Mazda Makes A Play For The Luxury Market With Its Flagship CX-9 SUV

I usually brace myself when driving up San Francisco’s notorious slopes, but Mazda’s all-new CX-9 crossover proved to be a confident workhorse for my jaunt around the city last week.

The CX-9 was a powerful new entrant to the perpetually in-demand three-row SUV segment when it was introduced in 2007. Now the second-generation is going upscale, with Nappa leather seats and rosewood inlays on some trims. Mazda executives told a group of journalists gathered in San Francisco that the cabin comforts and in-vehicle technology represent Mazda’s efforts to become a premium brand.

Mazda’s redesigned flagship vehicle, which arrived at dealerships this month, will likely extend the brand’s recent sales uptick. Last month, the Japanese automaker reported its best April sales since 1995, even as it wound down sales of the outgoing CX-9. The mid-size crossover comes in four trim levels – Sport, Touring, Grand Touring and Signature – and the Japanese automaker expects a significant share of these sales to come from higher-level trims. The Grand Touring trim represented more than 40% of first-generation CX-9 sales, Mazda executives said.

The new mid-size crossover, the most expensive vehicle in Mazda’s lineup, incorporates several improvements over the outgoing model. The engine has morphed from the 3.7-liter V6 that Ford shared with Mazda to Mazda's own 2.5-liter SKYACTIV-G inline four. It comes with Lane-Keep Assist, which applies torque to nudge the car when it ventures beyond its lane markers. And Mazda moved back the A-pillars to provide a wider panoramic view, which also assists the safety system in detecting pedestrians. Starting at $31,520, the crossover is slightly more expensive than its top rivals, the Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot.

The seven-passenger SUV offered surprisingly sharp steering for its size and didn’t feel too heavy when scaling scenic vistas or merging onto the Golden Gate Bridge, but the road trip wasn’t without some bumps. Mazda’s navigation system isn’t very transparent, and I never could quite figure out how to regulate the temperature. At the back of the car, the third row is too small to fit most adults comfortably. However, here is where one of the CX-9’s crowning features shines: the second-row passenger seat slides forward to provide easier access to the back seats, even with a car seat strapped to it because it is, after all, a family car.