Some 40 years ago, I considered Mazda to be the "Japanese BMW" of its time.
There is some truth to this. Consider how the first generation RX-7 became an icon by focusing their rotary engine development towards performance to engage with enthusiasts looking for something different in the marketplace. One could argue that the 626 had a sporty demeanor that could be seen as a 3-Series fighter – sort of.
Consider where BMW was at 1980. They just introduced two luxurious models that would become classics for the brand – the 6- and 7-Series. Their bread-and-butter was the 3-Series, a performance-oriented sedan that offered limited frills, but plenty of thrills. Not to mention, their engineering was ahead of many automakers at the dawn of the 1980s.
Perhaps justification for Mazda’s place among Japanese automakers at the time.
In the past few years, the conversation about Mazda’s ambition to become a more premium brand with an aim to compete with BMW. This time, Mazda is actually attempting to do so not by engineering alone. They’re pouring on the quality and the luxury on top of it.
Consider the CX-9 for a moment. It was one of the first Mazdas to show that it was serious about moving upmarket. This mid-size, three-row SUV offered a top shelf trim that was swathed with leather and powered by a variable-design turbocharger that can provide more power depending on the grade of gasoline you pour into its tank.
Recently, I received a 2021 Mazda CX-9 Signature to work with. This top shelf model had a few updates to it designed for more distinction and luxury. Those updates include an exclusive grille texture, a wider 10.25-inch infotainment screen, and a second-row captain’s chair configuration with a center console.
You would think Mazda had already made these upgrades a year or two ago. The company was busy introducing a revised Mazda6 and CX-5, a new Mazda3 and CX-30. It was a matter of time when you start moving the CX-9 further up the food chain for premium consumers to want one.
Let's just start by saying that the Mazda CX-9 is pretty familiar to me. It has the signature Mazda design, based on its KODO – Soul of Motion language. It remained unchanged from its debut a few years ago, which makes things familiar to consumers looking for such a vehicle.
After driving a chunk of its intended rivals, I found the CX-9 to be a bit tauter than those family haulers. Size-wise, it feels like a larger two-row model. However, the larger rear doors denote that it is indeed a three-row model.
The Signature trim level offers up an exclusive titanium-finished grille texture that adds additional slots on its horizontal bars. An LED strip frames the bottom of the grille – definitely a premium touch. There are some new 20-inch alloy wheels and new-generation Mazda badge font to finish up the Signature’s revised look.
When you step inside, you can tell the updates from any prior version of the CX-9 Signature. The infotainment screen is wider – measuring at 10.25 inches. You will also see that the interface has changed to match the newest systems in the Mazda3 and CX-30. It works better, actually – with revised controls from a console mounted knob and associated buttons. Setting Favorite radio stations and in-band tuning has also improved towards being a bit more logical.
Bose provided 12 speakers from its Centerpoint 2 system. This system also includes AudioPilot 2. It is a nice system that can be adjusted to your ears through plenty of options.
The instrumentation has been slightly revised. The combination analog and digital screen is easier to read. Everything else is exactly what I expect in a modern Mazda – logical controls that are good to the touch.
New for 2021 is a set of Captain’s Chairs for the second row. What’s different about this set up is the center console in-between them. It appears that Mazda emulated the center console up front for the second row passengers. The drawback is to limit any third row passenger to pass through to enter or exit. You can move the second row seats to do that. The doors are wide enough and there is plenty of space to get in and out for children.
Swathed in Parchment Nappa leather, the driver’s seat was supportive. I found a decent seating position while taking on the miles.
Cargo space is pretty decent. You do start with a 14.4 cubic feet space behind the third row, which is adequate for a shopping trip. Fold the third row seats down, and the space opens up to 38.2 cubic feet. Once you fold the second row down, you now have 71.2 cubic feet of space for a huge shopping trip. Just be careful of the center console in the second row when. Loading up long items.
Mazda’s Skyactiv-G turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is a powerhouse. That is, if you put in 93 octane fuel. The turbocharger and fuel system are designed to work with a high grade of fuel to get the most out of this engine. The result is 250 horsepower of fluid performance. If you put in a lesser grade of fuel, you will get a lower horsepower rating – and some potential engine component issues in the long run.
On the low end, the Skyactiv-G turbo offers up to 320 pound-feet of low end performance on 93 octane fuel. Pour in anything less into the CX-9’s tank, and that torque rating drops by only 10 pound-feet. Needless to say, entering on-ramps and passing were executed with ease.
Power is sent down to all four wheels on my Signature tester through a six-speed automatic transmission. In a world where more gears are better than none, this transmission shifts smoothly and precisely. In terms of fuel economy, I averaged only 22.8 MPG.
I will admit have a bit a penchant for luxurious vehicles. The CX-9 Signature fits that bill. The driving dynamics reflect this perfectly – and predictably. The ride quality is smooth and absorbent. There is nothing that would be cause for alarm for anyone inside the CX-9. However, overall handling is on the soft side. I found some roll and lean, but a driver must understand that this is not a Mazda6 and shouldn’t drive it accordingly.
Another sign of its luxuriousness was the steering system. It felt soft on-center, but controllable when necessary. Turning was fine and it can go where pointed. Though the shape of the front fenders and hood could hamper judgement from the driver. Luckily, there are 360-degree cameras on board this CX-9 Signature, if you need a bit of help. Otherwise, turning radius was fine.
The brakes were OK. Stopping power is good, and the pedal was boosted to give the driver confidence when using the brakes. I found stops in normal, panic, and winter situations (yes, the CX-9 saw some snow in my care) to be pretty good.
I just mentioned snow and it brings up something that surprised me. The all-wheel-drive system worked well without any need to change drive modes. The surprise came from the 20-inch Falken tires that came with the CX-9 Signature tester. Normally, Falkens are less than desirable as an all-season tire. During our early-for-the-season snowfall, they provided enough grip to get out of some thick snow.
For what was presented to me in this Soul Red 2021 Mazda CX-9 Signature AWD tester, it came with a sticker price of $48,300. I got all of this top-of-the-line luxury – Parchment Nappa leather included – for under $50,000! Yes, it’s worth a celebration.
More mortal CX-9 models start from $33,690 for a Sport model with just front-wheel-drive. You do get that turbocharged engine as standard.
There are two things to consider when you are presented with a Mazda CX-9. One, is it upmarket enough for me to aspire for greatness in one? If you get the Signature model with everything on it, you come away with a heck of a deal. Most models that would compete with this tester are already scaling the $50,000 threshold. And, to compete against similar premium models would raise that threshold by thousands more.
Then, there’s the notion of Mazda's aspirational path towards being considered a premium brand. If you concentrate on this tester alone, that ambition is evident. The updates to the Signature trim alone – especially, the second row Captain's Chairs and accompanying center console – do point to fulfilling its latest mission as a brand.
But, "Japanese BMW?" That was 40 years ago. It will compete with the X5, but the Bavarian does not want to compete with the CX-9. Well…not right now.
What the Mazda CX-9 represents is an alternative to the premium brands and their hyped up machines. Frankly, you have everything you need to move up in the world at a more reasonable price of admission.
DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Mazda North American Operations
All photos by Randy Stern