2008 Mazda CX-9 GT
2008 Mazda CX-9 GT. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Jil McIntosh

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Second opinion: Paul Williams

Oshawa, Ontario – Back in 1949, Motor Trend magazine presented its first Car of the Year award, which soon became a coveted accolade among automakers. It’s now divided into categories, one of which is Sport/Utility of the Year; for 2008, it’s been given to the Mazda CX-9. That’s impressive when one looks at the contenders, including the Buick Enclave, Hyundai Veracruz, Subaru Tribeca and Saturn Vue.

The CX-9 was an all-new model in 2007. Usually, automakers leave well enough alone for the first little while, but there’s an engine change for 2008: the previous 3.5-litre V6 is gone in favour of a 3.7-litre V6. That means a horsepower increase to 273 hp, from 263, and an impressive increase in torque to 270 lb-ft, up from 249 lb-ft. The owner’s manual states that it drinks 91-octane fuel, but this is incorrect: Mazda confirmed that less-expensive 87-octane gasoline will work fine.

That lower-cost fuel requirement is just another bonus to this impressive engine, which comes mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode. All-wheel drive was previously optional on both models; it’s now an extra-charge add-on to the base GS model, and standard equipment on my top-line GT tester. It runs primarily in front-wheel, but can seamlessly distribute up to 50 percent of torque to the rear wheels when needed. In combined driving, my fuel economy pegged at 11.9 L/100 km, to the official combined estimate of 11.8.

2008 Mazda CX-9 GT
2008 Mazda CX-9 GT. Click image to enlarge

Although it looks similar to the CX-7, the CX-9’s platform comes from the Mazda6, and it’s shared with the Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX, but those two models don’t get the new engine. Both CX-9 trim lines come with three rows of seats, and the second and third rows fold flat to turn it from people-hauler into cargo-carrier. (Why the seven-passenger CX-9 isn’t named the CX-7 is beyond me, although I’m sure it’s because of Mazda’s odd numbering system and the fact that the 9 is a larger vehicle.)

For all its size though, the CX-9 drives like a much smaller vehicle; handling is much sharper than most of its crossover competition, but it never gets twitchy, and cornering is surprisingly flat for something with such a relatively high centre of gravity. If there’s a complaint, it’s with the ride, which is extremely firm and transfers every pavement nuance directly into the cabin. It’s all part of the vehicle’s excellent roadworthiness, of course, but I’m guessing that most families would be more than willing to sacrifice a little zoom-zoom for some creature comforts. When your vehicle’s configured like a minivan, there has to be some consideration given to the target audience.

2008 Mazda CX-9 GT
2008 Mazda CX-9 GT
2008 Mazda CX-9 GT
2008 Mazda CX-9 GT. Click image to enlarge

Arguably the handsomest crossover currently on the market (and with one of the best paint jobs I’ve seen on a new car), the CX-9’s styling continues into the cabin, following through with curving surfaces and just enough plastic wood. The front doors are particularly fetching, with a sloping wood accent bisected by a metallic door pull, but function does not follow form: the handle is too close to the front of the door, and it’s hard to pull the big door closed. I liked the dark carpet, a necessity in Canadian winters, but the seats got harder than expected on a two-hour drive. Instrumentation is Mazda’s signature red numbers; every time I complain that they’re hard to read, I get emails from people who say the colour is chosen because it’s actually easier on the eyes and requires less adjustment when glancing at them. Perhaps, but I still don’t like them. I do like the cluster’s nighttime appearance though, when they’re ringed in an attractive blue light, which is matched by theatre lighting in the door handles. Almost everything is backlit but the lock button, which needs a light in it as well.

My tester was outfitted with $5,890 in options, including a navigation system, rear entertainment system and a luxury package, which adds six-CD premium stereo, power liftgate and Mazda’s Intelligent Key System, which I don’t find very intelligent at all. Along with opening the doors remotely, the proximity system lets you start the vehicle by turning a plastic plug installed in the ignition switch. I’ve never really considered putting a key into a switch to be a hardship, especially when I have to turn the ignition anyway, and it’s far less work than finding a place to put the credit-card-sized “key”. Sure, it’ll fit into a wallet or a shirt pocket, but don’t most people put their car keys together with their house keys on a ring?

2008 Mazda CX-9 GT
2008 Mazda CX-9 GT
2008 Mazda CX-9 GT
2008 Mazda CX-9 GT. Click image to enlarge

My optional surround-sound stereo put out awesome sound, and the auxiliary music-player jack is hidden in the console box for extra security. But the navigation system could be more intuitive to use, and we ended up having to call a friend for directions when it couldn’t find a five-year-old subdivision. I did appreciate the backup camera, though, as the wide C-pillar cuts down somewhat on rear visibility.

Unlike most three-row crossovers, the CX-9’s third row is more than just an afterthought; adults should find it comfortable enough for an hour or two. The second row, which moves fore and aft and reclines for increased passenger comfort, folds and moves forward with a lever and opens up so much room that one practically walks into the third row; I haven’t found any other vehicle that makes this task so easy. (The down side is that the rear doors are wide for easy access; be careful when your passengers open them in parking lots.) The rear floor is flat, so there’s none of the knees-on-chin sensation, and there’s lots of headroom. The third row also contains cupholders and covered cubbies.

With the third row upright, storage space is a miserly 48 cm long; there are indentations at the sides added specifically to allow golfers to stow bags sideways, although the owner’s manual rather amusingly warns that “Some golf bags cannot fit, depending on their size.” The second- and third-row seats fold flat, without removing the head restraints, opening the cargo area to a length of 123 cm and 198 cm, respectively.

2008 Mazda CX-9 GT
2008 Mazda CX-9 GT. Click image to enlarge

Each driver needs to select the vehicle suited to his or her needs, and while I was extremely impressed with the CX-9, I don’t need this many seats. While the CX-7 is more sized to my lifestyle, I don’t care for its turbocharged powerplant, which I find too eager and difficult to modulate in everyday driving. Put this naturally-aspirated V6 into the CX-7, leaving the turbo model optional for those who like its spirited performance, then soften the CX-9’s ride just enough to make it the CX-7’s older, more mature, family-oriented brother. That would be a crossover line-up the competition would find tough to beat.


Pricing: 2008 Mazda CX-9 GT

  • Base price: $46,825
  • Options: $5,890 (Luxury Package of premium six-CD surround sound stereo, intelligent key system and power liftgate, $1,495; navigation system with backup camera, $2,875; rear entertainment system, $1,520)
  • Freight: $1,390
  • A/C tax: $100
  • Price as tested: $54,205 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives

Specifications

  • Click here for complete specifications


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