We took Mazda’s biggest crossover to Sin City for a family holiday
If you had to drive your family and all of their gear to Las Vegas for a holiday weekend, what three-row SUV would you take? Along the way to Sin City this Thanksgiving, we saw Hyundai Palisades, Lexus LX 500s, and BMW X7s—all great choices. But I was more than happy in the 2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature, now with captain’s chairs for the middle row.
Late last year MotorTrend senior photographer William Walker said goodbye to our long-term CX-9 Touring. His verdict? A stylish, comfortable, fun-to-drive hauler. Considering the CX-9 is mostly unchanged for 2020, we didn’t expect to be surprised by the 2017 SUV of the Year finalist. But 11-plus hours on the road with family always throws you a curveball or two. Here’s what we learned over the course of five days and more than 700 miles (1,126 km).
Insert Nautical Joke Here
The biggest change to the CX-9 for 2020 is the addition of the aforementioned captain’s chairs, and they made a massive difference in the way my family was able to experience the long ride. Because there’s just four of us, the lack of a middle seat in the second row wasn’t a problem at all, and the heated rear chairs with their fore and aft adjustment were hugely appreciated. In fact, at one point the Mazda’s cabin got surprisingly quiet, and when I looked around at my passengers, everyone was snuggled up and catching some shut-eye while I dutifully piloted us through the night.
Comfort Like We’ve Never Known
We’re big fans of Las Vegas and have made the drive to Sin City more than a few times. The list of cars we’ve taken includes a Jaguar XJ8, an Acura MDX, and a Golf GTI. The reason I’m telling you this is because the CX-9 was easily the most comfortable, most cosseting cruiser we’ve had for the long, straight haul up I-15. The suspension soaked up any lumps or potholes in the neglected pavement, and the interior was quiet and removed from the outside world, just like you’d want it to be on a long journey. We’re officially spoiled.
All of the Weather, None of the Worries
A pretty nasty storm swept over California during Thanksgiving week, dumping rain and snow on the roads between L.A. and Vegas. The drive to Sin City started out dry, but three hours in Mother Nature was lashing down with rain so thick we could hardly see the car in front of us, but the Mazda’s AWD did a great job of cutting across the rain-soaked highway. On the way home, Apple Maps alerted us that traffic along I-15 was so heavy that we’d be stuck in an extra three hours of traffic. Dreading the delay, we decided to cut across the middle of that part of the state toward Lancaster and take Angeles Crest Highway back home instead. And then the weather threw us another curveball. Snow along the mountains from the day before meant the roads were wet in most places and icy in others, but the weather was of no moment to the CX-9. Even fully loaded with four passengers on slick roads, the big SUV proved to be nimble and even fun on the damp, twisty road.
Size Still Matters
The CX-9 is a seven-seater—or six, as in our configuration—but it’s on the smaller side for that type of SUV. With the rear seats folded down there was just barely enough room for two suitcases (one large, one medium) and a couple of backpacks. The suitcases took up almost all of the floor space in the cargo area, so we had to stack our auxiliary bags atop them. I was surprised to notice that, from the driver’s seat, nearly half my view out of the back was blocked. This always bothers me, so after a little rejiggering we got it to only 25 percent obstructed. Better but not great. The CX-9 could afford to be a little longer.
Six Speeds in 2019?
The CX-9’s transmission is a great automatic, and I, for one, am extremely thankful there is no CVT here. That said, the auto only has six forward gears, and the car world has simply moved on from gearboxes with six speeds. Although the transmission tuning is excellent, sixth gear is very clearly there for fuel economy. At 80 mph (129 km/h) the four-cylinder is only turning about 2,500 rpm. That’s good for mpgs but not good when you need to overtake an 18-wheeler via a gap that’s getting ever smaller. Mashing the gas delivered a noticeable delay and made overtaking a guessing game—something it shouldn’t be. Eight forward gears seems to be the standard these days, and I think the Mazda could benefit from those extra two cogs.