You've heard Mazda's marketing spiel before. From "Zoom-Zoom" to the "Soul of a Sports Car," the brand's ad gurus have pushed harder than starving telemarketers to convince shoppers that Mazda's cars and trucks are sportier and more fun to drive than the competitions'.
Generally, those slogans hold true, as Mazda's vehicles-from the rotary-powered RX-8 and the exuberant MX-5 to the minivan-esque Mazda5 and the rakish CX-7-indeed deliver quick, agile (okay, zoomy) sensations that are akin to, well, a sports car. As the only Japanese car company to ever win the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, Mazda knows a thing or two about sports-car DNA and, more important, how to inject it into just about everything it slaps the winged badge on.
But could Mazda really inject that DNA into its first-ever three-row, largest-in-the-lineup crossover? Well, after three days of testing 11 vehicles at the dragstrip and skidpad, in and around greater Los Angeles, and on the twisty, high-elevation roads that squiggle through the mountain town of Lake Arrowhead, we're here to report that the CX-9 is not only Mazda's finest demonstration of infusing sports-car qualities into an SUV, but also Motor Trend's 2008 Sport/Utility of the Year.
As the saying goes, it's all in the details, and that's where the CX-9's sporty personality shines. Slide behind the leather-wrapped steering wheel and into the nicely bolstered bucket, and you're treated to one of the most comfortable, driver-focused seating positions available, not just in an SUV but in any vehicle. Whether you're five-two or six-two, finding that perfect spot is a snap: Simply fine-tune the driver's seat that power-adjusts in eight ways (standard on Touring and Grand Touring trims), tweak the steering column that modifies for reach and rake, and the result is nest nirvana: The pedals seem to welcome the balls of your feet; the RX-8-size steering wheel, with audio and cruise controls, appears to come right to your hands; and the stylish T-shaped dash, with its large, metal-rimmed gauges and simple but elegant center stack, delights aesthetically and ergonomically. The cabin, which, on our Grand Touring tester, is adorned with rich plastics, faux wood, and two-tone leather, not to mention calming indirect blue lighting and a pleasing mix of horizontal and vertical elements, manages to feel enveloping yet still plenty airy, an uncanny combination unmatched by this year's competitors.
The exterior details exude sport as well, and when looking at the CX-9, certainly with the GT's polished, 20-inch alloy wheels (18s are standard on Sport and Touring trims), it's hard not to feel racy. From the steeply angled windshield and sharp fender flares to the slanted headlamps and the distinct trapezoidal chrome exhaust tips, the CX-9 puts a spin on the traditional two-box sport 'ute and punts it into orbit. While arguably not as bold as the bigger and bulgier Enclave, the CX-9 nevertheless makes the class-competing Highlander, Tribeca, and Veracruz appear conventional and unexciting by comparison. A 12/10ths-scale CX-7 only done better, the CX-9 is sleek and elegant, sporty and sophisticated, an SUV seemingly well suited for going to the mountains, midtown, or the market.