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2010 Mazda CX-9 GT (Mazda)
2010 Mazda CX-9 GT (Mazda)

2010 Mazda CX-9

Biggest Mazda a fun, flexible ride Add to ...

It is damning with faint praise to say Mazda, the "zoom-zoom" brand since 2001, has plenty of potential. Potential?

Mazda's sales in Canada are up 8.7 per cent this year and with 5.3 per cent market share, Mazda Canada is a solid import player. (Note: Mazda in the United states has only 2.0 per cent market share). Heck, the second best-selling car in Canada is the Mazda3.

Mazda has a young owner base, too. Buyers of the CX-7 and CX-9 crossover utilities are in their low-40s, versus 50-plus for rival models from Honda, Ford, Subaru and Toyota.

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Residuals? Mazda residuals are well above the industry average. Automotive Lease Guide ranks Mazda as No. 3 over all among mainstream brands. Mazdas retain 39.5 per cent of their value after four years, behind only Honda (41.6 per cent) and Subaru (41.9 per cent).

And no question Mazda products stand out from the ordinary. The CX-7 and CX-9 are two of the more aggressively styled crossovers and the Mazda6 is a handsome family sedan. If racing performance is your thing, the Mazdaspeed3 is a very hot little turbocharged hatchback with a reasonable price ($32,995, 263 horsepower).

Even owner loyalty rates have been on the rise since the launch of the CX-7 and CX-9 three years ago. Still, loyalty could be better. The Power Information Network says that in the United States, Mazda buyers return for another Mazda 30.1 per cent of the time, versus an industry average of 48 per cent. At least awareness of Mazda has shot to 70 per cent from 40 per cent since zoom-zoom launched in 2001.

Aside from being a smallish auto maker with limited resources, Mazda's biggest challenge is quality. Pick a study, Mazda lags behind its Japanese rivals.

In J.D. Power and Associates' three-year vehicle dependability study (VDS), Mazda ranks well below the industry average. Consumer Reports puts the Mazda brand 15th in the industry for predicted reliability, though the CR testers love the Mazda5 microvan ("lots of practicality in a compact, affordable package") and the Mazda3 is considered an excellent model and a "recommended" pick.

There is a lot to like about Mazda and that's why we went to test the CX-9, a three-row crossover that shares its basic mechanical underpinnings with the Ford Flex, though obviously the two rides look completely different - boxy Ford versus sleek CX-9. Like the Mazda3, the CX-9 is a CR recommended pick. It's also the biggest Mazda on the lot.

The CX-9 stretches more than 5,101 mm, which is longer than the Honda Pilot and a hair shorter than the Ford Flex. The CX-9 can pack six people, comes in front- and all-wheel-drive versions, and has an interior that is roomy and smartly designed, if a bit heavy on the hard plastics, which make the cabin noisy at highway speeds.

But among bigger crossovers, the CX-9 is pretty entertaining from behind the wheel. The long wheelbase (2,875 mm), powerful 3.7-litre V-6 (273 horsepower) and six-speed automatic transmission make the ride stress-free from a power and ride comfort perspective. Mazda's engineers have calibrated the mechanical end of things very well: steering, acceleration and suspension work together nicely.

The pocket-protector boys deserve some real credit here. The CX-9 is not only big, it's heavy, too (2,062 kg) - heavier than a comparably equipped Flex and Pilot. So getting a big rig to ride "small" is no small task - pun intended. The downside: the CX-9 may be nice on the road, but a massive turning radius makes it less fun in parking lots.

My tester Mazda CX-9 GS ($39,995 plus $1,595 freight) came equipped with all-wheel-drive. The Mazda system will give you some extra traction in bad weather starts, but as a performance add-on, AWD here only offers a marginal benefit. Why? Mazda puts more of the power to the front wheels. This means CX-9 really feels and performs like a front-wheel-drive vehicle that can spin up the back tires when the fronts slip.

Like all the others in its class, the CX-9 offers lots of features. Mazda offers a blind-spot detection system mounted to the external mirrors and a back-up camera with a colour display. For your comfort and entertainment, Mazda also offers an 11-speaker surround sound system, a nine-inch screen rear entertainment system and a 110-volt outlet.

But you'll pay extra for the really high-end stuff. The more basic CX-9 GS comes standard with electronic stability control, antilock braking, automatic climate control, a six-speaker stereo, dual-zone climate control, cruise control with steering wheel controls, three power outlets, seating for seven, cloth seats, power windows, mirrors and door locks, and projector beam halogen headlights.

The roster of standard gear is good, but even better is all the space. Fold down the second- and third-row seats and there's 1,371 litres of cargo room. Even with both rows up, you have 487 litres of space - which is more than the bigger Flex, but less than the Pilot.

Unfortunately, fuel economy could be better. Both the Flex and the Pilot use less gas than the Flex and Pilot, comparably equipped: the CX-9 comes in at 12.0 litres/100 km combined, versus 11.6 for the Flex and 11.3 for the Pilot.

Mazda is on a mission to improve its overall fleet-wide fuel economy by 30 per cent within five years and that effort will surely benefit the CX-9. In the end, there is plenty of zoom-zoom in this big Mazda and while that's usually a good thing for buyers who want style and performance, there is certainly potential for improvement on the fuel economy front.

So, yes, Mazda is certainly a brand with potential.

Use The Globe and Mail's auto search function to compare specs and features, and check out the top new car searches of the month

2010 Mazda CX-9 GS AWD

Type: Large crossover wagon

Base Price: $39,995

Engine: 3.7-litre V-6

Horsepower/torque: 273 hp/270 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: All-wheel-drive

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 14.0 city/9.6 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Flex, GMC Acadia, Buick Enclave, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Veracruz, Nissan Pathfinder, Volvo XC70

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