In my third year of college I had a neighbor across the hall named Tabitha, she was an absolute knockout. But – and this is crucial – she was also extremely down to earth, exhibited no airs, was easy to get along with and always up for hanging out and doing whatever at any time of day or night. Basically I think she wasn’t overly cognizant of her looks and if she was, didn’t let it affect her or anyone else in any meaningful way.
In a nutshell, that’s how I came to look at this Mazda CX-9 Signature. Easily one of the (and perhaps just the) most attractive current entrants in the segment both inside and out, it’s built by a marque that isn’t snooty and doesn’t try to pretend to be anything it isn’t. It’s comfortable and easy to get along with while being endowed with many attractive points and features. And, perhaps important to a potential suitor, is unlikely to cost an arm and a leg on a day to day basis.
I’ve never started a review with price before but need to make an exception here. Mazda, as a fairly small Japanese manufacturer, has been upping its game over the last few years and as a result has aimed (or perhaps needed) to increase its prices a bit to reflect both the increased performance and content, as well as the somewhat more intangible qualities of attractive design and interesting material usage inside.
Some of its models have been described as great but perhaps verging on a little more expensive than the market is willing to pay. I myself thought that the CX-5 I sampled a few months ago was perhaps a bit overpriced, at least in the top of the line form I reviewed. This time it’s different.
Including destination, this loaded CX-9 which carries the sole factory option of a $495 premium metallic paint color rings the bell at $48,200. Not so long ago I reviewed both a similarly equipped Toyota Highlander which was over $50k and a Lexus RX350 at closer to $65,000. I liked both of those three-rowers quite a bit, but now believe I like this one better, at least equipped as this one was compared to those.
Frankly, while I recognize that $48,200 is subjectively a large sum of money, compared to what this Mazda plays with in regard to looks, fit and finish, assembly quality, and performance, it transcends the Toyota Highlander and the rest of the Asian and American competition. It easily plays with the Germans and the luxury Japanese marques at a price that is many thousands less, both initially and compared to at least the Europeans very likely on an ongoing basis during its lifespan.
Mazda is not a name that anyone has to apologize for or perhaps realize uncomfortable reminders of in some less than desirable models of the past when opting to purchase one. They obviously have a performance heritage (RX-7, Miata, winner of LeMans, etc.) and have a long history of assembling quality vehicles. Lately they have decided that instead of decontenting and becoming ever cheaper and thus just blending into the background, a better strategy might be to seize the day, more comprehensively equip the cars, focus on what people see, feel, and experience, and try to do it competitively.
Time will tell how successful this strategy will be and I get the feeling that it may be working better on the higher end models than the lower end ones. Still, they just need to round the curve and climb the hill of widespread public acceptance, if they can do that they will have it made.
Leading the way for the CX-9 is the very distinctive grille with the large opening and surround that on most other cars might just be altogether too much. Somehow (to my eyes anyway) Mazda pulls it off with the very elegant chrome band around most of the thing.
The almost knife-blade front of it is refreshingly different and would give an altogether different effect if bent 90 degrees and presented as very thick outline – or rather a U-shape as the top edge is formed by the leading edge of the front end that blends back into the hood itself. Instead the surround catches the light and makes one look twice, the three-dimensionality of it is brilliant in how thin it is at its leading edge but thick from the side, like a blade.
The headlights are smaller rather than larger and as such look more like real jewelry instead of the more blingy and larger kind commonly seen that could be described as costume jewelry in this context. It’s like a supermodel with fine features and just a hint of makeup instead of lipstick slathered on something else entirely trying to draw the eye this way and that, much nicer to just pause and take it all in at a leisurely pace. But even the lights are designed in concert with the grille, further enhancing it rather than just appearing as tacked on required appendages.
Further back, the flanks are neatly, perhaps taughtly, sculpted through the doors and then it all wraps around the back with some smaller taillights that stand somewhat proud of the body similar to some many-decades-old classic designs, and whose tri-colored lenses pickup and connect a slender chrome highlight across the tailgate. The front hood and fender have a shoulder line that softly fades out somewhere in the rear door, but then a new one takes flight a little higher in the metal and blends back into those taillights and the rear chrome.
Overall the bits of chrome, small bright areas such as the lights along with the subtly darker than plain silver wheels play to good effect off of the Machine Gray Metallic paint, enhancing the hue rather than just looking like another dark gray blob. Yes, at its root the CX-9 is another three-row CUV of which there are many on the market but there’s nothing that says that the form can’t be graceful and elegant.
Open the door and the double-takes begin. Soft Nappa leather in a hue called Deep Chestnut abounds, the genuine wood accents on the doors and around the center console look, feel, and sound like real wood when examined closely (far better than in the CX-5), some subtle chromed highlights draw attention to certain areas and stand out by not explicitly trying to stand out. Everything is smoothly styled as parts of a whole experience.
The door panel itself is worthy of a closer look as a good example of the whole. Mostly soft, it starts at the top with black textured plastic inset with a convincing textured plastic metal-look panel and the latch handle, then down to the Chestnut colored insert and stitched handle/armrest pieces. The lock, window, and mirror panel is not overly large but surrounded by a chrome border and all of it inlaid into a lovely piece of wood trim.
Even the window buttons themselves are trimmed with metalwork and are backlit. Below this panel the plastic turns harder (durable), and the speaker grille is also attractively designed with a large, albeit not hinged, storage compartment along the lower edge. The picture below shows the passenger side and how it all flows into the dashboard itself.
