Mazda's large softroader is a class act.

Mazda joined the three-row seat SUV brigade with the Australian release of the CX-9 seven-seater.

mazda cx-9Ford-owned Mazda dipped its toe deeper into the crossover SUV market, by adding a seven seater model to complement the CX-7. (Yes, it was a little confusing that the CX-7 was a five-seater and the CX-9 a seven-seater, but Mazda’s model numbering related to vehicle size, not seat capacity.)

While many of its competitors seem to lose their way in the styling stakes, Mazda released vehicles that had great buyer appeal. The sleek 2008 CX-9 was no exception, with clean lines embracing an interior that had more room than shape implies.

That doesn’t mean we agreed with Mazda’s claim that the third-row seats were comfortable for adults: like nearly all back-row perches they were best designated for children. Ditto for the second-row seat that could  accommodate three adults, but was best for two, with a compact brat between.

All seat positions had lap/sash belts, but the centre second-row possie came with a two-piece belt that was intended for the narrow-hipped.

Access to the third row was made easy by a 60:40 second-row seat split, with the near-side seat back tilting and the cushion sliding forward after a latch was tripped. The third-row seats folded forward to form a flat cargo floor and were easily raised by seat-back straps.

Monocoque body strength and safety was given maximum priority – sufficient to gain the CX-9 the US Government’s National Highway Safety Administration rating of five stars for frontal and side impact crash tolerance and a four-star rating for roll-over resistance. Front seat belt pretensioners and six SRS airbags were standard: front, side and pre-emptive curtains that were triggered by a roll-angle sensor.

Active safety was class-leading, Mazda claimed, with roll stability control (RSC) in addition to dynamic stability control (DSC), traction control (TCS) and ABS brakes with electronic brake distribution (EBD) and emergency brake assist (EBA).

The 4WD drivetrain was derived from the CX-7 and used an Aisin six-speed automatic transmission, driving through an active torque split transfer to all four wheels. The electronically-controlled rear differential mechanism biased drive 100 percent to the front wheels in steady-state driving, with up to a 50:50, front:rear split under hard acceleration or low-traction conditions.

In keeping with the CX-9’s more demanding life mission it scored Mazda’s largest-ever engine, a 3.7-litre petrol V6 that was happy to run on 91 RON fuel. Output was 204kW at 6250rpm, with peak torque of 366Nm at 4250rpm. Mazda claimed 90 percent of peak torque was available between 2800rpm and 5800rpm. We found that two-tonnes plus of CX-9 shot to 100km/h in a little under nine seconds, which wasn’t half bad, and its overtaking ability was brilliant.

Mazda’s claim of 13L/100km average fuel consumption seemed achievable: we averaged 16L/100km with a ‘green’ engine in press-on test conditions, on steep, winding mountain roads.

Equipment list

Although there was a ‘family’ resemblance between the CX-7 and the CX-9 there were only a few shared components in the frontal structure and none at all from the A-pillar back.

Mazda pitched the CX-9 at the 50-grand-plus market, tempting buyers with a $49.990 Classic, but hoping most would go the extra for the $57,265 Luxury version.

The Classic came with cloth seats, three-zone climate control, 18-inch aluminium wheels, power windows and mirrors, central locking, cruise control, steering wheel controls for cruise and audio, two front and one rear power sockets, fog lamps, rear spoiler, headlight and wiper auto-on functions, tilt-telescoping steering column, map lights, height-adjustable driver’s seat with lumbar adjustment, two vanity mirrors, child seat anchor points and a six-stack, MP3-input CD player/radio with six speakers and touch-screen control. A touch screen displayed the rear view from a standard reversing camera, mounted on the tailgate.

The Luxury version had leather seats and trim, power front seats with driver memory function, heated front seats and mirrors, sunroof, Bose sound system with 10 speakers and 20-inch wheels.

A satellite navigation system was a surprise omission, but there was one on the way: a $3000 future option that could be retrofitted. (Why would you, when you can buy one from around $200?)

The spare wheel on both versions was a 17-inch steel item, with a ‘real’ 195/80R17 tyre, but its road speed was ADR-restricted to 80km/h.

On road

Given the CX-9’s mission as a high-performance, all-road-type ‘people mover’ Mazda’s chose a test course that was quite appropriate: the incessantly winding and steep, bitumen and gravel Omeo and Great Alpine Roads.

The CX-9 showed itself to be a true Jekyll and Hyde machine: with the gated ratio selector in ‘D’ and little accelerator pressure it cruised along at posted speed limits with very little NVH evident; but, with the lever flicked down a cog or two in manual mode, the rev needle up the dial and a howl from the engine bay, the seven-seater took off like a sports car. It didn’t have petrol V8 or turbo-diesel low-speed torque, but once the valves were buzzing the biggish V6 was no slouch.

Shift quality was as good as it got in 2008 and the only jarring note was the ‘Euro IV lag’ between pressing the go-pedal and engine response, unless we kept the revs singing above 3500rpm with the gear selector.

We couldn’t detect the 2WD to 4WD operation of the active torque system: the CX-9 just handled neutrally nearly all the time.

The CX-9’s rated towing capacity of two tonnes seemed about right for this powertrain. The roof load rating of 75kg was enough to allow camping gear or some plasso water sports equipment up top.

Handling belied the CX-9’s two-tonnes’ tare weight and, with independent coils at all four corners, was beautifully balanced, without pitching or lurching, even when belted too quickly into tight, bumpy bends. We checked out the RSC system by hauling on way too much lock into a tight, downhill bend and found that the big Mazda straightened up briefly, then settled into gentle understeer through the corner.

Traction control could be turned off, but the dynamic stability control could not, which were Good Things for most drivers. The Mazda TCS was an engine-based system that cut power when wheelspin occurred, not a system that braked spinning wheels, so switching off TCS would help in climbing loose sections on bush tracks, where TCS intervention might frustrate progress.

DSC that can be turned off is handy in 4WDs that can tackle deep, soft sand, allowing some ‘yaw’ as the vehicle climbs a dune, but the Mazda CX-9 didn’t fit in that class. Non-switchable DSC is the right choice for a machine with the CX-9’s considerable performance and our testing showed that it kept the vehicle pointed in the right direction, even when punted hard on loose gravel roads. The DSC didn’t detract from driving enjoyment, but reacted to too much under- or over-steer by depowering the engine and applying selective wheel braking.

Forward and side vision and wiper sweep were judged excellent, even with the CX-9’s substantial A-pillars. The common rear vision problem with high-hipped wagons was neatly solved by Mazda’s decision to fit a standard rear vision camera and screen. Like the instrument cluster the rear vision screen was visible in sunlight, even when the driver was wearing sunnies.
The aircon system had no trouble handling 32-degree weather and fan noise was almost absent.

Our test mount was a Luxury model and we appreciated the multi-adjustable driver’s seat. Padded armrests on the door and the centre console provided good elbow support when cruising, but didn’t impede wheel action through the twisties.

If you’re in the market for a family wagon that can cart seven around town and a couple plus their 2.5 standard kiddies and plenty of gear on a holiday you’ll be hard pressed to find a vehicle that does the job as sweetly as a used Mazda CX-9.

However, a relatively unprotected underbody, street rubber, a temporary spare, only 76-litre fuel capacity and no low-range gearing relegated the CX-9 to formed surfaces that had little in the way of deep ruts and large stones.

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