Surrounded by heavy hitters such as the Honda Pilot, Toyota Venza, Volkswagen Touareg and Ford Explorer, Mazda's mid-size CX-9 is a backbencher in the SUV segment.
It does what it's supposed to and is just as worthy as its rivals, but it rides the pine – overshadowed by its rivals and maybe even intimidated by the phenomenally successful SkyActiv CX-5, although they are two entirely different vehicles.
It's not that there is anything fundamentally wrong with it, but the CX-9 doesn't stir the blood – maybe it's not supposed to. Either way, I don't think I've ever driven a more anonymous vehicle; this one just blends into the scenery.
Power is delivered by a 3.7-litre V-6 engine that develops 273 horsepower. It's mated to a six-speed automatic transmission only, and you can get the CX-9 with 2WD or AWD.
The AWD system has a front-drive bias and is one of those setups designed to get you out of a rough spot, but not meant for serious off-the-grid bush-bashing. That said, it has the usual engineering features that come with this type of vehicle, including a vehicle stability control system, traction control, a rollover stability control package and a towing package. This latter feature is standard – many of the CX-9's competitors have it as an option.
If Mazda wants to inject some life into the CX-9, what about a diesel engine? It certainly has the technology: back when its pickup truck had a diesel and, later this year, the Mazda6 will be available with one. Timing is everything in the car business, and the timing couldn't be better for a diesel-powered CX-9.
Inside, the CX-9 redeems itself. There is plenty of elbow and storage room; seven adults will fit in there comfortably and, with all seats folded, you get 2,851 litres of cargo space. By way of comparison, the Pilot offers 2,464 litres and the Touareg 1,812 litres. The rear hatchback is a straightforward one-piece affair that allows ready access into the back and the seats fold down with minimal fuss. No issues here.
And it's nice and comfy in there. Standard equipment includes front and rear climate control, two-setting heated front seats, steering-wheel-mounted cruise control, tilt/telescoping steering and so on. My tester, an AWD GT model, also had extras like a back-up camera, Sirius satellite radio, remote audio controls, upgraded stereo system and a blind spot monitoring system.
The CX-9 is an up-to-date, state-of-the-art mid-size SUV. It also runs on regular gas, which isn't always the case in this market, and the fuel tank will hold more than 75 litres, giving it a theoretical range of around 650 kilometres.
But there are a couple of flies in the ointment. First: engine noise. NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) is not what it could be and the V-6 makes more racket than it should. This engine has been around for a while and Mazda has had time to quiet things down. Such is not that case and the rambunctious powerplant is out of place in a vehicle with this level of refinement. Many of the CX-9's rivals provide a more placid driving experience – the new Explorer, for example. Plus, if I shell out close to 50-large (more after taxes and extras) for a vehicle of this stripe, I want peace and quiet behind the wheel.
Which leads to my second observation: price. With all the bells and whistles, my GT was over the $45,000 mark. A comparably equipped Pilot EX-L is a couple of grand less, and a Toyota Venza tops out at less than $40,000. Yes, you can get a CX-9 starting at less than $35,000, without the goodies, and that may be the way to go here.
Now, what about reliability? Well, this is where the CX-9 hits its stride. According to Consumer Reports, it's one of the more dependable models in this group and gets top marks in just about every area. The magazine says that the CX-9 is likely to have reliability 45 per cent above average, and, according to its consumer surveys, 64 per cent of people that bought one, new, would purchase it again.
This last number is at about the halfway mark on CR's owner satisfaction index. It ranks ahead of the GMC Terrain, Kia Sorento four-cylinder and Ford Explorer, but is behind the Jeep Grand Cherokee (the leader in this group), Toyota 4Runner, Nissan Murano and Honda Pilot. Still, CR gives the CX-9 its coveted "Recommended" stamp of approval.
2013 Mazda CX-9
Base Price: $33,995; as tested: $47,250
Engine: 3.7-litre V-6
Horsepower/torque: 273 hp/270 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 12.8 city/ 9.0 highway (AWD); regular gas
Alternatives: Honda Pilot, Acura MDX, Toyota Highlander, Toyota Venza, Volkswagen Touareg, Nissan Murano, Infiniti EX35, Ford Explorer, GMC Terrain, Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango