While Mazda gets miles of smiles from its smallest and lightest vehicle, the two-seat MX-5 Miata, its largest offering (the CX-9 crossover) better suits those Chicagoans with growing families to shuttle. Both make a bit of news this season.
Next month at the Chicago Auto Show (Feb. 9-18), Mazda debuts to the world the temptingly affordable sixth-generation 2020-model-year MX-5 Miata roadster. Also at the Mazda display, the current generation, seven-passenger CX-9
In the 2016 model year, the mid-size CX-9 underwent a much desired second-generation redesign considering Gen One debuted ten years earlier. Gen Two added upgraded interior nuances, stylish exterior upgrades and a powertrain contraction spotlighting an exclusive four-cylinder turbo (no more V-6). The wheelbase (distance between front and rear axle) grew by a welcome 2.3 inches, yet CX-9 shaved close to 200 pounds, refining already class-leading maneuverability and handling. In 2019, the three-row CX-9 adds perks delegated largely towards the two upscale trims.
Expect a retuned suspension calibration and enhanced soundproofing in all trims (Sport, Touring, Grand Touring and top-shelf Signature) for 2019. Ventilated seats are now part of Grand Touring and Signature editions. These two up-trims also now include side-view mirrors which fold in when locking and a 360-degree view monitor housed within the seven-inch multi-function screen. Popular Smartphone interplays Android Auto and Apple Car Play allowing phone and application interplay to filter through the color screen come standard in Touring, Grand Touring and Signature (why not add poor Sport to the list and make this millennial-must-have a staple across the board?)
When visiting the Chicago Auto Show's Mazda display, don't expect an assortment of pickups or heavy truck-based sport utilities. Mazda's sweet spot targets affordable compact and mid-sized sedans and crossovers... and the rear-drive two-seat Miata convertible.
If primarily hauling kids and their accompanying ancillary stuff, CX-9 excels. All four side doors swing open noticeably wide, easing egress and ingress into all three rows. However, its relatively pedestrian 3,500 towing capacity limits weekend boat hauling with other seven-passenger haulers better suited. That said, CX-9 continues as the most excitingly agile three-row crossovers out there from a non-luxury nameplate.
Sales of CX-9 rose 3.7 percent in calendar year 2018 compared with 2017 returns settling in at 28,257 units. Mazda's top seller in 2018 was again its more diminutive five-seat CX-5 crossover with 150,622 units.
The majority of the four trims offer front-wheel drive standard with "i-Active" all-wheel-drive optional, save for Signature, which markets exclusively as Midwest-friendly all-wheel drive.
Twenty-seven sensors help execute i-Active AWD achieve lightning quick responses. In normal operation, CX-9 operates with a majority of torque sent to the front wheels, but if conditions change, torque transfer can reach 50-50 front-to-rear.
Mazda serves up both Grand Touring and Signature fully loaded with no factory option packages and a tiny smattering of a-la-carte choices (premium exterior color paints for one). Entry Sport trims offer a power front seating package with Touring's Premium Package adding an upgraded sound system, power moon roof and front/rear parking sensors.
Our upscale Signature tester included as standard fare a new-for-2019 eye-pleasing Rosewood interior with wood trimming teaming with returning Nappa leather seating surfaces and leather-wrapped steering wheel completing an up-scale ambiance inside the family-oriented CX-9.
All trims thrive upon a dynamically-pressured turbocharged inline 2.5-liter four-cylinder cranking out 227 horsepower when utilizing regular, 87-octane fuel. Choose higher grade 93-octane premium unleaded and horsepower jumps to 250. The sole transmission is a rather pedestrian six-speed conventional automatic transmission.
All trims also boast G-Vectoring Control (GVC), contributing to Mazda's well-earned reputation for refined handling in a high-volume, non-luxury sector and employing spilt-second shifting electronics, to enhance handling by subtly transferring extra pounds of force to the front tires during cornering. This keeps CX-9 on its intended path with passengers planted.
Our all-wheel drive model averaged 20 miles per gallon in city driving and 26 mpg highway. Add two miles in each category if selecting front-wheel drive, a tad short of the always desired 30-miles-per-gallon plateau.
Front-drive Sport models check in at $32,275 in 2019, the lowest-priced CX-9 available. Our top-line all-wheel-drive Signature tester included a $45,365 starting price and $49,230 bottom line, representing the most opulent CX-9 to date. Extras included $100 floor mats, $200 pearl white mica paint, $575 illuminated door sill plates and $1,995 rear seat entertainment system.
The simplistic, easy read instrument panel appears very analog but through some slight-of-hand tech magic actually is projected animation with a circular center speedometer flanked by slightly smaller three-quarter orbs. Odometer and range-to-empty numbers conveniently remain constantly visible.
Rather than built into the center dash, the seven-inch multi-function color screen extends up from the dash a-la a flat screen television. It's a non-touch variety, operated via "Mazda Connect," a design popular within the Mazda family.
A 'Command Control' circular chrome twist-and-push knob between buckets allows scrolling through a host of tutorial options, selectable by an easy downward push. A smaller, stalk-like chrome volume knob resides to the right. Three quick-select buttons (home, music and navigation) reside in front of the twist-push dial for speedier access. It's not the most intuitive design, but secondary volume and station preset buttons on the face of the three-spoke steering wheel helps ease the process.
Grand Touring and Signature's standard heads-up display front windshield projection operates through Command Control.
Mazda's three-row CX-9 comes standard as a seven-person vehicle (2-3-2 seating) with no six-seat option (some minivans and crossovers offer two second-row Captain's chairs). The far rear, 50-50 split third-row seatbacks manually fold down onto seat cushions when extra cargo volume is desired, and pull back upward from the opened hatch via an inboard grab bar.
The second-row bench features a 60-40 split with seats designed to slide along a floor track once seat backs manually tilt forward. This allowed my 50-something-year-old creaky bones relatively unencumbered access to row three. In a pinch, two adults could negotiate this territory with limited head and leg room, but tweens and pre-teens will find this cove irresistible. The CX-9's mid-size dimensions can't offer the extra leg space found in full-size three-row crossovers.
Adding to the sporty narrative, all trims include dual exhaust outlets. The roof reaches its apex above the blackened B pillar, gently sloping back towards the lip spoiler/snow protector above the hatch window. Circular wheel arches rise above tires. Door panels and hood remain a smooth palate with a large front grille sporting Mazda's winged logo front and center.
2019 Mazda CX-9
Price as tested: $49,230
Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder turbo
Overall Length: 199.4 inches
Overall Width: 77.5 inches
Overall Height: 69 inches
Fuel Economy: 20 mpg city, 26 mpg highway
Curb weight: 2,383 pounds