2016 Mazda CX-9 First Drive Review - Three Rows of Zoom-Zoom

Alex L. Dykes
by Alex L. Dykes

When Mazda initially launched the CX-9, it aimed the crossover firmly at American buyers — 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, built on an older platform shared with Ford.

For 2016, Mazda completely redesigned its large, three-row crossover with an eye on improving dynamics, efficiency and giving the brand a near-luxury alternative. Yep, Mazda believes its new Signature trim — featuring such adornments as heads-up display, Nappa leather, and real wood trim — is an 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’t 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 its new nose isn’t just a 12/10ths rendition of the CX-3; the side profile highlights a more pronounced overbite and everything else is sharper and more dramatic.

Dominating the design is the CX-9’s long, flat hood. Parallels to the Volvo XC90 come to mind as 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 shortened the CX-9’s overall length by 1.5 inches and reduced its curb weight by nearly 200 pounds.

Given Mazda’s track record, an exterior upgrade of the CX-9 was expected, but its interior 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.

Its two-tier dashboard, found in Grand Touring and Signature trims (the only two we could test), is made of soft touch materials. You’ll find real wood and aluminum in the Signature trim. The dash-mounted infotainment screen grows to 8 inches for 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 piece 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 externally smaller Honda Pilot. You can thank the CX-9’s long hood for its deceiving proportions. Still, the second row is one of the segment’s most generous.

Going back to the third row, the complaint isn’t legroom, but 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 not so for adults who pull the short straw.

Up front, most CX-9 trims come equipped with 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 in luxury competitors — or even the Kia Sorento. The CX-9’s passenger seat is similarly limited, lacking even lumbar support and the range 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 by the Highlander, Sorento or MDX, but notably less than 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 with 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, 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 produce 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 rpm lower than the same 310 lbs-ft produced 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 slowly beyond 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 spends the majority of its 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 gallon (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 noticeable on the road. Mazda’s multi-port turbo doesn’t eliminate lag, but it blunts it severely. From a stop, torque comes on hard and fast for aggressive launches. However, this is still a gasoline engine with a 6,300 rpm redline. The redline, combined with the torque fall off over 4,500 rpm, is the exact opposite of most small turbos, which have a lull at low revs followed by a meaty powerband. The net result is acceleration on par with the 2.3-liter turbo in the Explorer at 7.97 seconds 0-60 (TTAC tested), but the feel of that acceleration is 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 its transverse engine 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, 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-drive 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 its more supple springs and gives 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 — 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 its engine. Mazda is quite correct that the engine’s torque curve is very drivable, it’s just not as powerful as the competition — and it shows. This isn’t too much an issue for the base CX-9, but the top-end Signature trim that Mazda aims at the MDX, QX60 and Enclave. The MDX is nearly two seconds faster to 60 than the Mazda and delivers a more refined engine note in the process.

Mazda is likely to have a hit with the 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 must 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

Alex L. Dykes
Alex L. Dykes

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  • Lot9 Lot9 on Jun 02, 2016

    Mazda lost it mojo long ago. Tried them and would not buy one. This review confirms my decision, still today.

  • Chocolatedeath Chocolatedeath on Jun 09, 2016

    I love the look inside and out. Sadly as a current CX9 owner I am disappointed about the reduction in engine and overall size. It seems to be they could have just bought Hondas V6 and tranny. Also I didnt want a smaller CX9 I wanted one that was Pilot sized. No I dont want a Pilot> I have driven one of the new ones and it only drives a little better than the old one.

  • Cprescott This is what happens when you are an early adopter. You are a test subject. Why do Toyoduh (and Honduh) owners feel so entitled?
  • Kosmo Love it. Can I get one with something other than Subaru's flat four?
  • M B When the NorthStar happened, it was a part of GM's "rebuilding" of the Cadillac brand. Money to finance it was shuffled from Oldsmobile, which resulted in Olds having to only facelift its products, which BEGAN its slide down the mountain. Olds stagnated in product and appearances.First time I looked at the GM Parts illustration of a NorthStar V-8, I was impressed AND immediately saw the many things that were expensive, costly to produce, and could have been done less expensively. I saw it as an expensive disaster getting ready to happen. Way too much over-kill for the typical Cadillac owner of the time.Even so, there were a few areas where cost-cutting seemed to exist. The production gasket/seal between the main bearing plate and the block was not substantial enough to prevent seeps. At the time, about $1500.00 to fix.In many ways, the NS engine was designed to make far more power than it did. I ran across an article on a man who was building kits to put the NS in Chevy S-10 pickups. With his home-built 4bbl intake and a 600cfm Holley 4bbl, suddenly . . . 400 horsepower resulted. Seems the low hood line resulted in manifolding compromises which decreased the production power levels.GM was seeking to out-do its foreign competitors with the NS design and execution. In many ways they did, just that FEW people noticed.
  • Redapple2 Do Hybrids and be done with it.
  • Redapple2 Panamera = road porn.