Mazda's biggest crossover gets a stunning makeover wrapped around a new chassis and an all-new turbo four.
Quick steering, agile handling
Infotainment system controls
Third row leg room
2016 Mazda CX-9
The last of Mazda's models to receive the KODO design treatment, the CX-9 first came on the scene as a 2007 model, sharing its CD3 platform with then-partner Ford's Edge and Fusion models. A couple of refreshes in 2010 and 2013 kept it relevant, but after eight years Mazda's three-row crossover was long overdue for a makeover.
The good news: it was worth the wait.
Outside, not a single body panel is carried over from the outgoing model. It starts up front with the biggest rendition yet of Mazda's signature 5-point grill that juts out from the fascia containing large, double, horizontal bars. The body features crisp, sculpted lines, while either 18- or 20-inch wheels fill the wheel housings.
Compared to the outgoing model, the hood is longer, the overhangs are shorter, overall length has been reduced by 1.2 inches and the wheelbase is longer by 2.2 inches.
LED headlights and taillights are standard, while Grand Touring and above trims also get adaptive front lighting and LED fog lights.
The interior has also been completely redesigned with a single piece of brushed aluminum running the width of the dashboard. Finely-grained surfaces are all soft to the touch, the firm, supportive seats are covered in soft leather and, on the top-line Signature model, rosewood sourced from premium guitar-maker Fujigen trims the center console and dash.
Center console changes include adding soft touch trim along the sides, while the manual parking brake lever has been axed and replaced by an electrical parking brake switch. The CX-9 also comes with the Mazda Connect infotainment system that includes either a 7- or an 8-inch touchscreen along with a console-mounted panel that contains dial/push knob with music, home, navigation, back and star buttons as well as a smaller radio volume/on/off knob next to it.
It works well enough, but, like other menu-based systems, lacks the simplicity of an old-fashioned manual button-based system. The console also houses a "Sport" mode rocker switch that, when engaged, will increase vehicle acceleration response for a given position of the accelerator pedal.
The various gauges and knobs are clear and easy to read as well as intuitive. A particularly nice touch on Grand Touring models and above is a new 4.6-inch color TFT screen in the gauge cluster that relays fuel level, outside temperature, odometer, trip computer compass and instant fuel economy readings.
Although there's plenty of room up front and in the middle row, the third row is really only comfortable for children. Something else to consider: while access to the "way back" row is easy, when it's in use you're faced with just 14.4 cubic feet of storage behind it. When folded, those seats continue to take up cargo space, although it does expand to 38.2 cubic feet.
The CX-9 has a commendably high ride height, which means you have a great view of traffic ahead and the sides, although the A-pillars aren’t all that narrow. The view out the rear three-quarters is helped by a small window between the C- and D-pillars, although the D-pillar, itself, is fairly wide. The view out the back isn’t helped by the smallish rear window, but all trims get a standard rear view camera.
Under the hood
There's only one engine and transmission combination offered in the CX-9, but both are new.
The engine is a 2.5-liter engine with Dynamic Pressure Turbo technology that allows for a quicker response below 1,500 rpm than a twin-scroll turbocharger. The engine delivers a maximum 250 horsepower on 93-octane gasoline (227 horsepower on 87-octane gasoline) and 310 lb.-ft. of torque.
Fuel economy is another one of the high points and it's certainly not something you’d expect in an SUV that’s this much fun to toss around. The EPA rates the CX-5 at 21/27/23 city/highway/combined mpg. Around town, we consistently saw 22 mpg, while highway fuel economy averaged 28 miles per gallon.
On the road
A lighter chassis, excellent throttle response, great feedback through the steering wheel and brake pedal with a nice initial bite to the brake pads are only a few of the attributes that make the new CX-9 the best handling vehicle in its class. You also shouldn't be put off by the fact that there's only an inline-4 under the hood. More importantly, its 310 lb.-ft. of maximum torque is available at a very usable 2,000 rpm which means power is available nearly instantly.
The CX-9 also tracks nicely down the road and suspension compliance is excellent with body lean being well controlled through the corners. The ride is firm, but not at all jittery – not an easy thing to accomplish in a vehicle with this profile.
Braking is also uniformly excellent. There's a nice initial bite to the pads with plenty of feedback to the driver and it's easy to modulate the brake pedal.
On the expressway, the CX-5 exhibits the same excellent handling characteristics as it does in around-town driving. It tracks straight down the highway and is unaffected by grooved pavement or crosswinds.
According to Mazda, in redesigning the new CX-9 it added 53 additional pounds of sound deadening material under the carpet along with acoustical windshield and front window glass and a thicker floorpan. We found the level of noise entering the cabin to be much lower than its predecessor. In around town driving and at highway speeds only a slight amount of wind and road noise can be heard in the cabin. Mazda notes that at 62 mph, interior noise levels are down by 12 percent and road noise levels have been reduced by 2.0 decibels.
If you live in the northern tier of states and when ordered with all-wheel-drive, the CX-9 should prove to be excellent when the snow begins to fly. Its i-ACTIV AWD system monitors 27 separate factors at over 200 times per second and can account for wheel slip by directing up to 50 percent of the engine's power to the rear wheels in all conditions including wet, dry and icy. Slap on a set of winter tires and, voilà! You'll have yourself a true winter warrior.
2016 Mazda CX-9 prices
2016 Mazda CX-9 pricing starts out at $32,420 for the FWD Sport trim that comes with such driver-oriented features as alloy wheels, push-button start and an intermittent rear window wiper. But the price can rise to over $46,000 for an accessorized Signature AWD model.
Our Grand Touring AWD tester has a base price of $41,970. The only option it came with was a $300 Soul Red paint job that brought its MSRP, including a $900 delivery, processing and handling fee, to $43,170.
The Bottom Line
Like the rest of the Mazda crossover lineup we are thoroughly impressed by the new CX-9. Unlike most midsize crossovers, it’s actually fun to drive. It has more than adequate power, excellent brakes and there's plenty of feedback through the steering wheel. It also has a ride that’s both firm and well-controlled and an interior that can match up with most luxury marques.
But all is not perfect as, on the flip side, rear visibility is mediocre, at best; the infotainment system is more complex than it needs to be, while third row leg room is below par for a vehicle in this class.
Having said all that, however, the latest Mazda CX-9 would be our choice in the midsize crossover segment. Buyers looking for a vehicle that offers agile handling coupled with very good fuel economy will find it a joy to own and should put it at the top of their shopping lists.