The front seats, here heated as well as ventilated, are interestingly textured and finished with gray piping, are powered on both sides along with having memory settings for two drivers. The steering wheel with its small center boss is very comfortably designed with thumbrests in the right places and just the right thickness for my hands.
It’s also heated, and while unfortunately isn’t heated 360 degrees around the perimeter, does have the effect of making one keep their hands in the optimum positions, I can’t decide if this was intentional or not.
As with other Mazda vehicles, this one continues my absolute favorite feature in instrument panels. The outer gauges are real, but the center speedometer is virtual (albeit indistinguishable from real). This allows Mazda to design a gauge that changes brightness within itself to highlight the area in use, for example the numbers from 40-100 when one is traveling at 75mph with the ranges at both ends softly fading away and more importantly the current speed limit being represented by a small red hashmark, i.e. changing whenever the limit changes.
In the above picture the speed limit is 25 (denoted by the red mark) and the numbers are bright through 40mph and then fade beyond that as it was taken in my driveway. As one drives along and the speed rises the highlit area changes as does the speed limit marker as appropriate. This is brilliant design and makes it oh so convenient to be aware of one’s legality in terms of speed. And then just for extra emphasis there is a representation of the speed limit sign just to the side above the speedometer.
In addition, there is an instant and cumulative fuel economy gauge to the left of the speedometer and to the immediate right of the speedometer is what looks like a second fuel gauge, however it in fact displays the remaining range both numerically and graphically.
Of course there’s also a Head Up Display that displays the current speed as well as the limit but although very useful I enjoyed eyeing the “real” gauges most of the time instead. And yes, this CX-9 also employs a dashboard mounted screen, in this case measuring 10.25″. At this point these units are the rule rather than the exception across the industry and I’m starting to suspect that those who dislike them haven’t really had much opportunity to use them.
The whole reason for their high mounting is to keep one’s eyes up and ahead which these do brilliantly. I believe it was BMW who many years ago designed a sort of second instrument cluster hood for a high mounted screen and if anything that blocked more of the view out rather than helping things, this way they barely if at all interfere with the view and provide information at a sideways glance.
The center console, whose sides are well padded for legs and knees to rest against, itself consists of the traditional more or less horizontally oriented portion which contains the shifter, cupholders, and a wireless charger in a slanted bin ahead of it (easy to drop in and remove, but angled in a way that incoming messages are not readily visible, a boon for those otherwise easily distracted). Aft of it is the Mazda media controller toggle wheel surrounded by several menu buttons that controls (redundantly) the dashboard mounted center display.
That display is also touch and voice controllable as well as being larger and of far better resolution than the one in the CX-5. The software is different as well with the graphics having been revised and the navigation especially is much crisper in resolution as is the backup camera.
Audio settings within the screen are easily accessed and controlled and in this case paired to a Bose 12-speaker premium system that once configured to one’s liking (there are many, many settings and parameters to play with) performed better than several other Bose-branded systems encountered recently. I’ve been trying to rank my favorites and Bose was close to coming toward the bottom third of premium systems but this one here has renewed its lease, I found it excellent (don’t consider me any kind of real audiophile though, please). As usual with many Asian designs though, there are still areas that could use improvement, most obviously the satellite station selector.
Presets are arranged in a list from first to last and best accessed by the dial controller on the console, and when changing it resets to the beginning every time, not where one was last on the list. The same goes for channel surfing, it always restarts at the top, rather than at the last selected station, where it would be so easy to just dial over one click from First Wave 33 to Lithium 34 and two more to Alt Nation 36 as well as back and forth for example instead of starting over at whatever the first channel on the dial is (which nobody listens to, right?). It sort of forces you to plug in your favorites in order of most listened to least listened to and discourages surfing.
In any case there are a plethora of menu options best explored at depth in privacy with some time to kill. I mostly used the touchscreen option for controlling things and was pleased with the system’s responsiveness, it’s much better than the older CX-5 one. The dial controller worked well too and over time would become intuitive to use just like Audi’s and BMW’s for example, which also take a little time to learn and acclimate to but once learned are generally excellent.
On the vertical portion of the center console just below the vents are the general HVAC controls with beautifully knurled knobs that were snug in their mountings and well-damped in operation. Along with several standard functions the heated steering wheel also gets a button here as do the seat heaters and ventilators, although the buttons are stacked a little too close to each other as I realized after trying to figure out what a whooshing noise was and not until a few minutes later did I realize I selected maximum seat ventilation instead of maximum seat heat.
To deflect blame and perhaps unfairly try to chastise Mazda for my own error I will point out that the seat ventilator fans on the highest setting are louder than they should be, when I sweat and need ventilation I like to be a little more discreet about it. But perhaps it was just more apparent due to the otherwise excellent refinement noted overall.
The rear seats are similarly accommodating and the Signature trim level is a 6-passenger version with the second row captain’s chairs divided by a large center console. Each door features rollup sunshades as well.
One potential demerit that some shoppers may find is that the CX-9 does not offer a panoramic sunroof, instead just a conventionally sized one is on offer (and provided here). Personally I prefer nothing at all, and will consider the non-panorama as here a boon to reduced weight and better handling but I realize some just prefer the extra light availability (which the Highlander for example does have at this level).
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