Warren Clarke , Automotive Content Editor
Long prized for their outstanding athleticism, Mazda vehicles tend to be the jocks of their respective segments. The 2010 Mazda CX-9 may be the manufacturer's most impressive jock yet, simply because this large SUV's sporty handling and performance fly in the face of its full-size dimensions.
The CX-9 debuted just a couple of years ago; for 2010, the model gets some upgrades designed to keep it in fighting form until the next generation is launched. Its sheet metal benefits from minor tweaks such as a new grille and larger side mirrors, and materials quality takes a step up thanks to new leather and wood accents. Other changes include the addition of real-time traffic functionality to the navigation system, and a revised multi-information display.
These upgrades are appreciated, but let's face it: The CX-9's main draw has always been its handling. This Mazda should be required driving for those who say that full-size SUVs are, by definition, a snooze to pilot -- it whips through corners and hustles down straightaways like a vehicle half its size. Just don't expect this game racehorse to be the most accommodating mule; cargo capacity doesn't quite measure up to that of its rivals.
There's no shortage of capable crossovers in this segment. You'll find more luggage capacity in the Ford Flex and Buick Enclave/Chevy Traverse/GMC Acadia triplets, but these choices are arguably less elegant-looking than the CX-9, and indisputably less engaging on the tarmac. A shining all-star, Mazda's nimble CX-9 is the MVP by a landslide for shoppers seeking the most fun-to-drive large SUV.
The 2010 Mazda CX-9 is motivated by a 3.7-liter V6 that delivers 273 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque. It's teamed with a six-speed automatic with manual-shifting capability, and our test vehicle was equipped with optional all-wheel drive. Output from the V6 is energetic enough to spike even the most banal accelerative maneuvers with heady undercurrents of excitement.
Our tester tipped the scales at 4,555 pounds, but it moved off the line with the briskness of a vehicle that weighs much less. The mill is complemented by the transmission's quick, smooth shifts, and the CX-9's steering is responsive enough to invite you to test the crossover's limits. All this plus its smaller-than-typical turning circle (37.4 feet) combine to make this Mazda feel far nimbler than you'd expect in city and highway driving.
The CX-9 turns in a similarly impressive performance at the track. The crossover ran the 0-60-mph sprint in just 7.9 seconds, quick enough to leave competitors like the Chevy Traverse (8.6 seconds) in the dust. A stop from 60 to 0 mph was pulled off in just 123 feet -- a shorter distance than that of rivals like the Traverse (135 feet) and the Flex (128 feet) -- with solid, consistent pedal feel during each stop.
The 2010 Mazda CX-9 dodged through the slalom cones at 61.4 mph, ahead of even a recently tested Ford Flex with EcoBoost (60.6 mph). However, this Mazda is no gold medalist in the fuel-economy race. EPA ratings put it at 15 mpg city/21 mpg highway and 17 mpg combined -- behind the Traverse, Acadia and Enclave.
Equipped with 20-inch tires, our CX-9 Grand Touring featured a pleasantly crisp ride. It wasn't too stiff for our tastes; still, those who want the most buffered driving experience that this model offers will want to choose the Sport or Touring trims, for their more forgiving 18-inch tires.
The front seats are agreeably firm and accommodating. Three adults in the rear seat can be a close fit; additionally, folding up the center armrest for a third passenger leaves the person seated in the middle with a hard, unyielding seatback. The second-row seats slide forward and backward easily to allow ready access to the third row.
Speaking of the third row, seats back there are supportive, but those over 6 feet tall face a shortage of headroom. The 2010 Mazda CX-9 offers enough legroom to simultaneously seat adults in all three rows, but the fit is tight enough to suggest that this arrangement could get uncomfortable on longer trips.
The CX-9's instrument panel features attractive ringed gauges with large, legible fonts. Audio controls are laid out in an easily navigable way, and the climate control system -- with its three well-damped knobs -- is similarly simple to use. Though the crossover features a rising beltline, visibility is decent enough. The CX-9's blind-spot warning system -- a welcome feature designed to prevent dangerous lane changes by alerting the driver when a vehicle enters his blind spot -- would often issue a warning even when the car in the adjacent lane was far enough away to facilitate a safe lane change.
Storage opportunities within the cabin are adequate, but not generous. The crossover's door bins are less capacious than those of others in this segment, and there aren't a lot of nooks and crannies for your carry-ons. Still, the center console bin -- with its unique split-opening lid -- is quite roomy. It features a swatch of felt on its floor that would have been more impressive had it been anchored down; unsecured, this felt tended to crinkle and twist out of shape.
As you'd expect, this full-size SUV easily accommodated a rear-facing child seat in our usability testing. Offering 17.2 cubic feet of storage (with the third-row seat folded), the CX-9 has less luggage capacity than its rivals; the Traverse, for example, offers a more robust 24.4 cubic feet. Still, there's enough room back there to gulp down golf clubs and a suitcase. Fold both the second and third rows and cargo capacity swells to 101 cubic feet. Accessing the rear of the vehicle is a pleasure thanks to the crossover's optional superb power hatch, which opens and closes with well-timed modulation.
Design/Fit and Finish
Mazda's CX-9 is arguably the most elegant choice in the large-SUV segment. Many of the vehicles in this category feature bovine lines that bear all the sex appeal of a cinder block. In contrast, the CX-9 -- with its low-slung profile and high beltline -- calls to mind a sleek, trim wagon. Even in comparison to relatively attractive crossover rivals like the Chevy Traverse and Ford Flex, the CX-9 simply looks more polished and urbane.
This refinement is also reflected in the cabin, which features upscale wood accents and a stylish waterfall motif on the dash and doors. The sole misstep is the cheap-looking plastics on the center stack. Build quality is quite good all around.
Who should consider this vehicle
If you're looking for a big SUV that feels small on the road, the 2010 Mazda CX-9 is for you. Shoppers in this segment who want the most engaging driving experience -- and who don't mind some compromises with regard to cargo capacity and fuel economy -- will be well served by this talented Mazda.
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