Ford Explorer. Not compact in the sense that it feels cramped inside; rather, that there's a lot more space inside than its footprint might otherwise telegraph.
It definitely drives smaller than an Explorer, too, the 3.7-liter moving its mass with ease, making it feel a lot lighter than a similarly equipped Explorer. I have no complaints on the CX-9's responsiveness in the shifting and steering departments.
And the silhouette is arguably more attractive than the Ford's. That said, I don't find the CX-9 to sport much in the way of luxury. The materials are of a mediocre quality, and there's not a whole heckuva lot of style going on inside.
However, I love, love, love that Mazda still relies primarily on knobs and rocker-type switches for both climate controls and the radio. They're efficient, easy to access and safe to operate. In fact, I dub myself the official champion of the CX-9's center stack layout, declaring it the best out there from a switchgear standpoint. You can fiddle all you want with the styling finer points, oh ye automakers, but if you want to design the perfect center stack, seriously, copy Mazda's. Volume knob left, tuner knob right, driver and passenger temp knobs flanking a center fan speed knob, coordinating buttons for respective controls amidst, toggles below. Done.
But…that's not to say all it is all puppy dogs and butterflies in Mazda infotainment-land. I'm seriously disappointed with the execution of the main touchscreen interface itself, with the size of the icons and tabs and other pixilated controls. It takes a significant amount of concentration to hit just the right spot on the screen to, say, change the radio station, concentration that is therefore pulled away from the road. And that sucks.
Sigh. I hate that I've become the anti-touchscreen harpy 'round here, but until automakers get it right, you're gonna hear me complain.
WEST COAST EDITOR MARK VAUGHN: The 2014 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring is perfect for someone who needs the utility of a minivan, but doesn't want to die of boredom while driving it. The CX-9 is, by minivan standards, which are admittedly at the bottom of the barrel, sort of fun and responsive to drive. This is Mazda, after all, the company that beat us over the head with its “Zoom-Zoom” campaign featuring the kid from “Damien Omen III The Reweaseling.” So among cars that are big enough to be practical, the CX-9 leads the pack on the track.
Trouble is, during the time I had it, I never took it to a track, or even to a moderately twisty road. Owners probably won't take it to a track either, but they might enjoy the occasional twisty road. I drove it only briefly in the most mundane suburbia. Nonetheless, the steering and handling felt pretty responsive by the standards of the class, and the acceleration was a little bit beyond brisk. With the traction control system off, the 273-hp CX-9 got a 6.9-second 0-to-60 mph time. But that might have been with the very slightest of downhill assists. So in scientifically perfect conditions you could say the CX-9 gets to 60 mph in the low sevens. That's still pretty good considering how practical this beast is and that our Grand Touring all-wheel drive test model was 4,559 pounds.
The four-wheel vented discs stopped the CX-9 from 60 mph in 128 feet with no drama.
The trappings of the $40K top-of-the-line Grand Touring felt entirely reasonable and not just like items stuffed onto the package list to boost the seller's bottom line. I liked the perforated leather seats with suede inserts in front and the redundant controls on the leather steering wheel. The optional $2,435 GT technology package on my CX-9 had a good 10-speaker Bose audio system and a workable touchscreen navigation system. I could have done without the power moonroof.
Otherwise the CX-9 comes well-loaded. I counted 12 cupholders throughout -- four for the third-row seat occupants alone -- 10 tie-down hooks in the rear cargo area and three 12-volt power outlets, and USB and AUX jacks. The 60/40 split second-row bench seat offered good headroom and room for three to access the separate rear climate control on our Grand Touring trim level. The two third-row seats had a lot less headroom, but were otherwise habitable. All seats fold flat with the headrests flipping down automatically to reveal more than 100 cubic feet of cargo room. The difference here is, unlike a minivan, you can't pile bicycles or other awkwardly tall things in back. Of course, that's what bike racks are for. But you do give up some cargo capacity for your sportiness.
Ultimately, this is pretty quick for what is essentially a minivan. It's easy and comfortable to drive and would likely be easy to live with.
2014 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring
Base Price: $37,420
As-Tested Price: $39,855
Drivetrain: 3.7-liter V6; AWD, six-speed automatic
Output: 273 hp @ 6,250 rpm, 270 lb-ft @ 4,250 rpm
Curb Weight: 4,559 lb
Fuel Economy (EPA City/Highway/Combined): 16/22/18 mpg
AW Observed Fuel Economy: 18.4 mpg
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