2012 Mazda CX-9 – The thinking driver’s BMW X5

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Once in a while, an automobile manufacturer gets it ‘right’ the first time, and the 2012 Mazda CX-9 is a great example of that.  Mazda’s full-size crossover SUV was launched in 2007, and the 2012 version, which is at the end of its life cycle, is much the same vehicle, but with some worthy refinements.

The CX-9 is a 3-row full size all-wheel-drive SUV that competes with the likes of the Ford Edge/Flex and General Motors’ Acadia/Enclave/Traverse triplets.  These are all capable, large vehicles with all-wheel-drive, (excluding the Edge) the capacity to haul seven passengers with plenty of cargo, and tow a decent-sized trailer.  And since they’re all equipped with V-6 engines, fuel economy is reasonable.

What makes the CX-9 stand out in this crowd of flexible, hard-working SUVs is Mazda’s Zoom-Zoom DNA.  Drivers who appreciate precise handling and very good road dynamics will love this Mazda.  Ok, the CX-9 is too big and heavy to be truly ‘sporty’, but it’s darn close and best in its price class.  If you want a better handling SUV, you’re going to have to pony up a lot more money and go waaay upmarket to the premium class Audi Q7 or BMW X5.

Not only is the Mazda SUV handling impressive for its size, but it’s also one of those rare vehicles that feels smaller than it is.  That’s an important advantage when wheeling the big SUV through heavy traffic.  Additionally, Mazda has fit their sport-ute with one of the best blindspot warning systems we’ve encountered.  (A light in the side mirror warns the driver when a vehicle is in the blind spot and if you activate that side’s turn signal, the CX-9 sounds an additional ‘beeper’ warning.)  This blindspot warning system works impeccably.

The CX-9 is an easy vehicle to immediately feel comfortable in and drive.  The interior plain ‘works; from the get-go.  From the driver’s seat, everything seems to fall to hand and little time is needed to familiarize one’s self with the controls.  The instrumentation, HVAC and audio/navigation controls are all large and clear.

Our tester arrived with a very attractive grey and black leather interior and optional Navigation Package ($2,675) that includes GPS, a very convenient power tailgate and 6-disc CD changer.  The front seats are well bolstered and hold you in when cornering briskly.  Oddly, they’re better for more sporty driving than the front buckets in the 2013 Ford Taurus SHO we drove recently.  The driver’s seat has lumbar control, and the front chairs are very comfortable.  Second row passengers are well accommodated with plenty of legroom and the third row, typical of the class, is best suited for two children.

The 273 horsepower 3.7-litre DOHC V-6 engine has enough power to accelerate the CX-9 with confidence and the 6-speed automatic transmission downshifts smoothly and quickly, making the SUV feel nicely responsive.  Despite a suspension setup that’s tuned to provide the sportiest handling in the segment, the ride, while firm, never feels harsh.

In daily use, the Mazda SUV shines and has plenty of features that make it a handy family hauler.  Keyless ignition, remotely-activated opening/closing power tailgate, one-touch opening/closing windows and moonroof, and easy access to the third row seats all add to the ‘9’s well-rounded capabilities.

The 2012 Mazda CX-9 is a very likable large SUV.  It’s build quality is very good and the chassis feels satisfyingly taut and responsive in spirited driving.  And whether negotiating potholed city streets or cruising on the highway, it feels rock solid.  The vehicle has few foibles, none of which detract from its overall ‘goodness’.  The ‘premium’ Bose audio system is only average and this Mazda wearily forces you to turn on the cruise control every time the vehicle is started.  Finally, some have complained the 3.7-litre V-6 is something of a gasaholic, but the CX-9 is within a hair’s breadth of the Ford Flex AWD and GMC Acadia AWD.  In mostly city driving, we managed a very respectable 14.5l/100 km (about 19.5 mpg), not bad for such a large vehicle.

For my money, the 2012 Mazda CX-9 GT is the driver’s choice in the full-size, 3-row AWD V-6 SUV segment.  If towing is a priority, check out the Ford Flex, which has a higher trailer towing rating.

The Specs

2012 Mazda CX-9 GT

Type of vehicle:  Full-size SUV

Engine: 3.7-litre DOHC V-6

Power: 273 horsepower at 6,250 r.p.m; 270 pound-feet of torque at 4,250 r.p.m.

Transmission: Six-speed sport mode automatic

Brakes: Front ventilated disc brakes, rear disc brakes. ABS with brake assist, electronic brake force distribution (EBD)

Tires: Winter P245/50R20, temporary spare

Price: $45,595 As-tested:  $48,270 (includes Navigation Package $2,675)

Transport Canada fuel economy (L/100 km): 12.8 city, 9.0 highway (regula unleaded)

Key standard features:  Automatic transmission, all-wheel-drive, Roll Stability Control, rain sensing wipers, towing package, 20-in. alloy wheels, Xenon HID headlights, premium Bose audio system, leather upholstery, 8-way adjustable driver’s seat w/memory, and blind spot monitoring system.

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