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Posted: February 03, 2009

Jeff Rundles’ Executive Wheels: 2009 Mazda5 and ’09 Mazda CX-9

From mini-mini to large; the new Mazda

Jeff Rundles




Mazda has, of course, been one of the Japanese car makers that has been serving the United States market for years – more than 40 years. But it has always played kind of fourth fiddle to the likes of Honda, Toyota and perhaps even Nissan. Part of that stems from the fact that the others, and Honda and Toyota, have always been the marketing leaders among these Japanese car companies, and it reflects in their sales; indeed, Toyota is now the Number 1 car company in the country.

Another part of it is that Mazda seems to have struggled over the years with car-naming. They’ve had something called the RX over the years, but its newer lineup – CX-7, CX-9, 3, 5, 6, Speed 3, MX-5, RX-8, and Tribute – are names that people are generally unfamiliar with, or at least not as familiar as we are with things like Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla.

I’ll give you a good example: one of the more famous Mazda vehicles in the last 20 years was the Miata, a little two-seat, convertible roadster. The last time I drove one for a review, about two years ago, it didn’t carry the Miata name; they had renamed it the MX-5. At the time my research indicated that they changed the name because Miata got a reputation as a favorite for women – a chic car, in other words. But now I see that with the 2009 model of the roadster they have partially gone back – it’s now the MX-5 Miata. This sort of reminds me of Ford’s branding fiasco with the Taurus – four years ago they renamed it the Five Hundred, supposedly because the Taurus brand was tarnished. That lasted two years and now Taurus is back in two forms. As you can see, model names – the “brand” -- mean something, and it is not easy or often prudent to make alterations.

So, like most people and in spite of the fact that I have been reviewing and paying attention to cars for more than 25 years, my general knowledge of Mazda is lacking. Oh, I’ve seen the ads – Zoom-Zoom and all that – and I know they go for the sports cars analogy with all of their cars, but in the end my top-of-mind impression of Mazda is “wankel.” Just the other day, in fact, I mentioned to a friend of mine that I was driving the Mazda CX-9 and he didn’t know what it was, but he was quick to say that he used to have a rotary engine Mazda, years ago, that he loved.

That rotary engine that Mazda became relatively famous for is the “wankel,” named after an auto engineer named Felix Wankel, a German, who came up with the concept of the rotary engine in the early 1950s. A few car companies, Mercedes and General Motors among them, tried to develop rotary engine vehicles which never came to market, and the engine has been used from time to time in racing and airplane engines, to very limited success. The only regular car manufacturer who went after the idea was Mazda, beginning in 1967 with the Cosmo. Today Mazda still carries on the tradition with the RX-8, but it’s the only car in the line with rotary technology these days.

So having said all that, when I saw on the schedule that I was going to get a couple of Mazdas, I was curious because I haven’t driven many of them over the years. The first one up was to be the Mazda5 and I had no idea what it was. However, in the days before delivery I happened to see several of them on the road, and I was intrigued.

If you read the literature or do some cursory research, you discover that the Mazda5 is a minivan. But when you see one, and then get into it, you understand that it is really a mini-minivan. Not to be pejorative, but it’s cute.

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Mazda5 interior

I’ll give you an idea of the size. You are probably familiar with something like the Toyota Sienna, the minivan in the famous line, and it is about the same size and proportions as the Honda Odyssey and those Chrysler offerings. The Sienna has a wheelbase of 119.3 inches; the Mazda 5’s is 108.3”; length is 201” versus 181.5”; width is 77.4 vs. 69.1; and, the height is 68.9” vs. 64.2. So you can see, the Mazda 5 is a mini-minivan.

My very first impression was that the Mazda5 was smallish, a bit light-weight, and kind of tinny. I was all set not to like it. But the more I drove it, the more I really did like it.

First of all, it drives great. It’s no speed demon – it features a 2.3-liter in-line 4 cylinder engine, putting out 153 hp – but it tools around town just fine. I didn’t get a chance to try it up in the mountains where it might have to work harder, but it didn’t strike me as the kind of powerplant that would fall flat on Floyd Hill. I wouldn’t call it powerful by any means; peppy is the right word.

