After a decade or so of preparation, Americans have discovered that even though many of them own rough-and-tumble four-wheel-drives, most of them are not going to be summoned away on safari.
It’s time to pack up the brush guards and switch off the roof lights. The Crocodile Hunter is dead, and so are the bush-whacking fantasies of many suburbanites. They are abandoning long-standing favorites like the Ford Explorer in search of better fuel economy, tauter handling and a more car-like driving experience.
Suburban drivers still want their three rows of seats to pack in soccer teammates, but they want it in a vehicle that doesn’t have quite the thirst for fuel of a muscular, V8-powered SUV. Automakers are rushing to meet that demand with a host of crossover vehicles, which blend the ride and style of a passenger vehicle with the practicality of a SUV.
Mazda has jumped into the game early with the stylish and thoughtfully detailed CX-9. With three rows and seven seats, this full-size crossover SUV is larger than the popular two-row, five-seat CX-7, which was released late last year. Both wagons share similar racy looks, shunning the box-it-came-in SUV uniform.
After a decade of turning up their noses at anything that looked too much like a station wagon and too little like an armored personnel carrier, customers are embracing wagons. The crossover segment has grown to 15 percent of the overall U.S. vehicle market, while SUV sales are slumping, down from a high of 17 percent in 2003 to 14 percent in 2006, according to the Power Information Network, which tracks industry data.
The CX-9’s engine power output is about average for the crossover segment, giving it quick acceleration, and its interior is nicely appointed, with good materials and a flowing style that make it a solid threat to near-luxury competitors from Acura and Volvo, although the Honda Pilot and the Toyota Highlander are its true natural enemies. Think of the CX-9 as an upmarket contender, like the VW Touareg, but with a lower price — starting at $29,035 — and better gas mileage.
The top-selling example of the old guard, the Ford Explorer, gets 15 miles per gallon in the city and 21 on the highway in the EPA’s fuel economy test in two-wheel-drive form, with either the standard V6 or optional V8 engine.
The CX-9, with its comparable family-hauling utility but reduced trailer towing capacity, is rated 18 mpg in the city and 24 mpg on the highway. In day-to-day driving you can reasonably expect to get 16 mpg for the Explorer and 19 mpg for the CX-9, so you’ll enjoy nearly 20 percent better gas mileage without trading away any car pool practicality.
Inside the CX-9’s passenger cabin, Mazda wins the prize for ingenuity and convenience with its second- and third-row seats.
The second row is split 60/40, so the center and right seats are in one unit and the left seat is separate, and both sides slide fore and aft, letting the occupants divide the available leg room as needed between the second row and the third “way back” seat. The second row seats also recline, letting passengers find a comfortable angle instead of having to sit as upright as a Sunday School teacher.
More importantly, the CX-9’s second-row seats feature fat, easy-to-reach handles on the sides of the seatbacks that release the seats so they can slide forward and out of the way when someone wants to climb into the third row. Too often, SUVs and crossovers don’t have sliding seats, or it’s hard to find the release mechanism. Fixed second-row seats make third-row access hard, and it’s impossible to adjust the legroom between the rows, as needed.
Access to the back row is eased by Mazda’s clever in-floor tracks for the second-row seats, which saves passengers from tripping over the raised tracks that other manufacturers use. The third-row seat is split 50/50 and is designed to fold down easily from the rear hatch area (without the hassle of having to remove the head restraints, as is necessary in the Honda Pilot).
In its CX-9 and CX-7 crossovers, Mazda (a third of which is owned by Ford) uses components that are also used in the new Ford’s Edge crossover. All three vehicles were developed independently and by their own design teams, but the evidence suggests the Mazda teams have done the best job.
The CX-9 shares the same 263-horsepower V6 engine used in the Edge, but in Mazda’s case the engine is quieter and more refined, perhaps because Mazda uses different intake and exhaust systems.
Both cars have six-speed automatic transmissions, and Mazda’s development team has programmed the CX-9’s gear shift computer exactly right, giving the driver the ability to toggle up and down through the gears manually. But there’s actually little motivation to shift manually because the transmission is smart enough to make the right gear selections automatically, even when you’re driving quickly.
The steering stands out too. In contrast to the light, disconnected feeling of the Toyota Highlander, the CX-9 is true to Mazda’s “Zoom-Zoom” slogan with accurate, communicative steering that never leaves the driver feeling like a bus driver. And unlike the sluggish, ponderous handling of the Honda Pilot, the CX-9’s suspension reacts adeptly to changing road surfaces, producing family-vehicle handling that was unthinkable before the introduction of Mazda’s even more nimble CX-7 and BMW’s stellar X5.
While shoppers in this segment may not harbor a secret desire to enter the CX-9 in a race, all drivers can appreciate and benefit from adept, confident handling. Hustled over twisting country byways, I found the CX-9 demonstrated confidence-inspiring agility and stability.
And Mom needn’t fear a shortage of luxury amenities during chauffeur duty. The CX-9 offers available leather seats, a navigation system, satellite radio, back-up display, keyless entry and start, rear-seat DVD players and a 110-volt household-type power socket.
Surrendering outback fantasies by adopting family wagons in place of square-shouldered SUVs may ding a few egos, but given the superior ride, handling and efficiency of crossovers, especially when they are as athletically styled and easy to drive as the CX-9, it’s probably worth it. And we were getting tired of wearing khaki anyway.