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First drive: 2016 Mazda CX-9

There is such a thing as a sporty SUV, and it's Mazda's best-in-class CX-9

Mazda has always been known as a driver-oriented automaker. But in order to be a driver’s automaker, Mazda has to be a design and engineering company first. That’s key to understanding the new 2016 Mazda CX-9 mid-size SUV. Yes, you’re going to get the best-driving SUV in its class and price range, but it’s the underlying design and engineering work that really sets the CX-9 apart from its competition.

With the new model arriving to dealer showrooms in June, the new CX-9 is coming rather late to the market. But Mazda is releasing the CX-9 as a 2016 model, rather than skipping a model year and calling it a 2017. That might have been a marketing challenge, but the truth is that Mazda just waited to get the CX-9 exactly right. This is the last vehicle in the lineup to get the SKYACTIV engine and chassis improvements, and the last to be reworked with Mazda’s forceful KODO design cues.

KODO: Soul of Motion

Mazda really loves its design language. They’ve been working for more than 10 years to refine their implementation of Japanese nature concepts into their vehicles, and it shows. It started back in 2006 with Nagare, which translates to “wind” or “flow” and continued on through a series of concept cars and updates across Mazda’s product lineup.

Kodo was introduced in 2010, and it’s a much more subtle set of features and cues. Like all good design, you might not know exactly why you like Kodo, but it’s enough just to know that you like it. Or not – one thing about Mazda’s design decisions is that there are a certain number of people out there who won’t like the style, and Mazda is okay with that.

On the new CX-9, you can see the latest evolution of the Kodo philosophy in the strong lines flowing back from the shark-nose grille to the taillights and rear surfaces. There’s no doubt that this is a vehicle set apart from the regular run of boring mid-size SUVs that look like an eggplant on wheels. There’s a promise of performance in the rakish CX-9.

Power and Economy

Few people know this, but Mazda earned the title of “most fuel-efficient automaker” from the EPA for the years 2013-2015. That’s a very good endorsement, but it’s more impressive when you realize that Mazda achieved their fuel economy without a single EV or hybrid in its portfolio, and they did it without resorting to the bland wind tunnel stylings that pervade the industry. This gets to the heart of Mazda’s engineering prowess.

In order to be a driver’s automaker, Mazda has to be a design and engineering company first.

In the new CX-9, Mazda’s engineering chops are most obvious in the new 2.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that replaces the old V6. The new engine can run on regular or premium gas, which means you get to choose your horsepower output every time you tank up. If you spring for 93 octane premium, you’ll get 250 horsepower. On 87 octane regular fuel, you’ll still get a healthy 227 horses. Either way, you get 310 pound-feet of torque in full effect at 2,000 rpm. More importantly, that torque curve stays high right up to redline, so the CX-9 has plenty of pull when you get on the gas, and it will tow 3,500 pounds.

Mazda gave the CX-9 a six-speed automatic transmission, and that’s another bold move in an era when eight and nine-speed gearboxes are becoming the norm, but this gearbox is far from a compromise. Transmissions with more gears are designed for engines with very narrow power bands, so they tend to hunt for the right gear before they can accelerate. Mazda’s engineers went the other way, using their fat 310 pound-feet of torque to pull through with fewer gear ratios. The result is that the CX-9 doesn’t have to think about it before it responds to throttle, and it pulls like a big V6.

On top of that, the CX-9 also returns best-in-class fuel economy. With front-wheel-drive, you’ll see 22 mpg in the city, 28 mpg on the highway, and 25 mpg combined. Choosing AWD drops the numbers only slightly to 21/27/23. Not a huge dip, right? Here’s why.

The Soul of a Sports Car

While Mazda makes some great engines, you’ll really find the soul of the CX-9 in the chassis and suspension. That’s where the CX-9 really stands apart from the competition. Most mid-size SUVs have a tendency to wallow in curves and plow like a farm tractor during even moderate cornering, but the CX-9 delivers a tighter, more controlled driving experience, without harshness. It’s worth noting that the same group of engineers who tuned the suspension in the MX-5 Miata also developed the CX-9.

2016 Mazda CX-9
Jeff Zurschmeide

A big part of the driving experience of the CX-9 comes courtesy of the i-ACTIV All-Wheel-Drive system. The i-ACTIV system is mostly invisible because you don’t have to do anything to activate it and the AWD take-up is so smooth that you’ll probably never notice that it’s working. I spent a bunch of time playing with i-ACTIV on several other Mazdas in the snow last winter, and the system is ingenious in its design and execution.

