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Executive Wheels: The Pleasant Mystery of the Mazda

A review of the 2018 Mazda3 4-door Grand Touring and 2018 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring AWD


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It’s about time to give a little shout-out to Mazda, the Japanese car company that takes a back seat – maybe even the third row – to the better known, and high selling, Japanese marquees Toyota, Honda and Nissan. Indeed, times have be tough for Mazda, as it has had many financial difficulties since founding in 1920, and it has struggled of late coming out of the 2008 Great Recession. By 2015 Mazda was the 15th largest (by production) automaker in the world, and in its biggest market, the U.S., it posted its smallest market share – 1.7 percent – in 2015.

It’s a mystery to me why Mazda is so, well, fourth rate compared to the other Japanese brands because nearly every time I get behind the wheel of a Mazda in recent years I come away not just impressed, but awed. This feeling isn’t universal, however, in that last year I drove the small Mazda SUV/crossover, the CX-3, and found it lacking in power compared to competitors. But I would place the rest of its lineup very high vis a vis all comers, not just the Japanese. Recently I had the opportunity to drive the smaller sedan in the lineup, the Mazda3, and the larger SUV/crossover, the CX-9. If I was considering buying a smaller to mid-sized sedan, like the Toyota Corolla or Camry, Honda Civic or Accord, or Nissan Sentra or Altima, I would get the Mazda3; and, if it was to be a larger SUV, like the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot or Nissan Pathfinder, make mine the Mazda CX-9. Hands down. Oh, it’s not that I don’t like many vehicles in those other lines, it’s just that I have driven just about all of the competition, priced them, and feel that Mazda more than stacks up.

The first drive I had was the Mazda3 in Michigan during a particularly warm late September week. I remember the heat because I was glad I had the Mazda and its excellent air conditioning. I picked the car up at the Detroit airport and immediately my reaction – upon seeing the interior as I approached – was, “Wow, what a spectacularly beautiful car.” The seats were the Mazda color parchment, a very nice white leather, and the trim and accents in the dash, door and steering wheel were black – a two-toned marvel, expertly fashioned, that I have only seen on such luxury cars. Plus, the seats were very comfortable and the whole experience in this car was wonderful.

I have to admit, my first impression of the outside wasn’t as good. The 3 has a long nose, and a kind of stubby rear end, and the effect is that it looks, at first, a little out of balance. The rear wheels are almost all the way at the back of the car. But I got looking around, and the more I saw the Mazda3 the more I liked it. All of the other cars are balanced to the eye, yes, but they are also boringly similar – this wouldn’t be the first time I have mentioned that every car looks like a Toyota. Except the Mazda3. It’s a very distinctive look that grew on me over the course of a week, and I finally decided it looked sportier than the competition.

Zoom-Zoom indeed.

And it is more sporty. Those wheels pushed all the way back give this car an amazing balance, stability, that translates into not only a confident, stable drive, but a fun one as well. This Mazda 3 is very fun to drive – a driver’s drive, if you will.   

Now, of course as is usual with press vehicles, I drove the Grand Touring, near top-of-the-line in the Mazda3 trim lineup, so it was packed with all of the extras –leather, modern technology for phone, apps, etc. and the Mazda Skyactiv technology, which is difficult to define. Mazda says it increases fuel efficiency – and here the 27 mpg city/36 mpg highway/ 30 mpg combined is impressive, and in no way decreases performance – and includes high-compression engines, lightweight transmissions and body designs, and electric power steering. The effect is marvelous. There are three trims in the Mazda 4-door sedan (there’s also a 5-door hatchback), that start at $18,095 for the Sport, go to $21,140 on base for the Touring, and base at $24,195 for this Grand Touring – all with the same engine, so presumably the price differences are in the add-ons involved as standard.

My test model had a 2.5-liter 4-banger, with some 184 horsepower that felt like more – this car on the highway can, smoothly, accelerate to pass like no other. In my notes I wrote “passing acumen.” The car feels larger than it looks, and it handles like a sports car; like I said, it’s fun to drive. And in spite of the crimped back end, it featured an unbelievably large trunk – also, this trunk did not come at the expense of rear-seat room, as there was plenty of leg room back there. My passengers were comfortable.