Also in this little package, the handling is quite nice. It doesn’t float like so many minivans, has nice tight steering, corners well, and has great visibility. And here’s the best part: During my test drive we had that Monday morning when it had snowed over night, and it was very, very slippery on Denver streets. I was heading downtown in the early morning following a Ford F150 pickup that was tailgating the guy in front of him and I was worried, glad to be behind the guy. Sure enough, near Speer and Clarkson the guy in front of him stopped short and the Ford slammed his rear end. I saw many little fender benders and worse that morning, but my front-wheel-drive Mazda5 displayed great traction, excellent stopping ability, even on the ice, and as I drove the more confident I became in the vehicle.

To be honest, the Mazda5 doesn’t really look like a minivan, or at least a traditional one. It looks like a squared-off hatchback. But then the rear seating doors, on both sides, slide open like a traditional minivan. Very convenient. This is a six-passenger vehicle – two in each of three rows – and there is a surprising amount of room in each location. And I mean leg room, head room, shoulder space. The inside of the Mazda5 just has a great feel to it. As I said, it’s roomy, but it is also cozy. Just the right mix.

This is a great vehicle for running around town in, picking up kids, going to the grocery, etc. It is very easy to park, and with those sliding doors you can park in a slim spot and still get in and out with ease. The rear seat folds down quickly to store gear, and there is a small space for a quick grocery trip, and the rear gage lifts up and down very simply; it is lightweight, and since the car isn’t tall it doesn’t get beyond your reach like some do.

I didn’t get a sticker with the vehicle, but I was able to piece together some pricing. The Mazda5 comes in three trims – a sport with a MSRP of $17,995; a Touring at $20,920; and, a Grand Touring, starting at $22,675. They all have the same 2.3-liter 4-banger, with the Sport model rated at 22 mpg city/28 mpg highway, and the other two at 21/27.

I had the Grand Touring and it came with leather seating standard – very comfortable seating, with the front seats manually adjustable. All of the audio systems and climate control systems were very easy to use with the typical buttons and knobs, and while I didn’t get to use the air conditioning, the heater worked well (except for the dash vents on the outside next to the windows, which didn’t seem to get much fan motion; the ones in the middle of the dash worked fine). For $2,000 extra you can put a touch-screen navigation system in this car, and you can also get a sunroof; my test-drive model had neither. I figure the sticker on mine was around $24,000, but you could probably put together the Sport model, with cloth interior, for around $20k and it would be very similar.

Okay, it’s a mini-minivan. I know many people who would never give one a second look. But I have always like the minivan, except for the tendency for many of them to float, and this little one is a very nice, economical, yet roomy vehicle. It’s not for everyone, but it sure is a nice, versatile vehicle.

RATING: Three-and-three-quarters wheels (out of four).

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Mazda CX-9

Now on to the Mazda CX-9. Once again, I had no idea what it was before I got my hands on it, and different than the Mazda5, I don’t recall ever having seen another one before or since. The vehicle is described in several auto web sites as a 7-passenger sport utility vehicle, but it doesn’t really look like any sport ute you’ve ever seen.

Just looking at it, it has the appearance of a cross between a Nissan Murano and a Mercedes R-Class, which is to say if I had to categorize it I would call it something of a cross-over vehicle. It has something of a van look to it – a van with a SUV hood, maybe. Like a SUV, however, it has four doors – and they are large doors indeed. The back doors in particular are huge, and open so wide you could put a rhino in there.

And that the thing when you get into the CX-9. It’s huge. It’s a big, honking car. Again, I don’t mean to sound pejorative; The CX-9 is very beautiful, very nicely done in many, many ways, elegant even, but it’s a big vehicle.

My test-drive model was the top-of-the-line, the Grand Touring AWD, and it carries a MSRP of $35,205. There are six trims in the CX-9 line; the Sport, the Touring and the Grand Touring, all in FWD, and then each with AWD. The MSRPs go like this: Sport FWD, $29,820, with AWD at $31,220; the Touring FWD is $31,715, with AWD in at $33,115; and, the Grand Touring FWD at $33,805, and the $35,205 in AWD.

They each feature a 3.7-liter, V6 engine putting out some 273 hp; the FWD models are rated at 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway, with the AWD models all listed as 15/21.

There’s a lot to like about the CX-9. It is an elegant vehicle, nicely done, with tight doors and finishes, and very intelligent and intuitive controls for the audio system and the climate control. In my test-drive model, there is the LCD screen, a touch-screen, and it operates the navigation (easy to use) and all of the audio controls. This vehicle has a tone of radio options: two each selections of AM and FM, and three Sirius satellite radio, which has become one of my favorite things on any car.


