Because we both have kids, we were curious to see how Mazda's CX-9 crossover would fit our needs. But after a week with the stylish seven-seater, we reached a split decision. Lyra, who does more commuting and distance driving, didn't like it; Peter, who drives mainly in the city, found it an amiable people mover.
Appearance: How could you not like a car that smiles? The front grille, like all new Mazdas, resembles a grin with dimples. (For the record: Lyra likes this friendly look more than Peter.) We both liked the chrome trim accents around the grille. The CX-9's profile is elegant, with a high beltline and roof that slopes gently to a rear hatch spoiler. The problem with sleek design is that it means less headroom for the third-row seats. Still, for a seven-seater, it's more aerodynamic than a minivan or large SUV.
Performance: The 3.7-liter, 273-horsepower V-6 is adequate in the city and on the Interstate. The automatic transmission shifts smoothly. For a larger vehicle, it took turns well with a just a hint of body lean. (Credit the host of electronic helpers for this, such as stability and traction controls.) Because of the front-wheel drive, there can be some torque steer. One thing did stand out: a too-firm ride that revealed itself to Lyra on a weekend trip to Daytona Beach. The rear passengers, especially, could feel every bump. On our favorite suspension-abusing brick road, she found the ride to be headache-inducing. Part of the blame has to go to the Grand Touring's 20-inch rubber. (Peter thought the ride was fine in normal city driving, however.)
Interior: We both liked the sporty cockpit and sharp-looking two-tone seats. The second-row seats recline, which is a plus for long drives, and they slide to give the third-row seats a little more legroom. Lyra found them uncomfortable for adults; Peter's 11-year-old pronounced the room fine. And Lyra bashed her head on the protruding rear pillars. There are third-row air curtains in the event of a rollover. Peter liked the split-lid cover on the armrest storage bin, which is a practical touch; Lyra, however, found it annoying, and thought the bin too shallow. Lyra found the seats uncomfortable for long drives. Lyra also didn't like the readings for the AC controls that are placed too far forward in the dash, putting them in a different focal zone than the rest of the controls. We both liked the large side mirrors and the optional blind-spot warning system that flashes an orange warning on the mirror when a car is in the next lane, then sounds an alert if you get too close. And there is a powered rear lift gate that makes it easy to open and close a heavy rear hatch. The steering-wheel controls are tactile-friendly.
Our 3 favorites
Blind-spot warning: The system is one of the best I've seen in any car at any price.
Cabin: I liked the easy-to-read gauges and two-tone seats.
Crash tests: This people mover gets high NHTSA scores.
Power-lift hatch: It's a must-have for the vertically challenged.
Out of sight: The compartment under the rear deck can be used for storage.
Second-row AC: The vents have their own temperature and fan controls.
The bottom line: The CX-9 looks elegant, has plenty of room and is a good minivan alternative, but its impression is ordinary. Make sure you can live with the ride quality before you buy. Check out the entry-level Sport model.