2016 Mazda CX-9 first drive: Worth the wait

Gallery: 2016 Mazda CX-9 Photo 6

All-new CX-9 is another homerun for Mazda

Mazda has an incredible talent for injecting athleticism into every vehicle it makes. It’s a consistency that starts with the company’s smallest hatch and runs all the way through to the largest crossover. Heck, Mazda could probably make a Conestoga wagon feel sporty if it wanted to. And one of the best examples of that know-how came in 2006 when the company launched its first three-row crossover, the CX-9.

The original CX-9 was a roomy seven-passenger family hauler that was actually fun to throw into a set of switchbacks. It made everyone else’s three-row crossover seem a little dull by comparison. However, 10 years is a long time to wait for a replacement. Last year the company moved a little over 18,000 CX-9s down from a high of almost 35,000 back in 2011. The CX-9 needed an update.

“From a corporate priority, it just got stacked up last to be redesigned,” says Mazda senior vice president of U.S. operations Robert Davis. “And I think it also suffered from being such a great car to begin with, so it was the one that could wait the longest.”

After spending some time winding our way from San Francisco to Bodega Bay in the second generation CX-9, we can say this new one was worth waiting for.

“We have a bundled planning philosophy,” says Davis. “So we try to share as many components as we can throughout the whole Mazda family—this car shares a lot of elements with CX-5 and Mazda 6.”

Indeed, if you were to flip the CX-9 upside down, Davis says you’d certainly see similarities with other Mazda cars in the way parts are connected to the chassis. However, for use in the big CX-9, many of those parts have been scaled up and strengthened. The philosophy clearly works well for weight savings. Front-drive CX-9s have lost around 200 pounds over the old model, yet they’re about the same size. The wheelbase has been stretched by 2.2 inches but engineers shaved 1.2 inches from the overall length. Better still, they’ve cut more than 2 inches of overhang from both the nose and tail. Viewed in profile, it’s clear that the A-pillars are moved back further on this new model. It not only makes the CX-9 look more athletic but it draws attention to the longer hood, beneath which is the big news.

CX-9 image 1

Many of Mazda’s competitors in this three-row class still use a V6. But for 2016, Mazda ditched the six-shooter for a turbocharged four-cylinder.

Ford really paved the way for us with its Ecoboost products. They really got the world to think about four cylinder turbos a little differently,” says Davis. “So this engine isn’t tuned for a Mazdaspeed3—it’s tuned for a crossover.”

Mazda’s new turbocharged Skyactiv-G 2.5-liter four is 132 pounds lighter than the old V6. Perhaps more impressive is that it has been designed to deliver a healthy 310 lb-ft of torque way down at 2,000 rpm. That’s 40 lb-ft of torque more than the old V6. And Mazda says three-row crossover drivers appreciate a healthy serving of low-end torque much more than they do horsepower made high in the rpm range. So peak horsepower, Mazda reckons, is perhaps less important. The new four-cylinder makes 227 hp (250 hp on premium) at 5,000 rpm. If you’re counting, that’s 23 fewer hp than the old V6.

The ability to deliver a torquey punch so low in the rev range comes in part from the new Dynamic Pressure Turbo. The system can route the exhaust gas heading to the turbo through smaller ports at a lower rpm to increase boost pressure and torque. Mazda vehicle development engineer Dave Coleman says the idea is similar to holding your finger over the nozzle of a garden hose to increase water pressure. Mazda says at engine speeds below 1,500 rpm, it has 20-25 percent quicker response with this system than with a twin-scroll turbo. A new “4-3-1” exhaust manifold has been engineered to more effectively scavenge gasses from the exhaust ports. The engine also uses a cooled exhaust gas recirculation valve, which Mazda says reduces the need for injecting additional fuel at higher engine temperatures. That translates into improved fuel economy. Front drive models can hit an impressive 28 mpg on the highway.

The turbocharged four-cylinder is mated to a six-speed automatic. Many of Mazda’s competitors have moved to eight, nine and even 10-speed transmissions. It’s a major powertrain trend, so why not develop a new transmission with more gears?

