When Mazda initially launched the CX-9, it aimed theÂ crossoverÂ firmly at American buyers â€” 80 percent of CX-9 production came to the U.S., and exactly 0 percent stayed in Japan. It was an American under the sheetmetal, too, builtÂ on an older platform shared with Ford.
For 2016, Mazda completely redesigned itsÂ large, three-row crossover with an eye on improvingÂ dynamics, efficiency and giving the brand a near-luxury alternative. Yep, Mazda believes itsÂ new Signature trim â€” featuring such adornments as heads-up display, Nappa leather, and real wood trim â€” is anÂ alternative to the Acura MDX.
Mazda hasn’t gone completely upscale, however. Most of the CX-9 lineup aims squarely at the Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer, and Chevrolet Traverse.
Some corporate designs don’tÂ work when scaled up and down the product line. (Look no further than Porsche.) Fortunately, Mazda’s so-called “Kodo” design doesn’t fall victim to the same limitations. Closer inspection of the CX-9 reveals itsÂ new nose isn’t just a 12/10ths rendition of the CX-3; the side profile highlightsÂ a more pronouncedÂ overbite and everything else isÂ sharper and more dramatic.
Dominating the design isÂ the CX-9’s long, flat hood. Parallels to the Volvo XC90 come to mindÂ asÂ both front ends were designed specifically for a four-cylinder turbo up front, and not a large V8 like we find in the Dodge Durango.
Trimming up its proportions, Mazda shortenedÂ the CX-9’s overallÂ lengthÂ by 1.5 inchesÂ andÂ reduced itsÂ curb weight byÂ nearly 200 pounds.
GivenÂ Mazda’s track record, anÂ exterior upgrade of the CX-9Â wasÂ expected, but its interiorÂ transformation wasn’t on my radar. The CX-3, CX-5 and other Mazda models are far from low-rent, but neither are they best in class. The CX-9 is different and hopefully signals a new direction for the artist formerly known as Zoom-Zoom.
ItsÂ two-tier dashboard, found in Grand Touring and Signature trims (the only two we could test), isÂ made ofÂ soft touch materials. You’ll find real wood and aluminum inÂ the Signature trim. The dash-mounted infotainment screen growsÂ to 8 inches forÂ half the offered trims, and looks more at home in such a large crossover. Also more at home: an actual heads-up display that ditches the “jet inspired” flip-up plastic pieceÂ seen in other Mazdas. The new HUD is full color and enormous, easily rivaling BMW’s latest.
The CX-9 falls on the large end of the spectrum with over 115 inches of combined legroom. That puts the Mazda ahead of the Chevy Traverse and Buick Enclave, but behind the externallyÂ smaller Honda Pilot. You can thank the CX-9’s long hood for itsÂ deceiving proportions.Â Still, the second row is one of the segment’s most generous.
Going back to the third row, the complaint isn’t legroom, butÂ headroom. You’ll find one to two more inches of rear height in the Pathfinder or Pilot. This makes the CX-9 comfortable for a gaggle of children on long trips, but notÂ so for adults who pull the short straw.
Up front, most CX-9 trims come equipped withÂ an eight-way power driver’s seat with two-way power lumbar support. Unfortunately, this is where adjustability for the driver seat stops. You won’t find four-way lumbar at any price, or extending thigh cushions like you do inÂ luxury competitorsÂ â€” or even the Kia Sorento. The CX-9’s passenger seat is similarly limited, lacking even lumbar support andÂ the rangeÂ of motion featured in the driver seat.
The cargo area is where you see the biggest trade-off for the long hood. You can fit 14.4 cubic feet of widgets in the cargo hold with the third row in place, or 38.2 cubic feet with the third row folded. That’s more than offered byÂ the Highlander, Sorento or MDX, but notably less thanÂ the Traverse and Enclave.
With the new CX-9, Mazda has become an all-four-cylinder company and finally cut its engine ties with Ford. The new 2.5-liter engine features direct injection, variable valve timing, and a turbocharger with selectable nozzles. In a nutshell, the exhaust flows to the turbine through three smaller diameter ports at low revs, while three larger ports are added at higher revs. The combination allows for 250 horsepower withÂ premium gasoline or 227 ponies on regular, and a whopping 310 lbs-ft of twist.
Mazda loves high-compression engines. Although the engineers had to dial the compression back to 10.5:1 to turbocharge the 2.5-liter mill,Â high compression and high boost (17.4 psi) are an unusual combination in a mass market vehicle tuned to run safely on regular unleaded. Mazda manages this with a front-mounted intercooler and an expensive EGR cooler to produceÂ a diesel-like torque and horsepower curve.
