2022 Mazda CX-9 Signature Review: Aging gracefully

Cameron Neveu

Drive along I-64, through West Virginia, and you can’t miss the sign for Nitro. I’ve always wanted to stop in this city of 6500, enticed by the name alone. Earlier this fall, while returning from Tennessee aboard a Mazda CX-9, I finally made that right turn onto the mountain community’s main drag.

At the onset of the United States’ involvement in WWI, the government began searching for a place in which to build a gunpowder plant. Considering such factors as coastal vulnerability to foreign attack and proximity to railways, Uncle Sam selected a nugget of land 12 miles west of Charleston to serve as one three such ordnance manufacturing towns. Roads, houses, and the all-important gunpowder factory were erected in fewer than ten months.

Cameron Neveu

After contemplating “Redwop” (gunpower spelled backwards) as its name, The Ordnance Department settled on Nitro. In 1918, construction reached such a fervent pace that multiple streets and buildings seemingly sprang up overnight. Nitro was booming.

At its peak, Nitro’s factories could produce 350 tons of gunpowder per day and population had surged to nearly 24,000. The salad days were short-lived. Less than two weeks after WWI concluded in November of 1918, nearly 12,000 Nitro residents had scattered, abandoning the industry town.

Cameron Neveu

Mazda, like Nitro, was born out of industry. Prior to its legacy of rotary engines and sporty chassis dynamics, Mazda was a cork manufacturing company that sourced the porous material from an abundance of trees in Hiroshima, Japan.

Cork and rotary sports cars are in the past, now, and Mazda makes its greenbacks mostly by moving crossovers like the compact CX-5 and new CX-50. But even in such tall-riding family haulers, including the three-row CX-9, the company has a knack for imbuing even ordinary driving with verve and fluidity. These are, after all, the same people that make the Miata.

Specs: 2022 Mazda CX-9 Signature AWD

  • Price: $47,210/$48,830 (base/as-tested)
  • Powertrain: 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-4; six-speed automatic
  • Horsepower: 250 hp
  • Torque: 320 lb-ft
  • Layout:  all-wheel-drive four-door, six-passenger SUV
  • Weight: 4400 lbs
  • EPA-Rated Fuel Economy: 20/26/23 mpg (city/hwy/combined)
  • 0-60 mph: 7.0 seconds
  • Competitors: Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, Jeep Grand Cherokee L.

Debuting for the 2007 model year, the CX-9 marked the largest vehicle Mazda had ever brought to market, timed to meet a surging demand for high-riding family haulers. Now well into its second generation—which debuted for 2016—the CX-9 remains the biggest beast in Mazda’s fleet. For context, a Chevrolet Tahoe still has five more inches between the wheels, and the CX-9’s interior runs a bit more cramped than rival unibody three-rowers like the Kia Telluride.

Mazda’s Skayctiv-G 2.5 Turbo engine launched with the original CX-9 seven years ago, as did the top-tier Signature trim. Our Snowflake White Pearl tester was equipped with both. Also equipped on our rig—and new for 2022’s CX-9—is the i-Active all-wheel drive. If you’re not familiar with the marque’s trademark system, it uses sensors throughout the vehicle to determine where to send torque. Simply put, i-Active can do things like sense if your wipers are on and adjust accordingly to the expected wet conditions.

Still adding improvements this late in the lifecycle is a matter of necessity, South Korean newcomers like the Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade are genuinely fully formed expressions of utility, luxury, and value. They pack more horsepower, too, with V-6 engines that produce 291 horsepower to the 250-horse four-cylinder in the CX-9, with similar fuel efficiency.

Cameron Neveu

Mazda’s turbo-four and six-speed automatic drivetrain isn’t as smooth from a stoplight in the CX-9 as it is in the smaller Mazda3 Turbo and CX-5 Turbo, especially under heavy acceleration. Once on the move however, delivers a Goldilocks amount of pep to maintain momentum at low revs. The aforementioned all-wheel drive is sure-footed and the brakes feel up to task of slowing the 4400-pound SUV.

Most family crossovers differ from one another to the extent that name-brand toothpaste does—slightly different flavors of the same fundamental product. But if the CX-9 has a unique selling point, it’s how it handles its size. The Mazda confidently negotiates congested city driving and can be at times even entertaining on country roads. Expressway lane changes are sharp and well-controlled, but be sure to deactivate the electronic nannies lest even minor lane wandering prompt “coffee break” reminders between the cluster gauges.

Chassis tuning has always been a Mazda strength, but the brand’s recent ambitions to carve out a niche in a more premium price point really began with the 2016 CX-9. That was a while ago, but even in 2022 the CX-9’s interior impresses compared to entry-level luxury cars. The Deep Chestnut hide looks rather dashing against the other eclectic materials—Santos Rosewood and aluminum—used throughout the cabin. The quilted front seats, too, are a lux touch from what most people perceive as a mainstream Japanese brand.  Exclusive to the top rung are heated second-row captain chairs and premium Nappa leather. The sharp 20-inch aluminum rims from the CX-9 Grand Touring carry over to the higher trim.

All of this goodness comes at a price, however. The Signature trim is the pinnacle of a seven-trim menu, but with an MSRP of $50,330 it’s right about on par with the top-tier Telluride and Palisade. The Ford Explorer King Ranch comes in at around $56,000, while the Jeep Grand Cherokee L has boxes that can be ticked to the tune of more than $70,000. In that context, the CX-9 Signature is a bit of a bargain.

Opening the doors reveals first- and second-row buckets with plenty of head-and-leg room for grown adults. While it takes a bit more effort to access the third row compared to, say, a minivan, the seats are fairly comfortable once you fall into them. However, like most three-row crossovers, keeping the third row up means precious little rear cargo space. Families that only occasionally need the third row in a pinch will find it useful, but those with three or more kids would do better in a minivan like the Carnival, Odyssey, or Sienna. Mazda hasn’t offered a minivan since the undersized Mazda5, dead in America since 2015.

Cameron Neveu

So, Nitro was pretty cool. Past its prime, but still worth checking out. Much the same with the CX-9, which is a outdated-seeming by modern tech standards but perfectly pleasant and functional. The front seats can cool, heat, and support well under a long haul. A click wheel on the center console works well to navigate through the 10.25-inch screen mounted on the dash. Side note: it’s odd that the screen remains the same dimensions regardless of trim level. Given the modest screen, the climate controls are physical buttons below. The clear distinction is refreshing when the industry is trying to combine all infotainment into one super screen. The 12-speaker Bose system can properly fill the cavernous space.

Cameron Neveu

Most family crossover shoppers are in the market for a vehicle that will usher family members and sports gear around in comfort. In 2022 we are blessed with many vehicles—the Toyota Highlander being a prime example—that execute this brief competently but with little effort to satisfy the driver. If you need a lifted people mover but want something that feels like it was engineered by people who care about driving, the CX-9 is the way to go. And with the option to go big on luxury appointments, you’ll be finding excuses to take long road trips rather than wait in line at the airport. Go skiing, camping, or in search of dark skies for stargazing. Or, perhaps, a mountain town with explosive beginnings.

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