As usual, this car came with all modern conveniences. Bluetooth, natch. Nav, of course. Apps aplenty. Hookups for devices, power outlets, accessory ports, sunroof. It’s all here. Every millennial would feel at home. Plus, the radio, with XM, was excellent and easy to use, with great sound (the car was quiet enough to enjoy the radio without blaring it).

The base price here, as I mentioned is $24,195, which included a lot of nice stuff. They tacked on a few extras which I recommend: for $1,000 they added the Premium Equipment Package, including the nav, paddle shifters, smart brake support, radar cruise control (so nice!), traffic sign recognition (a stop sign or a speed limit sign, etc., comes up in the heads-up display), lane departure warning, and lane assist. With a couple of other things – car mats for $75? Really? – and an $875 destination charge, the bottom line on the Mazda3 Grand Touring is $27,070. Trust me, that’s a great price for what’s here, and highly competitive; in fact, for the money this just might be the best deal in the segment.

A totally cool car.

RATING: 4 wheels (out of four).

The CX-9 is something completely different, as it is a rather large SUV, but totally cool as well. There are three SUVs/crossovers in the line, this one plus the mid-sized CX-5 and the smaller CX-3. As I said I found the CX-3 to be lacking. The CX-5, however, which I drove within the last year, is a very nice vehicle and highly competitive; in the segment I would recommend it. The CX-9, though, goes beyond recommendation: in the larger SUV segment, and given the price, the CX-9 has an unusual Wow factor.

I was back in Denver when I drove it for a week, a chilly week, so while I didn’t get the A/C going, I did experience the heat – and the heated seats front and back, and the heated steering wheel – and can attest that it was superior. Except for the heated steering wheel, which only warmed in the middle, which struck me as strange given the overall quality of the vehicle.

This is a BIG vehicle. Despite its size, this is one of the more nimble large SUVs on the planet, with great handling, perfect views and a feel of total o control. It has 20-inch wheels and all-wheel-drive, and yet has a wonderful turning radius so it handles like a much smaller vehicle. Very tight. A pleasure to drive.

What surprised me most, however, was the power. The vehicle has a 2.5-liter turbocharged 4 cylinder engine, with some 227 hp. I experienced no turbo lag, but each and every time I need to gun it, the CX-9 answered the call with aplomb. On city streets and on the highway, the CX-9 simply responds to whatever is called for. It snow when I had it, but I can imagine when the weather gets nasty, this vehicle would be safe, warm, comfortable and very safe. Since it is rated at 20 mpg city/26 mpg highway/23 mpg combined, you get all this performance and security with high efficiency. One of the best, if not the best, in the segment.

Here are some of the things I wrote down in my notes:

  • Moveable headlamps. They turn corners, even curves with you.
  • Easy, and outside of the ubiquitous LCD screen, climate control.
  • A wonderful sound system, but like a lot of near-luxury vehicles, operated with a mouse-like device on the console, that can be clumsy and distracting at times.
  • Great console with a huge storage compartment and cupholders.
  • Front-of-console cubby that is convenient for a phone, but it took me a while to find the power outlet. It’s on the side of the console on the passenger’s side.
  • Huge second row seat, with plenty of legroom. It’s a bench made up of two captain’s chairs on the outside, both heated, with a sort of jump seat in the middle.
  • One of the best rear-view mirrors I have ever seen.
  • Easy up and down third row seating, with cupholders, and when the seats are down there is a large space for cargo; an adequate space for groceries with seats up.
  • Automatic up and push-button down rear lift gate that can be adjusted for height of opening. Great for both short and tall people.

There are 4 trims available in the CX-9, with the low end – the Sport – starting at $32,130, the Touring carrying a base of $34,960, this Grand Touring starting at $40,470, and the Signature carrying a $44,315 base price. My test-drive model – which included everything you could imagine, like leather upholstery, all the modern tech for communications and safety, etc. – carried a base price of $42,270. All they added on was $100 for cargo mats, and a few hundred dollars for upgraded metallic paint, not to mention the usual destination charge. The bottom line was $43,905, which struck me as very inexpensive for a vehicle of this type, this quality, and especially considering what prices I have seen for the competition.

Once again, totally cool. Don’t buy a large SUV without test-driving, comparing and pricing the Mazda CX-9. Something tells me it will hit your short list.

RATING: 4 WHEELS (out of four). 

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Jeff Rundles

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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