“That six speed is basically the same transmission we use in a light, medium and heavy applications. So it’s one less variable that we’ve all got to work around,” says Davis. “And our torque convertor is locked up so much of the time, it takes the efficiency out of adding more gears.”

The six-speed may be old news but the all-wheel-drive system (an $1,800 option) is new and weighs 57 pounds less than the old one. More importantly, it’s way is smarter, analyzing 27 channels of data (up from 10 in the old CX-9) 200 times every second to anticipate the need for increased traction, according to Mazda. The CX-9’s system is mainly geared toward foul-weather travel. But the system can sense when the CX-9 is driven harder than usual and will send as much as 50 percent of the available torque to the rear wheels to help eliminate understeer.

CX-9 image 2

WHAT’S IT LIKE TO DRIVE?

Lean on the throttle just a little, and the turbo four delivers lots of torque — right away. On the streets of San Francisco we could scoot through traffic without much effort and on longer freeway stretches, there’s plenty of thrust in the midrange. In many scenarios, the boosted four feels like a six.

The old CX-9’s suspension was firm, perhaps a little too firm over bigger bumps. And no matter the road surface, it was noisier than its competition. Not so with this new one. The floor is thicker — better to damp out road noise — and encapsulates more than 50 pounds of sound deadening material. The windows are also thicker and the door seals are designed to do their job better. The result is a much quieter CX-9 overall. Mazda says it’s 12 percent quieter at 60 mph. Around town, the ride is certainly firm but without jarring and jostling passengers over the big potholes. That’s impressive considering our CX-9 Signature was wearing the largest 20-inch wheels and tires.

On the freeway, the CX-9 is smooth-riding and hushed. The flagship Signature model we drove is loaded with tech like radar cruise control, blind-spot monitoring and a new lane-keeping assist feature. Here on the 101 North, it intervenes more subtly than most systems with gentle nudges on the wheel. It also recognizes when you’re driving hard on a backroad and won’t shut down the fun when you point the Mazda’s nose toward the apex. Signature models come standard with Mazda’s new heads-up display. It projects directly onto the windshield and not only provides speedometer information but also road speed limit as well as navigation directions.

On the very tight and twisty roads in Sonoma County, the CX-9 felt just as taut, agile and fun as we remember the old one — but with a blanket of refinement over it. Press the Sport button and the six-speed anticipates the gears you’ll need so well, it’s easy to get into a rhythm in this crossover connecting the curves. You can really push this CX-9 hard without it ever really feeling like a big three-row crossover. However, don’t expect much from this engine at higher rpm. This turbo four does not reward you with a rush of horsepower at the top of the tach. But really, how many CX-9s will spend their life at that end of the rev range? Most of the time, we’d rather have the diesel-like torque down low.

The CX-9’s interior is surprisingly elegant. Replace the badge on the steering wheel and this Signature model could almost stand in for a luxury crossover. Mazda uses Rosewood panels with such a thin coat of lacquer you can feel the graining. There’s real aluminum trim as well as soft Nappa leather padding everywhere in this cabin. Mazda’s Davis says we can expect even more luxurious versions of the CX-9 Signature in the future.

The second row slides and reclines, so our 6-foot frame had plenty of legroom. However, the third row feels tighter than the last CX-9 we tested. Legroom back there is reduced by almost 3 inches, so we were unable to crouch down enough to keep our head from grazing the roof. And that’s too bad, because the CX-9 always had a roomy third row. Mazda did engineer the second row to slide forward and provide access to that third row, even when a child seat is in place — and that’s something families will appreciate.

CX-9 image 3

DO I WANT IT?

Yes, you most certainly do. It’s easy for vehicles in their second-generation to lose some of the magic that made the original ones so special. This is not one of those cars. Yes, it has lost some space in the way back. But the CX-9’s combination of stylish sheetmetal, athleticism, technology and posh interior (at least on the Signature model) place it very close to the front of the three-row crossover pack. And at just under $45,000 for the top models, it’s a good deal, too.

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