In the 1970s, there was something called the Universal Japanese Motorcycle, or UJM. Whether you bought a Honda or a Kawasaki or a Yamaha, the motorcycle was essentially the same. They all had an air-cooled, inline four-cylinder engine, spoked wheels, five-speed transmission and (usually) the same general "stance."
The same is true today with respect to crossovers -- which are also "universal" in that they are so much alike it is often hard to tell them apart.
Except for this Japanese one.
What It Is
The CX-9 is Mazda's alternative to the same, at least in terms of how it drives. Think of a Miata with room for six, and you'll be on the right path.
And yes, six .
The Mazda is the only crossover in its medium-large-sized class that has one fewer than the usual seven to eight seats. It is not trying to compete directly with other medium-large crossovers such as the Toyota Highlander, the GMC Acadia or the Kia Telluride as much as offer something that isn't just like them.
Prices start at $34,160 for the Sport trim with front-wheel drive; adding the optional all-wheel drive system bumps the MSRP up to $36,060.
A top-of-the-line Signature trim -- which comes standard with all-wheel drive -- stickers for $46,805.
All trims come standard with the same 2.5-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine paired with a six-speed automatic transmission.
All trims come standard with a new 10.25-inch LCD screen, and a Carbon Edition has been added to the trim mix. It includes polymetal gray exterior paint, red leather seats and trim, 20-inch dark finish wheels, adaptive headlights that turn with the steering wheel and heaters for the rear seats, among other upgrades.
It's like a Miata that looks like a crossover.
It seats five more than a Miata.
It's more powerful than a Miata.
What's Not So Good
It has one fewer seat than other same-sized crossovers.
Its powerful engine requires premium fuel to make maximum power.
It has a perplexing non-touchscreen interface.
Under the Hood
All CX-9s come standard with a turbocharged 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine that makes 250 horsepower and 320 foot-pounds of torque ... provided you feed it 93 octane premium gasoline.
If you feed the boosted four regular 87 octane unleaded, it makes only 227 horsepower because the computer will dial back the boost.
The good news is it makes almost the same 310 foot-pounds of torque whether you feed it regular or premium, so the V-8 feel down low in the powerband remains the same regardless.
A six-speed automatic is standard.
On the Road
The CX-9 can get to 60 mph in about seven seconds -- and is equally at home in the curves.
Somehow, Mazda has dialed in the feel of driving a Miata in a Mazda more than twice the size and weight.
There is none of the heavy, understeering and unsettled feel you get in other crossovers this size when you try to get going.
Mazda is what BMW was, once upon a time.
And for a great deal less money, too.
At the Curb
How do you make an appliance sexy?
The CX-9 isn't a Jaguar E-Type, of course. Or even a Miata, for that matter. But it also isn't just another crossover , God help us all. Mazda has spent time trying to give this crossover the visuals to go with the viscerals -- while retaining the practicals.
It's true, the third row is tight. But this is equally true for the others in the medium-large class, even if they claim to seat one more than the CX-9 does. If you really need an adult-friendly third row, you'll need something considerably larger. But if all you need is plenty of room for four to five people and six or seven in a pinch, then you ought to have a look -- for the same reason that you would have a look at a home with as many bedrooms as you need but not the luxury of several extra.
Other medium-large crossovers in the class do have a little more cargo room: for example, the Toyota Highlander (16 cubic feet behind the third row and 84.3 cubic feet all told) and Subaru Ascent (17.8 cubic feet behind the third row and 86.5 cubic feet in total). But it's not a big difference unless you really need that much space. In which case, the others may be better, at the price of being a lot less fun.
All trims get the new/larger 10.25-inch LCD display, seat heaters (up front) three-zone climate control and rain-sensing wipers, with the option to buy all-wheel drive without having to ascend to a more expensive trim.
On the other hand, if you want the excellent Bose 12-speaker premium audio rig, you have to ascend to the Touring or higher trim.
One area where the CX-9 comes up a little lacking is its attractive but more difficult to use infotainment system. Instead of a simple, one-step control knob to make station changes, you have to first scroll/push through menus to find the forward and backward arrows to change stations and then scroll/push to actually change the stations. It's not terrible once you get used to it.
But you do have to get used to it.
The Bottom Line
Once you've figured out how to change the radio station to your stations, you'll be ready for a drive like none other in this class.
Which makes it worth a little hassle changing the radio station.
Eric's latest book, "Don't Get Taken for a Ride!" is available now. To find out more about Eric and read his past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate, Inc.