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Joyride: 2015 Mazda CX-9

Though nice to drive, Mazda's CX-9 is let down by its outdated interior and hefty price tag

The Mazda CX-9 is a bit like Kobe Bryant, undeniably talented but aging … and not worth the cost.

I think of the Mazda CX-9 as an aging professional athlete: it still has the moves and the smarts, but it just can’t quite compete with the youngsters.

As the biggest Mazda, the CX-9 drives extremely well for a seven-seater, but its tech, powertrain, and interior are beginning to show its age. This isn’t to say that the car can’t be useful or fun. Unfortunately, though, like a lot of aging stars, it is overpaid. So, while Mazda deserves kudos for a design that can still be relevant nearly a decade into its service, it may be time to move on.

If a tree falls in the forest

The CX-9 is undeniably one of the best handling, best driving, seven-seat vehicles that doesn’t come with a massive German price tag. In a way, this isn’t surprising given Mazda’s devotion to handling and “Zoom-Zoom” across its model range. However, in a car that hasn’t been completely redesigned in nine years, its chops are still impressive.

The CX-9 is undeniably one of the best handling, best driving, seven-seat vehicles that doesn’t come with a massive German price tag.

Considering the size and two-ton mass of the CX-9, it rides, corners, turns, and stops with aplomb. There is real communication to the driver through the wheels and pedals, a characteristic that is usually lacking on even the sportiest of crossovers.

Unfortunately, the six-speed automatic and decades-old Ford-sourced V6 — despite being rated at 273-horsepower — don’t do much to briskly move the CX-9. The big Mazda may be rated at a respectable 7.6 second 0-to-60 time, but the sensation is not overly pleasant. Worse, though, passing power is rather limited. It isn’t exactly terrible. But, when performance is the brand’s calling card, it is disappointing.

Worse still is that performance prowess just isn’t that important in this segment. The CX-9 is first, second, and third a way to haul children, pets, groceries, and broken dreams. That is what it really needs to be good at.

While it may be miles better to drive than other crossovers, that’s a bit like learning your doctor is an accomplished carpenter: nice but not that relevant. It also begs the question: does performance matter when no one is around to notice it?

A trip to the plastic surgeon

As with a lot of aging stars, the CX-9 has had some work done. In the Mazda’s case, it’s a nose job that brings the car in line with the company’s Kodo design language. The results are unquestionably great; the CX-9 is both striking and handsome without being polarizing.

Like all plastic surgery, this refresh hasn’t changed what’s on the inside. Fortunately, despite being outdated, most of what remains is pretty good. The driver enjoys a high driving position with good, all-around visibility and all three rows of passengers get a surprising amount of space. Unfortunately, with the third row seats up, the family dog will have to undergo some pretty severe downsizing, as the cargo area gets decidedly cramped.

Despite its capacious comfort, the CX-9’s interior looks its age. The materials are mostly hard black plastic, and the driver is presented with a host of buttons that look more at home in a Russian orbiter than a modern family-hauler.

There is also the problem of tech. The CX-9 is burdened with Mazda’s old infotainment suite, a balky frustrating creation that boasts a truly terrible navigation system.

As with a lot of aging stars, the CX-9 has had some work done.

Outsourced to Tom Tom, the navigation system is difficult to operate and has probably the worst antenna in the business. During my week with the CX-9, the navigation was flummoxed by everything from trees to buildings, constantly loosing signal. In fact, while driving around downtown Portland, the navigation system couldn’t decide whether we were in the Willamette River, or half a mile away heading in the opposite direction.

It is worth noting that we experience similar problems with the Tom Tom navigation system on the Mazda6. So at least this doesn’t appear to be an isolated incident.

Now, a navigation system without a sense of direction is hardly the biggest problem in the world. However, it does demonstrate that Mazda should have saved its nose-job money and updated the interior instead.

Conclusion

Despite all of these complaints, I still like the CX-9. It is a nice car to drive. And, despite the outdated interior, it is still a capable family-hauler. The problem is the price.

My loaded CX-9 press demonstrator ran to $40,000. There are a lot of options in that price range, including the very nice Toyota Highlander, and the much cheaper — but very compelling — Nissan Rogue.

It is hard to see why the CX-9, despite its obvious good qualities, is worth that kind of money. That is like paying Kobe Bryant $20 million a year when you could have Damian Lillard instead.

Highs

  • Stylish exterior
  • Excellent handling and ride
  • Great driving position

Lows

  • Outdated interior
  • Terrible navigation
  • Underwhelming engine and transmission