A Smoky Mountain Road Trip demonstrated the luxury and off-road capabilities of Mazda’s flagship.
When it popped up on my door, my first impression was that the bright red CX-9 needed some dirt. And it would get a lot wherever we went. My journey began ten feet above sea level in Charleston and rose to 2,500 feet on its journey from South Carolina over Saluda Pass to a mountaintop east of Hendersonville. In my week with the CX-9, when I drove alone or with my wife and two children, I experienced the CX-9 in every phase of its use – from urban commuters to highway drivers to off-road climbers. And it impressed in every phase.
Mazda’s crossovers have long been valued by those who want to have fun driving but also need to adapt to some practical aspects of life. With this in mind, the CX-9 provides the fun right away, and the Signature series also offers a level of luxury with its quilted leather seats and rosewood trim that you can’t expect from a Mazda under 50km.
In my opinion, the oversized, fastback design of the Mazda crossovers is better proportioned on the CX-9 than on the smaller CX-5, and I was impressed with the elegance of the style in its larger footprint. I also like the fact that the CX-9 isn’t as ubiquitous as a Toyota Highlander, for example. I don’t want to drive a car that I will pass twenty times in a three-hour drive. Especially for the Signature fairing, the LED accent lighting on the front grille might be over the top, but it looks really cool in the end. The 20-inch wheels made of silver-colored aluminum alloy, as well as the enlarged twin tailpipes, ensure a stable, masculine weight. And while this is not uncommon, I have enjoyed the auto-folding side mirrors when parking on the streets of Charleston.
Courtesy Mazda North America
As you crawl into the cockpit it feels like everything you touch is either soft nappa leather, cold patterned aluminum, or smooth satin rosewood. The front seats envelop the driver and front passenger much more like a car than a truck. And that continues in the second row, where the captain’s chairs have a leather-wrapped center console that is as beautiful as the one in the first row.
Courtesy Mazda North America
A larger 10.25-inch center display is new for 2021 and a bright and luxurious monitor that is well positioned above the dash for easy viewing while keeping your eyes on the road. The wireless smartphone charger built into the console was extremely useful and big enough for smartphones of all sizes.
The sunroof appeared to be on the small side for cladding of the highest order, and I was surprised it wasn’t a bit more panoramic. The rear cargo area – with the third row seats folded down – was noticeably smaller than my Subaru Ascent, and the third row is more of an emergency measure than something adult passengers would ask for on a daily basis. But the compromise in the interior is made up for by a feat that blows people like climbing out of the water.
PERFORMANCE AND SAFETY
The CX-9 made any errand a joy, especially when put on sport mode for zooming around downtown Charleston. At every traffic light and at every lane crossing, the 2.5-liter turbo four-cylinder with 250 hp always had more power than I expected. In terms of handling and performance, the CX-9 exudes more car than truck DNA, with significantly less roll and far faster acceleration than clumsy three-row SUVs with slightly more inner cubic feet. The week I had it on non-premium gas, I got around 18 mpg when driving in the city and 23 mpg on the highway.
The drive from Charleston to the mountains of western North Carolina is a long, steady climb. It’s a ride I do a lot, and I’m used to some sluggishness on the way up, but that has disappeared in the CX-9. It’s just crossed. On the way, I also fell in love with the Active Driving Display projected onto the windshield – which made speed monitoring, radar cruise control settings and blind spots a breeze. It even shows traffic signs for you before you reach them. It is one thing to have all modern safety features in one vehicle, but it was impressive to elegantly combine them with the driving experience at this level.
But at some point the paved roads end and I knew we’d go beyond that. We had been in the same cabin four months ago, and the steep, winding climb up the side of a mountain had been very precarious. But nothing prepared me for what the rainy late summer and autumn had done to the steep mountain road. What I remembered as a meandering climb of freshly cast granite stones had become a deeply furrowed, eroded mixture of silt, smooth granite bedrock, and loose gravel. So I hired the off-road traction assistant and hoped for the best. The wheels never turned over crevices carved by drains and crumbling land. In the sharp turns, the unexpectedly tight turning radius was almost like a mountain goat. I did this run up and down no less than six times and never had a single wheel slip and never held my breath during a hairpin turn.
With a starting price of just over 46,000, the CX-9 Signature is creeping towards more obvious luxury options like a base price Volvo XC90. But I would argue that this way of thinking misses the point of the CX-9 signature. This vehicle doesn’t seem to compete with the badges of luxury automakers. but simply compete for the hearts and minds of its drivers. It is a vehicle that was bought on purpose, with an appreciation for the finer things in life, but without the usual pretext that comes with it. It offers luxury to the well-adjusted and already fulfilled. And that’s what is special for me.