We were let loose today in the hills outside of Los Angeles behind the wheel of Mazda's new CX-9 midsize crossover SUV. The CX-9, which is the biggest vehicle ever to come out of Mazda's Hiroshima plant, follows Mazda's CX-7 into the crowded crossover market, and is designed to appeal to that growing segment of customers in need of seven seats (how did we ever manage with just five?). Unlike many other seven-seaters we've seen, the CX-9's third row of seats will be standard on all models, and will not be removable.
If the CX-9 looks vaguely familiar, that's because it shares a good deal of its architecture with the 2007 Ford Edge that we took for a spin around San Francisco last October. Designed specifically for the North American market, the CX-9 will go up against the Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot, and from what we saw today, it will be a serious contender in the segment. The CX-9 comes with an all-new 3.5-liter V-6 variable valve timed engine good for 263 horsepower, which is mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox. On the open road, the CX-9 feels about as agile as a 4,300-pound, 200-inch SUV can: throttle response is surprisingly brisk, although its performance fails to live up to the sports-car engine note that results from burying the gas pedal. The CX-9 is available in three trim levels (Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring) with optional all-wheel drive available on all models.
For onboard tech, Mazda raises its game compared with the offerings in the CX-7. Voice-activated Bluetooth hands-free calling is standard on two of the three trim levels, while all models come prewired for Satellite Sirius Radio. The optional DVD-based touch screen navigation system that we saw on the CX-7 has been refined in terms of usability (while the screen still requires firm inputs, it is more responsive than that of the CX-7), although the navigation maps are still not as well-rendered as many other systems we've seen.
For entertainment, the CX-9 comes with an auxiliary input jack, standard on all trim levels (our test car was hooked up to a second-gen iPod shuffle with Mazda's "Zoom Zoom" branding--a nice tech touch). Options include a 277-watt, 10-speaker Bose Centerpoint audio system with MP3-disc playback capability, and a rear-seat entertainment system with 9-inch LCD display and a 296-watt Bose 5.1 surround-sound audio system.
Other tech niceties include LED taillights (standard), and a power lift-gate and backup camera (as options). We're told that an auto-dimming mirror display for the backup camera will be available in April; until then, you'll have to make do with the image on the in-dash LCD screen--or just turning around and looking out the rear windshield. The 2007 CX-9 is making its way to dealers this week with a base price of between $29,000 and $32,000.