The call of the third-row seat is pretty strong. Strong enough for a long list of crossover SUVs to have sprouted tiny, tacked-on, kids-only third rows that eat up any hope of carrying decent cargo. Minivans seat seven of course, but bottom out your cool factor faster than a Members Only jacket. So what's a guy to do?
Mazda's product planners think the 2007 Mazda CX-9, the company's largest vehicle ever, is the answer. Like the smaller Mazda CX-7, the CX-9 is a crossover that combines sleek styling with available all-wheel drive and quite a bit of zoom-zoom. But unlike its little brother, or the similarly priced Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander, the CX-9 packs a standard and easily accessible third-row seat.
Big brother For that third-row bench to be truly useful, Mazda needed something more than a stretched CX-7. Oh sure, the two look quite similar, but that should be your first clue. The proportions maintain the grace and sporty flair of the CX-7 because the CX-9 is larger in every dimension, not just wheelbase, which is up 4.9 inches. The 199.8-inch-long CX-9 is also 15.7 inches longer, 2.5 inches wider and 3.5 inches taller than its smaller two-row sibling.
All of this dimensional growth demanded a larger platform, and that's where Mazda's Ford ties gave it an Edge. Actually, it's the other way 'round, as the upcoming, and smaller, Ford Edge and the CX-9 both ride on a Mazda 6-derived platform that is also shared by the Japanese-market-only MPV.
Zoom number one Confused? All you need to know is that this new larger platform made possible, and perhaps necessary, the installation of an impressive, all-new 60-degree double-overhead cam 3.5-liter V6 engine. It's rated at a healthy 263 horsepower at 6250 rpm and 249 pound-feet of torque at 4500 rpm, and feels every bit of that. As a bonus, plain old 87 octane achieves that rating. EPA fuel economy ratings are not yet available, but Mazda hints at "mid-20s" on the highway.
In a Gilligan-esque three-hour tour, we delighted not only in the new mill's willingness to pull us out of corners with authority, but also in the smoothness and refinement of the accompanying sound. And despite the power on tap, our front-wheel-drive prototype didn't exhibit significant torque steer — quite a relief after experiencing worst-in-recent-memory performance on a 2006 Toyota RAV4 front-driver with a similar-sized V6.
The most significant CX-7 hardware item carried over to the CX-9 is the well-sorted six-speed automatic transmission. We loved its smooth and positive shifting behavior in that application, and it's much the same here. An identical manual-mode lever with zoom-appropriate downshift-forward, upshift-back logic comes over, too. Gear ratios are intact, but the final-drive ratio and shift schedule have been tweaked to suit.
The other zoom Southern California's twisting and turning Ortega Highway informed us that the CX-9's handling indeed lives up to expectations, feeling lighter and more agile than its dimensions suggest. Despite somewhat bumpy and uneven corners, the strut front and multilink rear remained poised, stable and smack-on our chosen line throughout, thanks in part to our Grand Touring model's 20-inch V-rated Bridgestones, which never complained. The tires bolted onto Sport and Touring models will be 18-inchers in the same width.
Steering, too, is precise and direct, although our prototype test vehicle, still undergoing final tuning, exhibited an on-center lightness that didn't quite match. Hopefully, this is one of the items to be addressed as production specs are locked in. As it is, the other zoom is alive and well, albeit with a lowercase "z" for now.
Ride comfort is generally well damped and controlled, especially over large swells and dips. But the 20s don't take too well to some of the nastier pockets of the notorious, and admittedly local, L.A. freeway chop. We didn't drive the 18-inch tire, but suspect the extra inch of sidewall will help smother such rough road edges. Final damper tuning might also take the edge off, but only a drive in a full production model will tell.
Inner pieces But the point of building the big brother CX-9 was to house a third-row seat and give fun-loving folks a minivan alternative. The normally hinged rear doors are longer than usual, but thankfully less so than the behemoths found on a Mercedes R-Class. Combine these with a second row mounted on tracks and a one-handed fold-and-slide mechanism, and you get a mighty wide access corridor — enough third-row entry space for this 6-foot 2-inch tester to slip gracefully in and out.
And when that third row is up and occupied, there are 19 inches of floor remaining and 17.2 cubic feet of storage space — enough to bring home the groceries. If that's not enough, the 50/50 third row can split-fold. Putting down both halves nets 47.5 cubic feet, while a whopping 100.7 cubes are available with the 60/40 middle row stowed, too. By comparison, the truckier Honda Pilot provides only 88 cubic feet of cargo capacity, while the 2007 Ford Expedition is only slightly more voluminous, at 108 cubes.
On the safety front, all CX-9s are loaded. In addition to advanced front airbags, there are front side-impact airbags and a side curtain that covers all three rows. Standard stability control, ABS, roll stability control and a tire-pressure monitoring system reduce the likelihood that you'll ever need all those airbags.
Big for little The base-trim CX-9 Sport, which goes for $29,035 in front-wheel-drive guise, comes with the major power and performance goodies riding on the aforementioned 18-inch tires. Opting for the $31,135 Touring version adds power leather seats which, like the outside mirrors, are heated. The Grand Touring trim level ($32,675) adds memory to the seats, 20-inch tires, a smart key, xenon headlamps, and other color and trim detail differences. All-wheel drive boosts the cost of any of them by $1,200.
With the 2007 CX-9, Mazda has hit on a fresh combination of style and third-row seat practicality, with a proportional dose of its trademark zoom-zoom added for good measure. It goes on sale this January.