2016 Mazda CX-9 First Drive

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From engaging crossovers to its solid Mazda3 and 6 nameplates to the fantastic MX-5 Miata—one of our 2016 AUTOMOBILE All-Stars—Mazda has carved out a well-earned reputation as a producer of vehicles with dynamic driving characteristics, stylish exteriors, and proven powertrains. More recently, it has embarked on a mission to further lighten and sharpen its vehicle lineup.

Now, the purveyors of zoom are making another move, this time into the luxury zone, with the new2016 Mazda CX-9. Arriving this summer, the second-generation CX-9 will feature an all-new Signature edition model designed to undercut rival three-row luxury offerings. But Mazda didn’t forget to make sure the CX-9 drives as well as its optional new Nappa leather interior trim looks.

2016 Mazda CX 9 side profile 03

Along the beautiful twisty mountain roads just north of San Francisco, the CX-9 drives like a much smaller vehicle, more station-wagon-like in its look and over-the-road feel than a hulking crossover. In fact, the new CX-9 is shorter than its predecessor by 1.2 inches, all while adding 2.2 inches to its wheelbase in an effort to improve the ride and open up more interior space.

Just as impressively, Mazda cut nearly 200 pounds from front-wheel-drive models of the 2016 CX-9 and almost 300 pounds from all-wheel-drive versions. The weight loss was achieved through the deployment of Mazda’s Skyactiv technologies, its holistic approach to reducing vehicle mass by employing smarter design techniques and using lighter materials.

There has been a trade-off or two in the name of chasing more of a luxury feel, however. Mazda could have cut even more weight, but instead decided to add 53 pounds of sound deadening materials to the new CX-9. It’s a move designed to cut interior noise so much that kids in the third row may now actually be able to learn new swear words whispered under their mother’s breath after someone cuts her off.

Not surprisingly, the new 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine Mazda has fitted to the CX-9 is far lighter than the outgoing V-6. The turbo-four provides ample power for the two-ton crossover, generating 250 hp at 5,000 rpm and a stout 310 lb-ft of torque at 2,000 rpm. In addition, Mazda developed a new system to keep the CX-9 from exhibiting too much turbo lag, what it’s calling Dynamic Pressure Turbo. A valve pushes exhaust through a smaller gate to the turbo at a lower rpm; as the engine rpm picks up, the valve opens to create a bigger path to the turbo.

During our time behind the wheel, we never felt a sudden rush as the turbo took over, just smooth, powerful acceleration with a linear feel when you mat the accelerator pedal. It’s the sort of direct response that adds to the driving feel.

When the going got twisty, the CX-9 held its line well. The steering felt crisp and the braking sharp. The new all-wheel-drive system also uses a predictive program to allow the CX-9 to recognize road conditions and adjust the power distribution before the driver even notices the adjustments. It’s continually collecting information from 27 sensors, including ambient temperature, steering wheel angle, brake fluid temperature, lateral grip—even windshield wiper movement—to help determine if the road might be wet. It does this 200 times a second and, when necessary, quickly reroutes power to the wheels to eliminate understeer by pushing as much as 50 percent of the power to the rear axle. During my day of test-driving the CX-9, I never noticed the transfer of power or much understeer in the CX-9, but then again, that’s entirely the point.

Mazda also loaded up the CX-9 with a suite of standard and optional safety and driver assist technology, including spot monitoring, radar-assisted cruise control, lane keeping assist and lane departure warning, high beam control, and smart braking features.

While the performance improvements are dramatic, things are as impressive in the cabin, if not more so. The 2016 CX-9 looks and feels much more luxurious than the outgoing model. The high-end Signature variant includes the aforementioned Nappa leather and rosewood trim. No one’s going to have any trouble getting comfortable in the first two rows, and while of course the third row is more ideal for kids, adults would have no problem going for an extended ride back there. The only real problem with the third row is ingress and egress. Although you can operate the seat from the third row by pulling a switch on the top of the second-row seat, the space can be difficult for an adult to squeeze through.

Mazda did improve the overall folding ability of the second and third row, and when both are down, the cargo space is immense and the floor is relatively flat. The only drawback to the new system is that the second row cannot be lowered from the back of the vehicle. Instead, you must open the second-row doors and reach in to lower the seats.

The CX-9 also comes with an adjustable-height power liftgate that can be operated with the touch of a button or by using the key fob—the kind of amenity a luxury buyer would only notice if the option wasn’t available. That said, although the six-speed automatic worked well, other competitors in the luxury crossover segment have moved to eight speeds or more.

2016 Mazda CX 9 interior 031

Mazda also upgraded its stereo, working with Bose to develop a 12-speaker setup that offers great sound and can handle a multitude of digital formats. It’s all controlled though the Mazda Connect system, accessed primarily by spinning a dial in the center console to bring up functions on an 8-inch display screen floating at the top of the dash. The screen’s location was designed to keep the driver’s eyes as close to the road in front of them as possible. There are some quirks to the overall system, but it works well.

In addition, the instrument panel is highlighted by a small display screen that can access information by toggling a button on the steering wheel. The CX-9 also offers a head-up display that provides instrument and navigation information on the windshield. The focal point actually makes it appear as if the information is floating out above the hood of the vehicle so the driver’s eyes are on the road and the information at the same time. (Like many HUDs, the numbers are nearly invisible when wearing polarized sunglasses.)

2016 Mazda CX 9 front three quarter static

While the CX-9 is first and foremost a big family hauler that will do the bulk of heavy lifting, shuttling kids, picking up groceries, and driving to work, it’s still a Mazda at its core. And that means if you dropped the kids off and want to get after it out on the open road on a lazy Sunday afternoon, the CX-9 will happily oblige.

It’s hard not to like the 2016 Mazda CX-9. It’s better than the outgoing model in virtually every respect. It’s smaller and lighter on its tires, it’s as nimble as any offering in its class, and the serious upgrades to its interior have it punching above its weight. It’s now a vehicle that’s worthy of being the flagship for the brand.

While Mazda will have a tough job ahead of it turning the heads of customers shopping for luxury vehicles in the three-row crossover segment, it’s now not out of the realm for them to seriously consider the CX-9 as viable option. They should. The CX-9 is that good.

 

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