A recent problem in the crossover segment seems to be that form and function don't always go hand in hand. While the edgy, stylish crossovers offer attractive looks they often suffer when it comes to interior space, while the cavernous and roomy selections tend to exhibit uninspiring, sometimes minivan-ish designs. Mazda's family-sized crossover, the 2008 Mazda CX-9, manages a spectacular design with spacious accommodations for seven passengers.
Between the CX-9 and the slightly smaller CX-7, Mazda has itself an incredible 1-2 punch in the crossover market that few, if any, manufacturers can compete with.
Based off the same platform as the Ford Edge, the 2008 Mazda CX-9 was a hit right from the start. Not just any vehicle could take home such prestigious awards as Motor Trend's SUV of the Year and the North American Truck of the Year in the same year, so the fact that the 2008 Mazda CX-9 now boasts both awards in its trophy case should make it an even more enticing buy. For those looking for a crossover that mixes stellar looks with a spacious interior and powerful, decently efficient engine, the CX-9 should be on the short list of what to check out.
If CX-9 looks familiar, don't worry, it's not dÃ©jÃ vu. The CX-9's design is essentially a stretched out and more toned-down version of the Mazda CX-7, making it more palatable to those turned off by the CX-7's somewhat ostentatious looks. The distinct profile of the CX-9 is highlighted by the steeply raked windshield, downward-sloping roofline and rising beltline. Active Bi-Xenon headlights, massive 10-spoke, 20-inch alloy wheels and trapezoidal dual exhaust outlets finish off the CX-9's elegant look.
The Liquid Platinum Metallic paint and extensive, yet tasteful, use of chrome trim made the CX-9 look flashy enough for a night out on the town, but not too fancy during the daily commute either. Aside from the Suzuki XL7 and GM's Lambda quadruplets (Acadia, Enclave, Outlook and Traverse), few crossovers offer this much style, space and efficiency, not to mention a ride height and aggressive looks that wouldn't look entirely out of place if taken off-road.
Despite the tall ground clearance, the CX-9 is surprisingly easy to get into, and once inside, a spacious, luxurious interior awaits. A pleasant mix of soft leather and wood and aluminum trim accents welcomes front passengers, while piano black inserts on the steering wheel, center stack and center console help finish off the classy ambiance. From the driver's seat, the touch-screen navigation is easy to use and the instrument cluster uses orange electroluminescent lighting with blue backlights to give the gauges a sporty and welcoming look.
When compared to the CX-7's interior, the extra space pays off. The added five inches of wheelbase and 15 inches of overall length not only provided the CX-9 with enough headroom and legroom to seat a basketball team's starting five comfortably, but it also allowed the sleek crossover to come with a comfortable third-row seat. The second row seats slide forward to increase third-row legroom when needed, while also tilting and sliding forward out of the way making ingress and egress to the back seat an easy task. Even taller third-seat passengers will enjoy the headroom and legroom (35.4 inches and 32.4 inches, respectively) provided by the CX-9.
In addition to the ample comfort, Mazda also offers many convenience packages into its CX-9 - albeit at a considerable premium. The CX-9 Grand Touring that we tested came with almost $5,500 worth of optional upgrades to the interior. The GT Assist package ($2,500) added the power liftgate and a touch-screen DVD navigation system with a built-in rear-view camera, while the Rear-seat Entertainment system ($2,560) featured an 11-speaker, 296-watt BoseÂ® 5.1 Surround Sound system and a rear seat DVD player incorporated into the headliner with a nine-inch flip-down monitor. A standard feature on the Grand Touring model was the calculator-sized smart key, which was surprisingly large but the simple operation of Mazda's advanced keyless entry and start system more than made up for it
The sole powertrain for the CX-9 received a modest power boost for 2008 switching to Mazda's 273-horsepower, 3.7-liter DOHC V-6 with 273 lb-ft of torque mated to a six-speed automatic with a manual sport shift mode. While the model we tested sent power to the front wheels only, all-wheel drive is an option for Mazda's flagship vehicle. Fortunately, the power increase didn't have a major affect on fuel economy with EPA estimates of 16 miles per gallon city and 22 on the highway.
Smooth shifts and instant power made the CX-9 fun to drive, but the true enjoyment behind the wheel came on roads that would have any Mazda vehicle feeling at home. Despite a 4,312-pound curb weight, the CX-9 felt as nimble and confident as anyone could expect from a seven-passenger vehicle thanks in large part to the four-wheel independent suspension and four-wheel vented disc brakes.
Having all that power means nothing if it can't get the dirty work done, too. With the optional ($535) towing package, the CX-9 is capable of towing up to 3,500 pounds. If towing a trailer is not necessary, the CX-9's cavernous interior can swallow up to 100.7 cubic feet of cargo with all of the seats folded flat.
Thanks to three-row side-curtain airbags and front and rear crumple zones, the CX-9 achieved a five-star safety rating for frontal and side impact protection from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Additional standard safety systems include roll stability control, dynamic stability control with traction control and three-point seat belts for all three rows of passengers.
An optional ($200) blind spot monitoring system is available, and although it came in handy in heavy traffic, it occasionally came on erroneously when driving next to cement barriers on the interstate. When an object was detected in the CX-9's blind spot, a light would illuminate on the corresponding exterior mirror, and if the turn signal was used indicating a lane change in that direction, an audible beep would sound further warning the driver.
The starting MSRP for the base CX-9 Sport is $29,400, but without self-restraint from checking the option boxes, the bottom line can climb high and quick. The 2008 CX-9 Grand Touring starts at $33,355, but the model we tested came with enough interior upgrades to make your ordinary family trip turn into an extraordinary adventure and added up to an as-tested price of $40,330.