2016 Mazda CX-9: First Drive Review

© Mazda North American Operations2016 Mazda CX-9
The arrival of the new Mazda CX-9 completes a total revamp of Mazda’s model lineup, which began with the addition of the CX-5 in 2015. Best known for producing lightweight, fun-to-drive sports cars such as the 2-seat MX-5 Miata roadster, Mazda’s 3-row CX-9 is the flagship midsize crossover at the top of the automaker’s product range. With the new CX-9, Mazda remains committed to driving dynamics and sports-car DNA when producing a large vehicle that appeals to driving enthusiasts, and the attractive design targets new buyers beyond the current enthusiast fan base.

© Mazda North American OperationsMore Emotional Design
The Japanese automaker’s goal was to create an appealing 3-row design with sleek, sculpted upper surfaces and a strong, stable base specifically tailored for the North American market. After 10 years in the market with only minor updates, the first-generation CX-9 still looks good, but the new design really attracts attention on the road — a vehicle that evokes more emotion with a premium look at a less-than-premium price. The bold grille and high, long hood flow back into the lower body, while the tapered greenhouse and sculpted rear are more elegant and flowing. Machine Gray — Mazda’s newest signature color — was developed specifically to accentuate the new design.

© Mazda North American OperationsMazda CX-9 Signature
The 2016 Mazda CX-9 is offered in four trim levels, with the new CX-9 Signature at the top of the lineup alongside the CX-9 Sport, Touring and Grand Touring versions. The introduction to a brand-refining philosophy called Mazda Premium, the CX-9 Signature features Auburn-colored Nappa leather, rosewood trim supplied by Japanese guitar-maker Fujigen and LED signature grille lighting and LED accent lighting around the shifter, as well as standard i-ACTIV all-wheel drive. Base price for the CX-9 Sport is $31,520, followed by the Touring at $35,970, Grand Touring at $40,170 and Signature at $44,015. Prices do not include a destination and handling charge of $900. Mazda’s i-ACTIV all-wheel drive is standard for CX-9 Signature and available on the other trim levels for $1,800.

© Mazda North American OperationsModel Lineup
The entry-level CX-9 Sport features standard LED headlights, LED taillights similar to the MX-5 Miata, black or tan fabric seats, an electronic parking brake, 18-inch wheels, a backup camera, trailer stability assist, MAZDA CONNECT infotainment and a 7-inch color display. The optional $950 Sport Package includes a power driver’s seat, heated front seats and heated door mirrors. The CX-9 Touring adds Blind Spot Monitoring with Rear Cross-Traffic Alert, black or sand leather seating surfaces, Mazda Advanced Keyless Entry System, a power liftgate, power front seats and an 8-inch MAZDA CONNECT touchscreen display. The $1,745 Touring Premium Package includes automatic headlights, LED fog lights, navigation, a premium 12-speaker Bose audio system, rain-sensing wipers, rear backup sensors, second-row retractable sunshades, SiriusXM satellite radio, automatic Smart City Brake Support and a sunroof.

© Mazda North American OperationsMazda CX-9 Grand Touring
The CX-9 Grand Touring builds on the Touring with an adaptive front-lighting system, 20-inch wheels, aluminum interior trim, Mazda’s first Active Driving Display (which displays instrument and navigation information on the windshield), high-beam control, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, Mazda Radar Cruise Control with Smart Brake Support, roof rails and driver’s seat memory settings.

© Mazda North American OperationsUnder the Hood
All CX-9 trims are powered by a new engine developed for the CX-9: the SKYACTIV-G 2.5T, a 2.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder that replaces the 3.7-liter V6 from the previous generation. Coming in at 132 pounds lighter than the V6, the new engine gives up 23 horsepower to the outgoing model but the key is abundant low-end torque — 310 lb-ft at just 2000 rpm, which is 40 lb-ft more than the V6. Total output for the 2.5T is 250 horsepower at 5000 rpm using 93-octane unleaded, and 227 horsepower using 87-octane unleaded. Mazda engineered a unique Dynamic Pressure Turbo System and pulse converter exhaust manifold to improve engine responsiveness below 1500 rpm, keeping torque on tap across a broad rpm range. The 2.5T is mated with a 6-speed SKYACTIV-Drive automatic transmission with manual shift mode but no paddle shifters.