When they developed i-ACTIV, Mazda engineers noted that a tremendous amount of data is moving around the vehicle from up to 27 different sensors. If you look at that data in the right way, you can infer quite a bit about what’s going on both inside and outside of the vehicle. So by considering factors like outside temperature, weight transfer, steering angle, and even the windshield wiper setting, the i-ACTIV system can make very good decisions about the level of AWD needed at that moment and in the next moment to come, up to 200 times per second. By integrating a super-fast electromagnetic clutch on the rear differential, Mazda developed a truly predictive AWD system that comes on seamlessly just when it’s needed, and otherwise leaves the system free to run at it’s most efficient settings. That’s how you can get the stability and traction benefits of AWD but trade away only 1 mpg for it.

Luxury You Didn’t Expect

We all expect a Mazda to be sporty; that’s a given. What we don’t usually expect is for a Mazda to have a luxury SUV interior, but you can get that on the CX-9. The top Signature edition and the Grand Touring trim levels offer a passenger compartment as well-appointed as anything from Lexus or BMW. The tradeoff is that those interiors don’t come for free, and some shoppers might be surprised to find themselves shopping for a Mazda over $40,000.

Mazda’s engineering chops are most obvious in the new 2.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that replaces the old V6.

Going through the catalog, the CX-9 starts at $32,420 for the Sport edition. This is no penalty box, though. You’ll get quality cloth upholstery, a rear backup camera, and a seven-inch color display with the Mazda Connect suite of infotainment apps and connectivity. And you’ll get plenty of leg room in the back seat – this is an SUV that really can haul four full-size adults in perfect comfort, and seven passengers overall. There’s also a sport package for $950 that gives you heated front seats, heated mirrors, and power driver’s seat.

The Touring trim level adds leather upholstery and a bigger eight-inch display, plus safety and convenience features like keyless entry, blind spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, a power lift gate, power front seats, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror for $36,870. If you want a little more luxury, go for the Touring Premium package, which gets you navigation, a 12-speaker Bose audio system with SIRIUS/XM satellite radio, rear backup sensors, a sunroof, and automatic Smart City Brake Support. The Touring Premium package is just $1,745 on top of the Touring trim.

If you want to get into the luxury space, the Grand Touring model bumps you to 20-inch wheels, aluminum interior trim, a true heads-up display, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, and adaptive cruise control with Smart Brake Support. The Grand Touring will cost you $41,070, and at any trim level up to this one, adding AWD tacks on $1,800 to the basic price tag.

At the top of the line, you find the CX-9 Signature edition. AWD is standard on this trim, and you get upgraded auburn-toned Nappa leather, rosewood trim supplied by Japanese guitar-maker Fujigen, and LED accent grille lighting that looks really cool at night. The Signature edition has everything, and will cost you $44,915.

Among all these trim levels, the best value is found in the Touring and Touring Premium models. You’re getting heated leather seats, plenty of extra safety gear, the bigger display screen, and navigation if you spring for Touring Premium. However, if you are okay with spending about the price of a base-model Lexus, Infiniti, or Acura crossover, you can get into that CX-9 Signature edition and drive a much better SUV for the same money.

Wrap it Up, I’ll Take It

Before you whip out your checkbook, there are some bits that could still be improved. The first one is cargo space – the CX-9 gives you 71.2 cubic feet of cargo space with all the rear seats down. With the third row down you get 38.2 cubic feet, and you get 14.4 cubic feet with all three rows of seats in use. That’s a bit less than many of the competitors, but it’s just a natural function of the CX-9’s exterior size and shape, and all that nice legroom in the second row. The CX-9 offers more cargo capacity than the Lexus RX350 and Acura MDX, but not as much as the Infiniti QX60, Toyota Highlander, or Honda Pilot.

The second demerit is simply the lack of support for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. The era of each automaker having a different app suite and means of integrating a smart phone is hopefully going to end soon. The rumor mill says that Mazda will offer support for these interfaces shortly, and that’s a good thing.

The bottom line is that if you loved your Miata, Mazda3, or Mazda6, but you need a bigger SUV than the CX-3 or CX-5, don’t be afraid to take a look at the CX-9. You’re going to find the same things you loved about other Mazdas, but in the size that your family needs. If you’ve been shopping the luxury competition but have never tried a Mazda, you definitely should check out the Signature CX-9. Dollar for dollar, the CX-9 will compete – and Mazda knows competition very well.

Highs

  • Powerful new turbocharged engine
  • Luxury SUV interior
  • Striking bodywork
  • Best-in-class ride and handling

Lows

  • Limited Cargo Space
  • No Android Auto or Apple CarPlay Support