Safety is not a side dish for Mazda CX-9... it's the main course

Curbside at the Bob Bullock museum in downtown Austin, Texas. 

Curbside at the Bob Bullock museum in downtown Austin, Texas. 

Top safety pick PLUS

As a parent, car safety ratings mean a lot to me because somehow, parenting makes some people more risk averse (!!). For all drivers, however, this is an attribute that is rather important. 

This year, Mazda's 2017 CX-9 earned the 2017 Top Safety Picks award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) for across-the-board top ratings in crash tests.

It's not easy to earn a Top Safety Pick+ award from IIHS. However, the Touring models and above on the Mazda CX-9 boast high-quality roof strength, automated emergency braking, a blind-spot monitor, and rear cross-traffic alert. I drove a CX-9 in the Signature trim, which also includes excellent camera-based safety features.

Also, beginning with 2017 models built after November 2016, the deployment pattern of the side curtain airbags in the Mazda CX-9 was modified to improve protection in the case of side impact, small overlap frontal, and moderate overlap frontal crashes. 

The Machine Grey Metallic paint was sleek and smooth on this Mazda CX-9 Signature. 

The Machine Grey Metallic paint was sleek and smooth on this Mazda CX-9 Signature. 

The CX-9 has a good body, but how about the brains?

The CX-9 is built on Mazda's SKYACTIV-BODY technology, which has a ring structure in the vehicle that protects the driver and her passengers. To explain how this improves safety, the ring structure distributes the vehicle's weight across the vehicle in a straight path. In many other cars, the weight is distributed in a curved path around the engine. The result is that SKYACTIV-BODY design offers greater front crash protection. The shell is also designed to be lighter and stiffer, like a race car. 

Command control to Major Tom. (Old song alert)

Command control to Major Tom. (Old song alert)

Mazda designed the unique command controller to help drivers keep their eyes on the road

One of the first things you notice inside the CX-9 is the 7-inch center display, which sits atop the dashboard. The second thing you'll notice is that it's NOT a touch screen. Instead, it features what Mazda calls a "command controller" knob, which is designed to be operated entirely by feel.

“The reason for a commander instead of a touch screen is very straightforward, says Dave Coleman, vehicle development engineer at Mazda. “Driving safety was our #1 priority in designing the Mazda Connect interface, and touchscreens require a lot of visual attention to operate. Visual attention that needs to stay focused out the windshield.”

Coleman explains that when a driver uses a touchscreen, she has to look at the screen in order to touch it in the right spot. This is different from a hard button, which you can feel with your fingers, and then press once you have your finger in the right place. Not only can you not feel where buttons are on a touch screen, but touching and pressing are the same thing. There is no way to confirm contact between your finger and the touch button without activating it. Because of this, everyone watches their finger go to the touch screen instead of looking where they are driving.

“Most people don’t believe they are doing this,” says Coleman. “But you only have to watch a few eye-tracking videos of people operating touch screens while driving to be very uncomfortable with the concept of a touch screen in a car.”

My secret is out... I'm a fan of all things 80s metal rock. 

My secret is out... I'm a fan of all things 80s metal rock. 

Mazda says that it takes new owners about 2-3 weeks to reach the point at which they can operate the system without looking down at the command controller and with only occasional short glances at the screen. 

The commander itself was designed so each button had a distinct location and feel that was easy to memorize, says Coleman, and the screen layouts were designed to be consistent, and to put commonly used buttons near the end of the screen, so you could reach them “blind” without looking at the screen.

A beautiful interior with bold stitching is eye-catching and comfortable. 

A beautiful interior with bold stitching is eye-catching and comfortable. 

Mazda gave me this example: To change audio sources, you press the audio button, then the cursor will automatically be on the sources button, so you just press the commander. These first two steps are the same no matter where you started from, so you can do them without looking. Going to the Audio settings menu is similarly simple. Press the audio button if you aren’t already on an audio screen, then scroll all the way to the right and select. Different audio sources have different numbers of buttons available, but all the way right is all the way right. It’s an easy operation that doesn’t require visual confirmation. Less frequently used buttons, like the manual FM tuning screen, are in the middle of the page where you might have to look at the screen to confirm where your cursor is.

“As all our devices move to touchscreens, people tend to expect a touch-screen interface and can be surprised by our physical interface. The fundamental need to keep your eyes on the road is unchanging, though, so we are sticking with a tactile interface that can maximize driver safety.

YETI, Igloo, Thermos. It's like the triumverate of cooler products. 

YETI, Igloo, Thermos. It's like the triumverate of cooler products. 

The CX-9: big enough for a giant cooler. And a bunch of kids.

People ask me all the time: what is the best vehicle with an optional third row? Usually, these are parents with multiple children who carpool. After test driving the 2017 Mazda CX-9, I’d definitely add this to the list of top choices.

For me, with one child, a car with a third row might seem to be a superfluous choice; however, my 7-year-old boy loved sitting way back there. To him, the Mazda CX-9 is a limousine for kids. I was happy to discover that even with the third row in use, there was still room in the trunk area for storage: this means that as he grows and wants me to cart his sports equipment and buddies around town, this would be perfect.

I liked the beautiful stitching in this car, the roomy second row, and the ease of which I could activate the third row and put it back in place just as easily. I also liked the screen on the dash instead of in it.

My friend Nasreen wrote a review of the CX-9 for SheBuysCars, and she found that the tethers are difficult to find in the center seat, and she says this is a great car for a family with no more than two kids. With a little research, I found that other sources also cited this as a challenge if you're trying to fit 3 kids in car seats in the second row. For me, this is not a problem because my son is in 2nd grade and in a booster seat, which is much narrower. 

Comfortable to drive and great safety ratings; this is a fun mid-range vehicle. I'd recommend it for anyone who needs a third row but likes the flexibility of folding it back up; anyone who likes sports or outdoor adventures (tents, coolers, and the like would fit perfectly in this car); or anyone who wants a medium-sized SUV that drives like a sedan. 

The 2017 Mazda CX-9's third row: super easy to use and re-stow. 

Disclosure: Mazda lent me this CX-9 for one week to test for this review. All opinions and commentary are mine.