First, I’ll admit that – as a grandparent – I get it. With the birth of our first grandchild, Rhys (I tell myself he was named for Rhys Millen, the very fast Rhys Millen), the benefits of a 3-row SUV were suddenly clearly apparent, something that – even with the help of LensCrafters – I hadn’t been able to see previously. You have the child seat, you have the normal number of adults and suddenly, while trying to fit all of THAT in a conventional 2-row whatever, you’re essentially out of room. So…I get it. And since its introduction in 2006 I have gotten Mazda’s CX-9. In the somewhat dismal inventory (at least for enthusiasts) of 3-row crossovers in these United States, the CX-9 stood out from the Highlanders, Enclaves and Pilots for hitting the sweetspot in perceived size and sporty pretension. We not only liked Mazda’s long-running CX-9; given the right circumstances (like income…) we might have actually bought it.
That, of course, was then. And in the summer of 2016 the all-new CX-9 is ‘now’. As a descriptive ‘all new’ is tossed around liberally, since many members of the automotive press are typically disinclined to do a fact check. We’ve checked, and from its platform to its drivetrain to its sheetmetal the new CX-9 is as all-new as you’ll typically find in a dealership showroom. With Mazda’s engineers referencing the SKYACTIV manual for guidance in creating a light, rigid structure, they could then propel that structure with a smaller – albeit responsive – turbocharged four to replace the previous iteration’s 3.3 liter V6. Enclose it in the extra-large variant of Mazda’s KODO design language, and we have – ladies and gentlemen – a winner. Or – at the very least – it’s a winner for those fans of 3-row crossovers. We’ll begin on the outside…
EXTERIOR: I believe I first saw the new CX-9 in its halo color, Machine Gray. A color formulated to, as Mazda describes it, make the CX-9 look “as though it were carved from a single ingot of steel,” the color absolutely nails the contours and proportions of this CUV. Perhaps deceptively, not only are the sheetmetal’s contours that much more dramatic, but they also seem tighter. Our test vehicle, however, was finished in Mazda’s Soul Red Metallic, and while attractive, it doesn’t ring the subjective chord that Machine Gray rings. Again, none of this is objective, but I know I could embrace the Machine before I would warm to the Soul.
And this: While topping up the tank at a 7-11, a woman with a recently purchased BMW X6 began to rave about the CX-9. And if that’s not a world turned upside down (like Trump running for President…), I don’t know what is.
INTERIOR: Mazda offers four trim levels – Sport, Touring, Grand Touring and Signature. Our press vehicle was an all-wheel drive-equipped Grand Touring, just one stop short of the Signature spec. If your banker agrees (our Grand Touring AWD was $42K plus destination, while the Signature is $44K plus destination), the Signature trim is the one to grab, in that it comes standard with Auburn-colored Nappa leather, rosewood accents (supplied by Japanese guitar marker Fujigen), and LED accents. In what we’ve seen of the lineup, plastics and – where applicable – leather are uniformly upscale, but it is the Signature that sets the CX-9 apart from the Highlanders and Traverses of the carpooling world; the visual dynamics might even impress your 12-year old, if – of course – he or she were to look up from the iPad.
We were also taken by the front seats. For the first time in a Mazda, low-rebound high-damping urethane (still with me?) is used in both the front seat backs and seat cushions. The intent is to supply the driver and front passenger with an appropriate amount of road feedback, without so much feedback as to be punishing. And we were amazed at how small these seats made the CX-9 feel while still providing a generous proportion for, uh, generous proportions. Along with great front seats is a very generous second row with fore-and-aft adjustability. And behind that is a 2-person pad fine for anyone under 5’5”.
Behind the third row – when raised – is enough luggage space for a long weekend, assuming that four of your six passengers are nudists. Like most crossovers or SUVs equipped with three rows, a long vacation by a family of six will typically require a roof rack or FedEx Ground. Or both.
UNDER THE HOOD: The previous CX-9 came with a wholly capable 3.3 liter V6, offering 273 horsepower and 270 lb-ft of torque. It wasn’t sexy, but certainly met our expectations when accelerating to freeway speeds or sustaining those speeds for long periods of time. In short, we liked it. The new CX-9 turns the page, offering Mazda’s first application of a turbo on its 2.5 liter DOHC four. This doesn’t make this new CX-9 a MazdaSpeed CX-9, but would certainly make it a great airport wagon for a group of Mazda Cup racers.
Opting for a turbocharged four to supplant a normally aspirated six is clearly the order of the day or, for that matter, decade. BMW supplies the equivalent of a 2.8 liter six via its turbocharged 2.0 liter four, while Ford gives its EcoBoost V6 the horsepower of a V8 and the torque of a small train. In short, the benefits are obvious, the attendant complexity perhaps less so.
Here we get a 2.5 liter inline four – shared in normally aspirated form with the CX-5, Mazda3 and Mazda6 – with turbocharged induction, 227 horsepower on regular unleaded (250 on premium!) and 310 lb-ft of torque. That, friends, is a bunch of torque, and ups the CX-9’s towing capability from 2,000 pounds to 3,500 pounds. Delivering that power to either the front wheels or all wheels through a 6-speed automatic, we liked its responsiveness in normal driving, and liked it very much when the ‘sport’ button is engaged. In the sport mode throttle tip-in seems more immediate, and the somewhat large platform suddenly seems smaller. This powertrain works splendidly within the CX-9 – and would absolutely rock if installed in a Mazda6.
While – as mentioned – we get the benefits of three rows, we wish Mazda built a CUV where the third row was truly occasional, perhaps one with no provision for luggage if that third row is raised. Despite its age, Hyundai’s Santa Fe is attractive for this reason, as is Kia’s redesigned Sorento. A revived CX-7 would also be attractive, beyond filling the obvious numerical gap between the compact CX-5 and the new CX-9.
With that, the Mazda menu is even more compelling. And with this 2nd iteration of the CX-9 we think Mazda has a winner…a big winner.