Smack! Dang it. I jumped a little in my seat. The sudden sound of a stone impacting the windshield after completing its perfect, high-speed arc from the tire tread of a vehicle ahead is always jarring. I could tell by the intensity of the impact noise that it was going to leave a mark and probably a crack. Unfortunately, as an automotive photographer this is a familiar occurrence. To get to the epic locations that you see in my photos, I drive a lot, mostly in rural and mountainous areas that have probably never seen a street sweeper.
I’ve put some serious road trip miles on the CX-9 lately, in some pretty amazing places. The first journey, and the location of the aforementioned rock strike, was for an upcoming Automobile magazine story. We towed Airstream’s slick new Basecamp travel-trailer with the new Land Rover Discovery HSE up to the otherworldly Alabama Hills, near Lone Pine, California. The CX-9 acted as photo support car and camera car for our trip. In the past I have talked about what makes a good photo support vehicle, and the CX-9 excels in this role. It is big enough to carry all of my photography gear, sporty enough to hold its own on twisty roads, and comfortable enough not to rattle the camera out of my hands when I am photographing out of the back hatch or the side windows.
In addition to long stints on the arrow-straight highway heading north along the Eastern Sierras, we spent a fair amount of time exploring and photographing along the many dirt roads that zigzag the arid valley at the base of the mountains. I have driven the CX-9 on dirt roads before, but this gave me an opportunity to directly compare the Mazda to a much more off-road-focused vehicle like the Discovery.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying I think you should cross-shop the Mazda with the new Land Rover. There is a massive price and capability difference when the pavement ends. One of them can drive you across Mongolia; the other can drive you to get Mongolian BBQ. That being said, I was surprised how well the CX-9 handled the rough, washboard dirt roads and some soft, sandy sections. I’m not ready to slap on a rooftop tent and head into the sunset, but the Mazda was every bit as comfortable as the Discovery in these soft road conditions.
One frustrating design flaw that kept annoying me during our travels was how low the bottom of the CX-9’s door is when you open it. This shortcoming was highlighted again and again when we would open the door too close to the side of the road and it would get stuck on the ground or would just scrape the bottom as it opened. You don’t need to be exploring boulder piles in the high desert for this problem to present itself, either. Every time I open the passenger door while parked in front of my house, the door gets jammed in the gravel and scrapes as you dislodge it. And before you ask, the curbs are normal height. The doors are just super low.
Overall the Mazda has proved to be an excellent road-trip and photo support vehicle, and luckily the cracked windshield is the only major wound it has sustained. Looks like a new windshield is in the future, but we can talk about that next time.