© Mazda North American OperationsIntelligent i-ACTIV All-Wheel Drive
The new CX-9 receives Mazda’s i-ACTIV all-wheel-drive system as standard equipment on the CX-9 Signature but optional on lower trim levels. First introduced on the CX-5, i-ACTIV analyzes 27 channels of data 200 times per second to determine how to distribute torque to the individual wheels. To determine weather conditions, i-ACTIV processes outside temperature, wiper position and incline; for traction measurement it evaluates steering effort vs. steering angle and individual wheel speeds; and to understand the driver’s intentions the data includes throttle position, brake fluid pressure and steering angle. The result is an all-wheel-drive system that is predictive rather than reactive, adjusting the torque split to deliver power where needed.

© Mazda North American OperationsInner Space
The interior design features horizontal lines that wrap around the driver and front-seat passenger into the rear seat. The dashboard slopes forward above the aluminum trim to create a more spacious feeling, and the 8-inch touchscreen display is in the center of the dash for optimum visibility. The raised center console makes the driver and front passenger feel more “nested” in the car. To improve cabin noise levels, the CX-9 employs a thicker floor with 50 pounds of additional sound-deadening material, as well as sound-absorbing acoustic glass for the windshield and front doors. Third-row access is easy, with one-handed operation to fold and slide the seat forward. However, third-row legroom and headroom are tighter than some competitors, and the second row slides back for additional legroom when the third row is not in use.

© Mazda North American OperationsSignature Interior
The CX-9 Signature is the first Mazda ever offered with Nappa leather seats along with aluminum and rosewood trim to create Mazda’s most refined interior. The driver-centric cockpit is laid out so everything falls easily to hand, and with the two-tone Auburn and black interior, the Signature is ready to compete with luxury models. The CX-9 Signature includes the Head-Up Cockpit that displays instrument and navigation information on the windshield, and the 8-inch MAZDA CONNECT touchscreen in the center of the dashboard controls radio, phone and navigation functions (controlled by a console knob while driving). The radio interface requires multiple steps to scroll through the station list — the driver should be able to scroll one station at a time. The lower seat cushion only adjusts at the rear, so the seat slopes forward more than necessary — it would be nice to be able to adjust the seat angle by raising the front edge of the lower cushion.

© Mazda North American OperationsVehicle Dynamics
Mazda is known for producing engaging, fun-to-drive vehicles including the flagship CX-9, the largest Mazda in the lineup. The previous CX-9 was immediately recognized as one of the best handling and most dynamic vehicles of its size, but for the new model Mazda engineers studied how humans perceive G-forces and subconsciously change their body posture to control equilibrium. The idea was that by making the vehicle move in a more natural way, the driver and passenger feel more connected.

© Mazda North American OperationsOn the Road
The new CX-9 is smoother, more refined and quieter than the previous model, but still feels precise and even agile for a large 3-row crossover. The new 2.5T engine delivers the power needed for real-world conditions, whether it’s merging into heavy traffic or making a pass on a two-lane road — the power is always there when you need it. Select Sport mode and the transmission are more responsive, keeping the vehicle in a lower gear longer or downshifting sooner. Competitors such as the Honda Pilot or Ford Explorer offer more horsepower, but the key to a crossover’s agility translates to torque at low rpm, and the CX-9 delivers on that order — the throttle is responsive, there is plenty of power at low speed and fuel economy is improved over the outgoing model, with EPA ratings of 21 mpg city / 27 mpg hwy / 23 mpg combined.

© Mazda North American OperationsFun to Drive
The second-generation Mazda CX-9 continues to offer the most engaging vehicle dynamics in the segment, and the crossover drives about as good as a vehicle of its size can. Although the CX-9 would not be a first choice when heading out for a drive on a favorite twisty backroad on a weekend morning (MX-5 Miata, anyone?), if you find yourself on that road in the CX-9 you can still have some fun.

© Mazda North American OperationsRight for You?
The Mazda CX-9 has been a go-to-choice for driving enthusiasts who need a crossover SUV with 3-row capacity, and the new, more refined model will no-doubt appeal to a broader range of buyers. With a more stylish design and the addition of the upscale Signature version, the new CX-9 should attract the attention of luxury owners as well. Considering all the competition in the 3-row crossover segment, the CX-9 will be the choice for drivers who don’t want to give up driving enjoyment in exchange for functionality. If you’re that driver, the CX-9 is for you.

© Mazda North American OperationsRating: 8.5
Bottom Line: The new CX-9 is more refined, but still the most engaging midsize crossover.
Pros: Great design; excellent driving dynamics; new premium interior.
Cons: Radio interface; front seat angle; long rear doors.

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