The addition of the Assist package adds a DVD-based navigation system with voice command and touch screen. The navigation system's interface has a pretty steep learning curve with many options located in places we didn't expect. While the system allowed for relatively simple entry of addresses, the point-of-interest database was very limited and difficult to access. Specifically, the navigation made searching for a specific POI difficult as it defaulted to showing the map littered with icons instead of a searchable list once the POI category was chosen. While this may be good for finding something like the nearest gas station, it was a nightmare to find, for example, a specific restaurant where you didn't already know the location.
Once we'd gotten past Mazda's backward destination selection system, the device performed beautifully, showing crisp maps and overlays detailing the next step. We especially love how the navigation system only speaks driving directions through the front left speaker, directly at the driver without interrupting the music for other passengers. It's a shame that the front end of this interaction isn't smoother.
In a vehicle as large as the CX-9, there are huge blind spots toward the rear of the vehicle, and to combat this our vehicle was equipped with a back-up camera, which saved us from a few bumps, and a blind spot detection system that illuminates an LED on the side view mirrors if a vehicle is in your blind spot. If the turn signal is activated while the CX-9 detects a vehicle, the system alerts the driver with a chime. We found this system to be invaluable for merging in heavy traffic. We simply clicked on our turn signal and merged when the chime stopped.
The next option we appreciated on our CX-9 was the Rear Seat Entertainment Package with Bose. The name is misleading because this package adds just as much to the front of the audio system as it does at the back. Specifically, it upgrades the stereo system to a 296-watt Bose system with a six-disc, in-dash changer and 11 speakers. Listening to MP3 CDs, we found the system to be more than adequate. The system really shined when a standard audio CD was inserted and the Bose system was allowed to work its full range.
Those who want to use their MP3 player with the CX-9's stereo will be sad to hear that the CX-9 offers no USB or iPod support. Instead they'll have to use the aux-in jack hidden in the center console. Oddly enough, if the CX-9 is equipped with Sirius satellite radio, such as ours was, the aux-in is disabled, leaving confused owners with what amounts to a dead jack.
Second- and third-row passengers are treated to a 9-inch flip-down DVD player with two sets of wireless headphones. DVD playback was crisp and clear. Sound was good coming through the headphones and great when piped through the 5.1-surround Bose system.
Under the hood
On a winding road is where the 2008 Mazda CX-9 stands apart from other SUVs. The suspension is tuned to keep the vehicle relatively flat in the turns, not sports-car flat, but flatter than most SUVs we've tested. This, coupled with an all-wheel-drive system that shifts power around on demand, means that it's pretty easy to end up going faster in the turns than a vehicle this size should. Once you have reached that point, the various traction control systems step in and all but shut down the engine, bringing the vehicle to a crawl. While such an electronic nanny would be inexcusable in a sports coupe or sedan, we can understand why Mazda wouldn't want drivers power-sliding through turns in a 4,500-pound SUV.
Its 3.7-liter V-6 engine sends power through a six-speed automatic transmission. Understandably, 273 horsepower in a vehicle this size does not make the CX-9 a quarter mile star, but there's more than enough torque for freeway merges. Interestingly enough, the CX-9 felt faster than the smaller, but similarly powered, 2009 Nissan Murano, but this is probably because of the Murano's continuously variable transmission being tuned for economy over performance.
The CX-9's trip computer does not come with the now-requisite mpg meter, so we measured with the PLX Kiwi we happened to be testing simultaneously. The Environmental Protection Agency rated the fuel economy at 15 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway; our meter showed an average of 17.5 mpg over a mixed driving cycle.
The Mazda CX-9's cabin electronics just feel tacked on and unfinished. The CX-9 owner faces the daunting task of learning two flawed and independent interfaces if they want to fully utilize what on paper is a strong list of features. For this reason, we have to give the CX-9 a low design score, which is sad because we absolutely love the muscular aesthetic the vehicle possesses. We were also impressed by the road-handling capabilities and performance.
In the Grand Touring model, Mazda garnishes the CX-9 with chrome trim, fog lamps, HID headlamps, and enormous 20-inch wheels, all of which works together to enhance the sporty look. Our test model was bathed in Crystal White Pearl Mica, a $200 premium-option paint. While the color looked great, paying extra for what is essentially a white vehicle raised a few eyebrows. Adding up the base price ($34,655), the Assist package ($2,500), the Rear Seat Entertainment package ($2,500), and the various other options (Sirius, paint, etc.) brings us to a total MSRP of $41,180.
For about the same amount of money, the prospective CX-9 owner could have a similarly equipped 2008 Toyota Highlander Limited. The cabin tech is better integrated and there are many more neat touches that make living with the Highlander more pleasant. Plus, fuel misers have the option to drop an extra $5,000 and spring for the Highlander Hybrid, which boosts fuel economy to 27 city mpg and 24 highway mpg. On the other hand, the Highlander looks and drives like an appliance, while the CX-9 is probably the best looking and performing SUV in its class. If Mazda can fine tune the cabin tech and improve the interior amenities in the next revision cycle to make them work with each other and, more importantly, with the driver, it'll have a winner on its hands.
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