TARRYTOWN, NY – Mazda Motor Corp.’s fullsize CX-9 cross/utility vehicle is attracting luxury buyers to the marque for the first time, Mazda North American Operations officials say.

“Our dealers are telling us they’re seeing people (trade in) BMW X5s and that (customers) are cross-shopping Acura MDXs and Volvo XC90s,” says Chris Hill, vehicle line manager-CX-9.

“We’re seeing people come out of luxury vehicles because of the CX-9’s value proposition,” Hill tells Ward’s at a media event here. “We’re also seeing people looking for a more stylish alternative to the (Toyota) Highlander or (Honda) Pilot. It’s attracting a wide range of consumers.”

Indeed, the CX-9, on sale since January, boasts an 88% conquest rate, Hill says, meaning most buyers are new to Mazda.

The top-end Grand Touring trim level is the best-selling model, accounting for 51% of all CX-9 sales.

Also changing are the reasons people are shopping Mazda, says MNAO President and CEO Jim O’Sullivan.

“Ten years ago the top reasons for buying a Mazda were price and deal offered,” he says. “Today it’s design and ride dynamics. That changed the folks who buy our vehicles, too.” O’Sullivan cites a study by Maritz Research that shows Mazda has the second-youngest customer in the industry at 43 years of age on average.

Toyota Motor Corp.’s Scion brand wins the prize for having the youngest average buyer: 39.

“Many auto companies would die for this,” O’Sullivan says of Mazda’s youthful consumer base.

On the market less than a year, the 3-row, 7-passenger CX-9 gets a bump in horsepower for ’08, courtesy of a bored-out version of Ford Motor Co.’s Duratec 35 V-6 mill. The modified engine ups displacement from 3.5L to 3.7L, resulting in 272 hp and a peak torque rating of 270 lb.-ft (366 Nm).

The upgraded engine will be made in Hiroshima, Japan, rather than Ford’s Lima, OH, engine plant where the previous mill was produced, Hill says.

“The decision was always to build the 3.7L in Japan, but we had the opportunity to bring the CX-9 to market earlier and the only engine available (at the time) was the one being produced in Lima,” he says.

While more powerful than its predecessor, the 3.7L also provides a 5% fuel economy improvement in city driving when featured in models equipped with all-wheel drive, Hill says.

The CX-9 has performed strongly out of the gate, with 13,719 deliveries through August, Ward’s data shows.

For the ’08 model year, Hill says he expects sales of 25,000-30,000 units.

The CX-9’s success is due to extensive research into what consumers want in the growing CUV segment, Hill says.

“We actually went into homes. Our research and design team and engineers from Japan came over and sat across the kitchen table from people in Washington and L.A. and discussed what they liked about (their) CUVs and what they didn’t like,” he says.

“By and large, there were six common product ‘wants,’” Hill says. They were: better packaging; styling; command seating and ground clearance; performance; safety and convenience; and maneuverability.

Mazda took the data and built the vehicle customers said they wanted, Hill says, adding the target customer is 30-50 years of age, married, with children.

“We joked that the target was 30-50 years old with two kids and a dog, because every person we visited had two kids and a dog,” Hill quips.

In addition to the more-powerful engine, the CX-9 with the Grand Touring package comes with Mazda’s new Blind Spot Monitoring system, which alerts the driver of obstacles in blind spots on either side of the vehicle.

Pricing for the ’08 CX-9 starts at $29,400 for the 2-wheel-drive Sport version and tops out at $34,655 for the Grand Touring AWD package. Prices don’t include a $595 destination charge.

Meanwhile, O’Sullivan says Mazda is proving out alternative-fuel technologies for possible entry into the marketplace.

Particularly promising is a version of Mazda’s rotary engine that is able to run on both gasoline and hydrogen, he says, noting that the unique architecture of the rotary mill is a perfect fit for hydrogen fuel.

The experimental engine is currently undergoing testing and eventually could find its way into production, O’Sullivan says.

Currently, Mazda’s only production vehicle to feature an alternative powertrain is the Tribute Hybrid CUV, which went on sale exclusively in California in August.

“If it is successful we’ll roll it out nationally, but right now we’re launching in California only,” he says of the nation’s largest hybrid market.

bpope@wardsauto.com