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First Drive: Mazda CX-9

What to drive when family responsibility dictates that your sports car days be put on hold.

by on Jul.29, 2011

Mazda's CX-9 is really just a supersized sports car.

We’ve all heard it before. “You won’t catch me driving a minivan,” the raffish 20-something says. Of course, that is before the invasion of the Little People, and all of their paraphernalia, from diaper bags to portable playpens. Some have turned to sturdier-looking sport utilities and crossovers, but the stigma is even starting to attach to those.

So you’re longing for the days of BLP – before Little People – for the days when the idea of driving a vehicle with three rows of seats was unfathomable. But now there are two kids and another in the oven, so three rows are mandatory if the dreaded – and incurable – Don’t Touch My Syndrome is to be avoided.

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Mazda may have the answer. This is the Zoom-Zoom company, so it designs its cars with the goal of offering the sportiest driving experience in the segment. That includes its big three-row crossover, the CX-9.

The CX-9 was introduced in 2007, with styling refresh in 2010. The design is similar to the smaller CX-7 sport ute, but more grown up with the new updates. The grille is toned down a bit and there are fewer creases, but there’s still a family resemblance.

Mazda's CX-9 is a little smaller than many big crossovers. Less weight equals better handling.

Where the CX-7 and CX-9 deviate is in the engine room. Mazda made the strange decision of putting a turbo 4-cylinder in the top level CX-7, but the CX-9 has a more traditional V-6.

More on the engine in a bit.

Many sport utes and crossovers have a fairly upright windshield, but the CX-9’s is raked like a sports car. The rear window is also sharply raked. It gives the crossover a sporty look. It’s no MX-5 Miata, but that little starlet can barely fit a diaper bag, let alone all of the trappings of familydom.

The CX-9's massive center console reduces legroom, but it doesn't offer enough space for travel detritus.

There is a price to pay for all of that style. The steep windshield makes ingress difficult for taller folks. It would help if the seat would go lower, but, like many crossovers, Mazda emphasizes the high seating position. It would seem that allowing the seat to go lower would give the vehicle an even more sporting feel.

The cockpit seems to be too cramped, a product of the raked windshield, but also because the bulky center console leaves little room to comfortably spread your legs. And as big as the center console is, there aren’t enough cubbies to store sunglasses, cellphones and spare binkies. The seats are cushy soft, surprising considering that this is supposed to be the sports car of big crossovers.

Third-row seats are accessible through easy sliding middle-row seats.

Middle-row passengers have comfortable perches on which to watch the optional rear-entertainment system. Also, the 60/40 split middle row easily slides forward against the front seatbacks, making it easy for those in front to reach a fussy little one in a car seat in back.

The sliding seats also make getting to the third row fairly easy. Surprisingly, the third row is reasonably comfortable for adults, assuming those sitting back there can get a little cooperation from those in the middle row.  The floor directly in front of the third row isn’t flat. The CX-9 might not be the first choice for the office carpool, but Ralph from accounting should be able to put up with it for a while, so long as he doesn’t accidentally sit on a GameBoy.

At least you can pretend that you're driving sports car by looking at the racy gauge cluster.

Space behind the third row (17.2 cubic feet), is also somewhat limited compared to a GMC Acadia (24.1) or a Ford Flex (20.0)

Where the CX-9 really shines is on the road. It’s a little smaller than some other crossovers, so it feels a little more spry. Tighter dampers and heftier steering lead to better control, giving the CX-9 better feel in sporty driving. It also means that small road imperfections are felt through the backside. Still, the ride is not too stiff.

The engine is a 3.7-liter V-6 making 273 horsepower, which is about the norm for this segment. It makes passing maneuvers on two-laners a snap.

But, again, the Mazda gives up capability to the GMC. The bigger Acadia has 10 more horsepower, but fuel economy is close – 16 city and 23 highway for an AWD Acadia vs. 16/22 for the CX-9.

The CX-9’s towing capacity is also rather limited. At 3,500 pounds, the Mazda falls short of the Chevrolet Traverse (5,200 pounds) and the Ford Flex (4,500 pounds).

The transmission is a slick-shifting 6-speed automatic with a slot for manumatic shifting. Unfortunately, downshifting requires a push forward, which seems counter-intuitive and is backward compared to most other manual-shift automatics.

The CX-9’s all-wheel drive system is completely seamless. In normal circumstances, it routes power to the front wheels, but it can send as much as 50 percent of the power to the rears if it detects slippage.

The CX-9 starts at $29,830, including destination, for a front-wheel-drive Sport, one of three trim levels, including Touring and Grand Touring. This all-wheel-drive Grand Touring starts at $34,535. With navigation ($1,565) and a moonroof package which includes a 10-speaker Bose stereo, Sirius satellite radio and a power moonroof ($2,255), brings the sticker to $39,800.

So, if you’ve been perusing the baby aisle at Target instead of the fuzzy dice aisle at Auto Zone, if you’ve been looking at Power Wheels Jeeps instead of real ones, Mazda has a crossover that might help you salvage at least a bit of your dignity. It won’t replicate the fun of your Mustang, but, hey, have you ever tried to cram one of those baby walkers in the back of one of those things?

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