2016 Mazda CX-9 Review

Mazda has spent years carving out a niche as a purveyor of fun-to-drive cars, and they’ve been very successful—we can’t recall a Mazda we haven’t enjoyed driving. But nothing in the auto biz ever stays the same, so now Mazda wants to be known for cars that are fun-to-drive and luxurious. How’s that going to work out for them?

If our first drive of the new Mazda CX-9 is any indication, it’s going to work out just fine.

We’ll cut to the chase and tell you that the new CX-9 is a Mazda through-and-through. This is the first iteration of Mazda’s big three-row SUV to be designed entirely in-house (while the previous generation CX-9 was co-created with Mazda’s former owner, Ford), something you can tell from the minute you hit the road. With a Skyactiv turbocharged engine under the hood and a Mazda-designed chassis under the driver’s butt, the CX-9 does what Mazdas do best: It comes alive on a curvy road. The engine delivers strong mid-range punch, the steering is precise and reasonably communicative, while the wheels seem determined to maintain their grip on the pavement no matter what the driver does.

During our press presentation, Mazda went to great detail—perhaps too much detail—about the studies they have done to see how humans react to movement. When you walk, your head bounces around like a basketball but your brain subconsciously filters all of that extraneous motion so all you sense is smooth travel. Mazda told us they engineer their suspensions to trigger those same subconscious senses. (At least, we think that’s what they told us; in retrospect it’s all a bit of a blur.) All we know is that if you happen to find yourself on a curvy road, you can drive this family-friendly SUV in a very un-family-friendly way without the adverse results (nauseous tummies, screaming passengers, close encounters with roadside shrubbery) one might expect.

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Three Rows With Style

But before you can drive the Mazda CX-9, you must look at it and that in itself is a unique pleasure. Design-wise, this is an unmitigated success: The 2016 CX-9 is an all-new vehicle, yet its resemblance to other Mazdas is so close that it looks instantly familiar. The upright grille juts out a little further and the creases at the back are a bit sharper, an evolution of the design language that graces other Mazda models. The proportions are perfect, the adornment restrained. It just looks right.

Much the same can be said of the interior. The cabin is a huge leap forward compared to other Mazdas. The example we drove had a dash upholstered in brown leather to match the seats, with a swath of real aluminum surrounding the vents that splits the upper and lower sections of the dash. The center console, raised high above the floor to give the CX-9 a more car-like feel, was surrounded in open-grain wood trim. Settling in behind the wheel, it was hard not to think of Audi’s latest interiors. (Had Mazda glued a map onto the instrument panel, we might have been fooled.) The controls are so sensibly laid out that we felt that same sense of instant familiarity triggered by the exterior.

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Bear in mind that we were sampling the new top-of-the-line Signature trim; Mazda also supplied a few Grand Touring versions (called GT in Canada), which feature piano-black trim in place of wood. We’ve yet to see the Sport (GS) and Touring (GS-L) interiors, but our experience with other Mazdas of late gives us hope that they will be just as attractive, if not quite as opulent.

Adequate Interior Space

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In terms of interior space, the CX-9 is just okay. The second row seats feel comfortable, although not especially generous when compared to some of the CX-9’s competitors. The third row is what you’d expect: A temporary perch best suited to small children. Access to the third row is decent, but second row occupants must slide their seat forward and give up some legroom in order to make the third row humane. If you regularly use that third row—and surveys show that most three-row-SUV owners don’t—you’ll be better served by a larger vehicle like the Honda Pilot or Ford Explorer.

See Also: 2016 Honda Pilot vs Ford Explorer

The best use of the third row may be to fold it down, easily done thanks to big levers located in the seat backs. With the third row stowed, the CX-9 offers 38.2 cubic feet of space, although the floor, slopes upward slightly towards the front of the car. With the third row seats in place, you have 14.4 cubic feet of space, enough for a thorough grocery run.

New Turbo Engine

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This being a Mazda, there’s good geeky tech to be found under the hood. The exclusive engine is a 2.5 liter turbocharged four-cylinder driving a six-speed automatic transmission, with the buyer’s choice of front- or all-wheel-drive. Mazda has used some nifty technological trickery to reduce turbo lag, including restricting exhaust flow out of the engine at low RPMs in order to increase the speed of exhaust hitting the turbocharger. Floor the accelerator from a stop—something the engineers warned us would not necessarily portray the engine in its best light—and the CX-9 moves off smartly, then really picks up its skirts as the turbo starts to do its thing. More importantly, the CX-9 can pick up speed on the highway without the need to downshift below 5th gear. However, power does trail off at higher RPMs, and that can make passing on a two-laner a bit disconcerting. The CX-9 leaps ahead, then seems to run out of steam for a brief tick before the transmission upshifts and drops the engine back down into its powerband.

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There’s good tech to be found elsewhere in the Mazda CX-9, including a full-color head-up display (projected onto the windshield rather than the flimsy plastic screen used in lesser Mazdas), blind spot warning, collision mitigation and avoidance, and a lane-departure system that vibrates the steering wheel as a warning (no beeping beepers or flashing lights to let your passengers know you weren’t paying attention) and then tries to gently nudge the car back into its lane. But it’s clear Mazda isn’t quite on the cutting edge as the adaptive cruise control system won’t bring the car to a full stop, and while the front seats are heated, they aren’t cooled.

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The Verdict: 2016 Mazda CX-9 Review

Overall, you can color us impressed by the new Mazda CX-9. Mazda has managed to imbue the CX-9 with a real sense of luxury while strengthening the design language, and yet they haven’t lost the trademark fun-to-drive factor that we’ve come to expect (and love). If this is the new direction for Mazda, we can’t wait to see what’s next.