2008 Mazda CX-9 FWD Review


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2008 Mazda CX-9
DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS

2008 Mazda CX-9 FWD

Some car manufacturers leave well enough alone, and some can't help but improve their product, detail by detail. Mazda is in the latter category, as evidenced by the 2008 CX-9.

The seven-passenger CX-9, Mazda's largest crossover, debuted last year and if the number I see near where I live is any indication, it has been a sales success. So Mazda could be excused for doing little besides tweaking the option packages and color choices for its sophomore year. That, apparently, is not the Mazda Way.

The 2008 CX-9 has a new engine.

Ok, that's not quite as major a change as it may seem. It's not an all-new engine. The 2007's 3.5-liter V6 has been replaced with an enlarged 3.7-liter version, with 273 horsepower and 270 lb-ft of torque. That 10 more horsepower in the upper reaches of the rev range is not a major difference for everyday driving; the additional 21 lb-ft of torque adds a welcome punch in the more-commonly used mid-range.

Additionally, the Blind Spot Monitoring System is available for the premium Grand Touring models.

The CX-9 model lineup and nearly all important exterior and interior details are otherwise unchanged. As is customary in the crossover SUV field, the CX-9 is a unibody machine, built like a car (in this case, a distant derivative of the Mazda6 sedan) with a transverse front-engine, front-wheel drive powertrain layout. All-wheel drive is offered for all trim levels. The Sport holds the entry level, with an upscale middle-class level of standard equipment for less than $30,000 in FWD form. The Touring upgrades the interior, with leather seat trim, heated power front seats, and Bluetooth¨ phone connectivity highlighting. The Grand Touring heads into entry-luxury territory with fancier interior trim, 20-inch wheels and low-profile sport tires, the Mazda Smart Card keyless entry and start/stop system, and the optional Blind Spot System for a $33,335 base price with FWD, or $34,655 with AWD.

Mazdas are drivers' cars, and the CX-9 is no exception. While it's not as nimble on the road as an MX-5 Miata, a Miata doesn't carry seven people. And the CX-9 does, better than any other crossover I can think of, if you'd like adults in the third row to remain your friends, and with greater efficiency and a much better driving experience than a similarly-commodious traditional SUV. The fatter torque curve from the larger engine makes everyday acceleration effortless, and since it lessens the need to run the engine in lower gears at higher rpm, it could even decrease fuel consumption a bit.

APPEARANCE: Sporty? Yes. Utilitarian? Absolutely, but not to the detriment of its looks. Don't look for any "rugged off-road" style here. The CX-9 's angular two-box shape is more large sport wagon than SUV, and echoes the smaller CX-7 crossover and Mazda3 compact hatchback. Without direct comparison, it looks to be the same size as the smaller CX-7. Euro-style chrome trim around the windows, and, on the Grand Touring, on the door handles and liftgate, adds to its luxury ambiance.

COMFORT: Inside the CX-9 is quite possibly the best interior to ever come from Mazda. But it offers far more than merely elegant style - there is all of the comfort, space, and versatility expected in a premium crossover. The premium look is enhanced in the Grand Touring by two-tone leather seating and metal-and-wood-look trim. In front are good, well-bolstered sports seats that would not be out of place in a sports sedan, both power adjustable in the Touring and Grand Touring. The second row contoured bench is split 60/40. Each part is manually-adjustable, about five inches fore and aft, and can fold flat. Two adults easily fit in first-class comfort, and the flat floor makes the center position useable. The second-row sections slide forward easily for access to the 50/50-split, two-place third row. Headroom is good for anyone under 5-8, legroom back there depends on the second-row position; if it's not all the way back, seven adults can fit in reasonable comfort - and there is still more luggage space behind the third row than is found in many sedan trunks. Folding the third and/or second rows only increases cargo space to cavernous levels.