Mazda CX-9 interior

Now this Grand Touring model is loaded. A great sunroof, fine leather upholstery all around, so much leg room in the middle seat that it feels like someone’s living room, and the back seat, while typically smallish and lightweight, still has ample room for two full-sized passengers. The rear lift-gate is automatic, push buttons on the key fob and on the door itself, easy to operate, and while the room behind the third seat isn’t huge, it is adequate, and if you don’t have third-row passengers, the seats fold down 50/50 with ease and plenty of stuff will store in there. It’s big back there.

I really like the way Mazda does its climate control. On the center of the dash they have knobs controlling the temperature, the fan speed, and one for the passenger to set his/her own climate. The knobs turn to alter these things, and on the face of the knobs there are push-buttons that set the mode – defrost, middle, floor, or a combination thereof – and to order up things like the outside temp. This all reads out up top on a narrow display that quickly gives you all the information you need. I like it because you don’t have to go through the touch screen all the time; the separate operation makes everything simply and easy to use.

The audio system is another matter. The touch-screen has all the usual problems of getting a ton of finger prints on it, and seeing the display in the middle of the day when it is sunny can be challenging indeed. No problem at night. But to switch back and forth between the FM, AM and Sirius requires going to a “source” button and then selecting the option you want, then the stations. No big deal, but these LCD screen things jam a lot of options into the screens so they have extra steps.

The dash board and all of the controls, the seating, everything you see and feel as the driver of the CX-9 is beautiful. This vehicle is as handsome as they come. It is also a relatively quiet ride, which I can appreciate. The sound system, a Bose, of course, is excellent.

My complaint about the car is the ride. It floats a ton, like the loosest min-van on the planet. Taking turns or curves, or hitting bumps is like riding on a squishy air bag. It is such a large vehicle that this is a sensation that comes up way too much. It needs a much heavier suspension.

At the base price I mentioned, $35,205, the Grand Touring CX-9 comes with a ton of standards and it is truly a luxury vehicle. Anti-lock brakes (wonderful brakes), 20-inch wheels, 6-speed sport shift automatic tranny, heated and 8-way adjustable power driver’s seat, fog lamps, rain-sensing wipers, heated outside side mirrors, 3-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth hands-free setup, three 12-volt power outlets, anti-theft engine immobilizer. The keyless entry key fob is the size of a credit card and has no key; like many Mazdas, they have a plastic stub key on the steering column that you turn for ignition and engine-off; the key fob just stays in your pocket. Also, the doors have little buttons on them, right where your thumb goes, which unlock and lock the doors. There is also a blind-spot monitoring system in the mirrors, which is nice.

On my test-drive model, they added in a package with the moonroof, the Bose/Sirius upgrade with a 277-watt, 10-speaker surround-sound system, for $1,960. They also added $2,300 for the navigation, the touch screen, Bluetooth streaming audio, a rear-view camera and the power hatch. Add another $670 in destination charges, and the bottom line here is $40,135.

Make no mistake. This is a large vehicle. I loved the look of it – the stormy blue mica (navy blue) paint job was stunning – inside and out, and felt comfortable driving and safe driving it. But I have problems with it, too. I hated the floating thing; I thought I would get used to it, but I didn’t. This feels like a 1964 Cadillac Fleetwood. Also, the visibility could be better. The trim lines in the styling make the rear windows taper, and it is difficult to see out them, all the more the more you go back to the third row. Also, I found the side mirrors, and the rear-view mirror view lacking.

The whole thing just didn’t feel like a Mazda, or at least any Mazda I have ever been in. This has to be the largest vehicle they have ever made, and while much of it is beautiful, they are not yet up on the learning curve for a vehicle in this class. Plus, they want it known as an SUV, but it is very van-like, and while I like vans, many people will find that not to their liking.

This is, in many ways, an impressive vehicle. The fit and finish is remarkable. And for a vehicle of this size, with its appointments, the price doesn’t scare me off. But given the competition, I think most people driving SUVs in this price range will find something else to actually buy, mostly because of the floating and the van-like quality. This CX-9 is a vehicle that will not easily be forgotten, but one I believe ultimately is neither fish nor fowl. Nice, but odd.

RATING: Two wheels (out of four).

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Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at

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