Vehicle manufacturers are running away from sport-utility vehicles like campers away from a bear walking into the campsite. Yup, some are sticking around, but others are applying the old discretion is the better part of valor rule and fleeing for the relative safety of the crossover SUV configuration.
Loosely stated, that means a unit body chassis and fully-independent suspension with deliberately car-like handling for drivers who are tiring of the truckiness of the truck-based SUV. Car-based platforms with front-wheel drive are modified with SUV-reminiscent bodies to give the look (with a few exceptions) without the feel of a truck while sacrificing most of the off-road capabilities of the traditional SUV.
Behold the Mazda CX-9. Introduced last year as a 2007 modeland reintroduced for 2008 with a new 3.7-liter V-6 enginethe CX-9 had the coveted elevated H-point (the height of the drivers hip and therefore eyeball level as well) and roomy interior with seating for seven. It looked enough like an SUV to satisfy those put off by a minivan, and had significantly more ground clearance than a car.
As such the Mazda CX-9 was useful for everything a minivan was, plus it had the ability to go in snow or down two-tracks to the campsites not quite cheek-to-jowl with others seeking the serenity of outdoor life only to find out that the next site over have a Dodge Caliber with the flip-down speakers in the tailgate.
For roughing it or snow-belt duty, the CX-9 is best equipped with optional all-wheel drive. In ordinary operation, the CX-9 sends all of its torque to the front wheels. Mash the throttle or drive where one of the front wheels begins slip and Mazdas Active Torque Split All-Wheel Drive will apportion a controlled amount of drive force to the rear wheels, as calculated by a computer monitoring wheel slippage, steering angle, yaw rate (rotational speed), lateral acceleration (side force) and available driveline torque. Originally developed for the high-performance Mazdaspeed6, the all-wheel drive system can deliver up to fifty percent of driveline torque to the rear wheels.
An all-wheel drive CX-9 equipped with all-wheel drive and winter tires will be unstoppable in all but the deepest of snow, thanks in part to its eight inches of ground (or snow) clearance. Except, of course, when you want it to stop. ABS with four-wheel disc brakes is standard, complete with dual-piston front calipers for fade-free stopping even on dry pavement.
Mazda also includes roll stability control on all CX-9 trim levels. Body-roll rate and relative wheel speed trigger a momentary cutback in power and calculated brake application to help keep the Mazda aright. Traction control and stability control are also standard equipment.
Should worse come to worst, three-row side-curtain airbags are standard across the board. Mazda points out that these airbags are particularly effective in, among other things, head ejection. Buckle up, kids. It can get gruesome out there.
The 2008 Mazda CX-9 is offered in three trim levels, Sport, Touring and Grand Touring. Even the base Sport trim is equipped with 18-inch aluminum wheels. The Touring model adds leather, power front seats and standard Bluetooth, while the top-of-the-line Grand Touring has 20-inch wheels, automatic rain-sensing wipers, turn indicators on the exterior mirrors, memory drivers seat, proximity key entrance and starting, wood trim, indirect blue interior lighting and an anti-theft alarm system.
The usual sunroof, towing package and upgrade audio package (Bose) and rear seat entertainment package are options, as well as an Assistant Package which includes DVD navigation, back-up monitor and power lift gate available on Touring and Grand Touring models.
Blind Spot Monitoring is also an option. BSM alerts the driver to vehicles to either side of the CX-9 with a small light in the side mirror. If the driver signals for a lane change, the light flashes and a beep sounds as an extra warning to not move into the path of the other vehicle.
Seven passenger seating is also standard, with the rear seat not the penalty box it is on many crossovers and SUVs. The middle row seats can be moved about five inches fore and aft for legroom where its needed, and the middle row also slide forward for access to the rear seat, allowing more than two feet of foot room to make it easier to get in.
