Mountain Wheels: Mazda’s flagship CX-9 is an impressive, affordable machine

With all-wheel drive now standard on all models, the 2022 Mazda CX-9 offers the grace and style of premium Japanese or European SUVs, while starting at just $35,280.
Courtesy photo

As the model from which all current Mazdas descended, the 2022 rendition of the CX-9 SUV does not feel ungainly, overly flashy or overpowered — and is quite nice, and rather affordable, as a result.

Yes, everything from the new CX-50 to the other crossovers all look like somewhat identical, like nesting Ukrainian dolls that could easily fit into each other, but I guess that makes it easy to figure out what size you and your family need and pick the right one. If you need a three-row, mid-sized crossover, this one’s as Mazda as possible.

For 2022, Mazda’s i-Activ branded all-wheel drive system is standard on all CX-9 models, with the system able to shift power around to different wheels as conditions require, as well as a torque-vectoring cornering system and additional off-road traction when activated.

Having driven many of CX-9’s subsequent stylistic offspring, it’s reassuring to know that the larger SUV is not outrageously bulky or even big by comparison. At 199 inches in length, it does the trick, until somebody decides that a CX-11 is necessary for American buyers. Hopefully that does not occur.

Power is perhaps a little on the short side as the standard 2.5-liter turbo generates a maximum 250 horsepower with high-test fuel and just 227 horsepower with 87 octane. Loaded with premium, that means 320 pound-feet of torque; fuel economy tops out at 26 highway mpg.

Maybe the only place where CX-9 felt a little on the small size is the cockpit, where the very white Nappa leather seating in my bright-red, top-of-the-line Signature edition helped create some sort of perhaps psychological impression that I was seated in one of Mazda’s littler crossovers.

The biggest shocker is the price point: With absolutely every option, plus the ultra-bright red paint, the CX-9 came to a grand total of $49,030 — that includes quilted seating leather, heated second-row captain’s chairs, rosewood trim, 20-inch aluminum wheels and larger exhaust pipes. That’s for the whole pile of everything; a more basic Sport model, with the same engine and same AWD, starts at just $35,280. You can also get a blacked-out Carbon Edition with red leather seats for $43,580.

I say this because, given the Pepsi Challenge blind taste test with an Audi or Acura of the same size, you’ll likely find the finishings and overall experience — minus maybe raw power — to be commensurate. Yes, the interior is pretty but not as overloaded with gadgetry as those higher-priced vehicles, and maybe the low-drama approach has some extra appeal.

Driving was pleasant overall, with enough turbo action to remain competent, and some of that Mazda racing DNA still contained in the ride and the handling. I appreciate how easy it was to get in and out of the CX-9, minus the kid-sized third row, which was again a positive.

Minus that slightly discotheque leather, the interior design is remarkable for its restraint, especially in a world where the competitors all seem to pile seven or so touchscreens on the dash and central stack.

Here, it’s one, small, discrete 10.25-inch screen that almost looks out of place on the angular but not audacious dash. The air vents are more prominent than the AC controls themselves, and the console’s understated parking brake, navigation input knob and right-side volume knob are also restrained.

I still can’t figure out how Mazda’s radio works — the channel search function needs to be explained to me by a 7-year-old, I guess — and I still have never been able to stop the nav’s maps from “zoom-zooming” out after a few seconds.

But it all looks nice, including the deep instrument pots and a reconfigurable digital display in the middle. I’d love a few more USB outlets. Also, like many do nowadays, Mazda’s downward dog-styled phone charger pad seems designed to prevent you from looking at the phone while driving.

Cargo space is just 14.4 cubic feet in the far rear, with a large under-deck storage area, but dropping the seats can get you 71.2 cubic feet.

Safety features include radar cruise control with stop-and-go capability on dry Interstate 70 roads, plus brake support and pedestrian detection, plus traffic sign recognition on the higher models.

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