Yep, the unusual thing about Mazda’s new SkyActiv engine is that all 310 lbs-ft of torque arrives at 2,000 rpm, and about 275 lbs-ft are available at just 1,500 rpm. That’s 1,000 rpmÂ lower than the same 310 lbs-ft producedÂ by the 2.3-liter Ecoboost engine in the new Explorer. Because of the way Mazda has tuned the engine, torque drops below 250 lbs-ft by 4,500 rpm and drops rapidly after 5,000 rpm. Meanwhile, Ford’s turbo keeps blowing 250 lbs-ft until around 5,750 rpm, and tapers off slowlyÂ beyondÂ that.
Channeling the power to the ground is a standard six-speed automatic with available all-wheel drive. In order to improve fuel economy, the transmission’s torque converter spendsÂ the majority of itsÂ time in lockup, making the CX-9 feel more like a car with a dual-clutch transmission. Mazda’s EPA numbers are tops in this segment, excluding hybrids, at 22/28/25 miles per gallonÂ (city/highway/combined) in front-wheel-drive trim and 21/27/23 mpg when equipped with all-wheel drive.
The diesel-like torque curve is immediately noticeableÂ on the road. Mazda’s multi-port turbo doesn’tÂ eliminate lag, but it bluntsÂ it severely. From a stop, torque comes on hard and fastÂ for aggressive launches. However, this is still a gasoline engine with a 6,300 rpmÂ redline. The redline, combined with the torque fall off over 4,500 rpm, is the exact opposite of most small turbos, whichÂ have a lull at low revsÂ followed by a meaty powerband. The net result is acceleration on par with theÂ 2.3-liter turbo in the Explorer at 7.97 seconds 0-60 (TTAC tested), but the feel of that acceleration isÂ quite different.
On the down side, Mazda’s decision to make the 250/227 horsepower engine the sole powerplant means the CX-9 can’t compete with certain V6 entries. The Honda Pilot, Acura MDX or Dodge Durango will all be significantly faster in freeway merge or passing situations.
Also different is the way the CX-9 handles. Toss the 4,300-pound crossover into a corner and the chassis is surprisingly well balanced considering itsÂ transverse engineÂ architecture, though it doesn’t feel as nimble as the Dodge Durango V6. The light engine design helps keep the CX-9 from feeling heavy up front like a Pathfinder or Traverse,Â and the standard 255 width tires deliver impressive grip even in base models. Mazda’s suspension design allows a hair of feedback from the front tires, but the massive low-end torque in front-wheel-drive trim can disrupt the experience. Thankfully, checking the all-wheel-driveÂ option box eliminates such worries.
Thanks to a well-designed suspension, the CX-9’s ride is far from punishing. In fact, the CX-9 is actually more compliant than near luxury options like the MDX. Body roll and tip/dive are well controlled despite itsÂ more supple springs andÂ givesÂ the CX-9 both excellent corner carving ability for a 4,300-pound crossover and excellent highway ride. Also massively improved for 2016 is cabin noise, long a sore point for Mazda owners.
Mazda’s incentives are much thinner on the ground than the American competition, but Mazda has priced the CX-9 aggressively despite that. Starting at $32,420 (after a $900 destination charge), the Mazda is less than a base Highlander V6. Although the Pilot, Explorer, and Traverse all undercut the base CX-9, the Mazda comes with a ton of standard equipment â€”Â LED headlamps, 18-inch alloy wheels, 255-width tires, three-zone auto climate control, a 7-inch LCD infotainment system, smartphone app integration and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Factoring in the value of the standard feature set, the Mazda ends up being within $100 of a base Honda, Ford, Chevy or Nissan. Of course, the Traverse is likely to have the most cash on the hood by the time you get to the dealer, but the CX-9 still ends up a better value in my calculations.
With excellent handling, a spacious and well put together interior, best looks in the segment and more standard features than the competition, the CX-9 looks like an excellent buy. The only real fly in the ointment is itsÂ engine. Mazda is quite correct that the engine’s torque curve is very drivable, it’s just not as powerful as the competition â€” and it shows. This isn’t too much an issue for the base CX-9, but the top-end Signature trim that Mazda aims atÂ theÂ MDX, QX60 andÂ Enclave. The MDX is nearly two seconds faster to 60 than the Mazda and delivers a more refinedÂ engine note in the process.
Mazda is likely to have a hit with theÂ excellent handling, sharp-looking and reasonably priced CX-9. When it comes to the new Signature model, as much as I would rather own a CX-9 than an MDX, I mustÂ admit that the traditional values of comfy seats and thrust are likely to outweigh the comparatively low price tag on the Mazda.
Let’s hope a Mazdaspeed CX-9 is in the works.
Specifications as tested
0-30 mph: 3.15 seconds
0-60 mph: 7.97 seconds