Although Mazda touts the sporty nature of the CX-9, our introduction drive included a parkway drive and local congested suburban roads. It was hardly the test of the Mazda crossovers agility or its accelerative facility thanks to the new engine. The 3.7-liter engine is a smoothie, all new but with the same stroke but wider bore than the 3.5-liter it replaces so it doesnt abandon civility for the extra power. The new engine is rated at 273 horsepower, and increase of ten from the 3.5-liter, but torque, important with a 4500 lb vehicle, moves up to 270 from 249 lb-ft.
Fuel economy, using the new rating system that has been fairly accurate in our initial experience in other vehicles, is EPA rated at 16/22 city/highway with front wheel drive. All-wheel drive costs a mile per gallon in both city and highway cycles. The engine uses regular 87-octane unleaded.
In our few shots at acceleration, the 2008 Mazda CX-9 accelerated capably and the engine sounded healthy. Its quiet at highway speeds where wind and road noise are also subdued.
A six-speed automatic is standard and operates unobtrusively in stop-and-go traffic, almost as if there were no transmission there. Better, however, if there were no traffic there.
For going to where the traffic isnt there (and taking toys along), the Mazda CX-9 has a generous and fully accessible 17.2 cubic feet of cargo capacity even with the rear seat raised. That jumps to 48.4 cubic feet with the third row lowered, and 100.7 cubic feet behind the front seats. For towable toys, the CX-9 can handle a 2000 lb trailer, or with the optional trailer package, 3500 lbs. The trailer limits apply with either front or all-wheel drive. The 2008 Mazda CX-9 is a capable vehicle for the active lifestyle, with room for people or gear or both. But no bears. Definitely we recommend no bears.
Philbert J Thrombockle comments: Usually a vehicle sells more in its lower trim levels than upper, mainly because although shoppers would like more of the good stuff, family budgets can be stretched only so tight. The 2007 Mazda CX-9, however, attracted buyers who could afford to shop in deeper waters. Contrary to the usual rules, over half of 2007 CX-9s were top-level Grand Touring models, and of those, some two-thirds were fully equipped at nearly ,000. Mazdas playing with the big boys.
Miscellaneous details: For 200, some 88 percent conquest from other makes, predominantly out of mid-size SUVs. Theyre family vehicles; the primary driver isnt necessarily male or female. The split between front and all-wheel drive was 50/50.
Base price for a 2008 Mazda CX-9 Sport FWD is ,400; a CX-9 Grand Touring with no options is ,665. Notable extras include the Touring Assistance Package at ,717, which requires the moonroof/Bose package at ,760. The Grand Touring Assistance Package costs ,500.
Available individually on the Grand Touring, the Blind Spot Monitoring system costs 0. Available on all trim levels, a back-up camera display in the inside rear view mirror is a 5 option. It has a small but with practice it could be useful.
Standard Equipment (partial list)
273 horsepower V6 engine
6-speed shiftable automatic transmission
18 inch alloy wheels
4 wheel ventilated disc brakes with ABS
Dual front side mounted air bags
Front, rear and third row head airbags
7 person seating capacity
Tire pressure monitoring
Remote power door locks
Tilt and telescopic steering wheel
Three zone climate control
AM/FM in-dash single CD player with 6 speakers
The Touring adds... (partial list)
8 way power driver's seat
Heated front seats
Heated power mirrors
The Grand Touring adds... (partial list)
20 inchpolished alloy wheels with P245/50R20 V rated all season tires
Automatic rain sensing windshield wipers
Remote anti-theft alarm system
Xenon high intensity discharge headlamps
Front fog/driving lights
Alloy and wood trim on dash and center console
Bluetooth wireless data link for hands-free phone
Major Available Options (Partial List, depends on model. Some items only available as part of an option group, see your Mazda dealer for details)
Rear Entertainment System
6-Disc In-Dash CD/MP3 Changer
SIRIUS Satellite Radio w/6-Month Subscription
Remote Engine Start
8 way power driver's seat
Touring Assistance Package
Grand Touring Assistance Package, Includes DVD navigation system, rearview camera and power open and close rear hatch