Back up front, the driver gets a leather-wrapped, manually tilt- and telescope-adjustable steering wheel with phone, auxiliary audio, and cruise controls. The Grand Touring's electroluminescent instruments are backlit in a sporty red, and protected from glare for good visibility. Useful storage spaces abound, and the center console has an audio mini-jack for an MP3 player and one of several power points. Interior options in my test vehicle included Sirius satellite radio, the comprehensive "Rear Seat Entertainment" package, with a rear DVD player and screen, 11-speaker Bose audio system, in-dash /6-CD changer, and the "GT Assist Package" of voice- and touch screen-operated DVD navigation system, rear-view camera, and power rear liftgate.

SAFETY: CX-9 passengers are surrounded with a strong central safety cage and protective structures designed for controlled deformation. Four-wheel ventilated disc brakes with antilock, traction control, and dynamic stability control (DSC) improve active safety. The Roll Stability Control system works with the DSC system to less the possibility of rollovers. Dual front, front-seat side, and full-length side curtain airbags are standard in all models. The CX-9 has received five-star ratings for front and side crash protection from NHTSA, and a four-star rating for rollover resistance. The Blind Spot Monitoring System used small cameras and software to check the areas to the sides of the vehicle, especially in the hard-to-see area between easy visibility in the inside mirror and outside mirrors. When there is something in those spots, even a motorcycle, lights in the shape of cars on the outside mirrors will switch on to alert the driver.

RIDE AND HANDLING: The platform in the CX-9's ancestry belongs to the Mazda6 sedan, "platform" in this case meaning lower unibody stampings, and basic suspension design and mounting points. It's stretched and otherwise modified considerably for the CX-9, and serves admirably. The unibody structure is strong and rigid, and the fully-independent MacPherson strut front, multilink rear suspension is tuned in the manner of a European sports sedan - firm, for minimal body roll and stability when cornering, but damped correctly to ensure a high level of ride comfort. The steering effort is spot-on, neither too light nor too heavy. The CX-9 is a pleasure to drive, and feels lighter than its 4000 plus-pound weight on the road. If you want sport with considerable utility and seven-passenger capacity, there are few other choices.

PERFORMANCE: The displacement increase of the 2008 CX-9's twin-cam aluminum alloy engine results from an increase in cylinder bore. This necessitated a redesigned engine block, a quicker, easier, and more precise process than in years past thanks to computer-aided engineering analysis, but significantly improved midrange torque without the increased wear that would have resulted from a stroke increase. Horsepower is up by 10, to 273 (at 6250 rpm), and torque is up by 21 lb-ft, from 249 to 270, still at 4500 rpm. It pulls well from idle, and is strongest above 3000 rpm. The six-speed automatic transmission is a fine match for the engine, and the increased torque makes its life easier. Manual mode used to be the best way for maximum performance, but there is less need for that with the torque increase. Fuel economy, EPA 16/22 and 17 in my mixed driving, is not significantly different from the 3.5-liter version.

CONCLUSIONS: Want room and "zoom zoom"? The Mazda CX-9 is the answer.

SPECIFICATIONS
2008 Mazda CX-9 FWD

Base Price			$ 33,355
Price As Tested			$ 39,680
Engine Type			dual overhead cam, 24-valve aluminum
				 alloy V6
Engine Size			3.7 liters / x cu. in.
Horsepower			273 @ 6250 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			270 @ 4500 rpm
Transmission			6-speed automatic with manual-shift mode
Wheelbase / Length		113.2 in. / 199.8 in.
Curb Weight			n/a lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		n/a
Fuel Capacity			n/a gal.
Fuel Requirement		87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires				P245/50 VR20 Bridgestone Dueler
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / vented disc
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				  independent multilink
Drivetrain			transverse front engine,
				 front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		16 / 22 / 17
0 to 60 mph				7.9  sec

OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Sirius satellite radio					$  430
Blind-spot monitoring system				$  200
Rear-seat Bose¨ entertainment system - includes:
  296-watt 11-speaker Bose¨ Centerpoint¨ 5.1
  surround sound with auxiliary audio/visual input,
  9"DVD entertainment system, in-dash 6-disc CD changer,
  115-volt outlet					$ 2,560
GT Assist Package - includes:
  DVD navigation system with voice and touch-screen
  command, rear-view camera, 
  power open/close hatch				$ 2,500
Delivery charge						$   635
  

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