Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2016 Mazda CX-9

Vernon, British Columbia–Following a beautiful day of driving the meandering roads around Vernon, BC in an all-new CX-9, a few peers and I stood around with Mazda Canada’s Product Strategy and Development Manager Mark Peyman and scratched our heads over what it’ll take to finally get the masses to notice Mazda. Ultra-popular Mazda3 notwithstanding, Mazda’s dealerships tend to draw far less traffic than the sales-leading competitors.

The 2016 Mazda CX-9 represents a triumphant leapfrog not only past the outgoing model, but beyond the competitors in many key areas.

The Mazda Kodo design language across the brand is handsome, the products represent good value and quality, and more so than any of the direct competitors, these are machines that always engage the driver. Plus, with seemingly endless praise (and awards) bestowed upon pretty much everything Mazda has introduced in the past few years, we auto writers are doing our part to spread the word about the worthiness of the Hiroshima company to earn spots in Canadian garages. And yet Canadians simply don’t buy as many Mazdas as they should.

So, as Peyman points out, with a vehicle like the new mid-size CX-9 crossover, they’re forced to offer up a luxury-level product at common-folks pricing, just to try to get noticed.

And noticed they should be for their new flagship offering since it represents a triumphant leapfrog not only past the outgoing model, but beyond the competitors in many key areas.

This new CX-9 is a better performer, more efficient, better equipped and more attractive than the model it replaces.

The CX-9 represents the final model to receive the current 6th-generation Mazda Kodo design language, and exterior design boss Ethan Song enthusiastically pointed out many proud features of the design. From its bold, upright grille to the sculpted, Japanese-blade-inspired three-dimensional chrome accent across the liftgate, the new SUV is well-proportioned and purposeful.

Compared to last year’s model, the wheelbase is stretched, but overall exterior dimensions are reduced, pushing the wheels to the outer corners. This, combined with careful attention to the arc of the pillars meeting the body and the 20-inch wheels on the upper trim vehicles, gives the CX-9 a much more aggressive and planted stance than before, and than most of its competitors.

We drove two different trim levels, a volume-leader GS-L (with niceties like leather seating, power moonroof, power liftgate, 8-inch screen and heated steering wheel), and a new top-trim “Signature” level. It became very clear Mazda is looking to pit the CX-9 against not only its traditional competitors, but also some premium products like Infiniti’s Q60 and the Acura RDX.

In-depth: Mazda CX-9’s Skyactiv Technology

Particularly in Signature grade, the design, fit and finish are all outstanding. Supple Nappa leather, real rosewood and aluminum trim, and an overall pleasing (and comfortable) design aesthetic create a cohesive – and comfortable – interior.

With a greater focus on design and style than some of Mazda’s class competitors, the CX-9 will never be top of the class for interior passenger or luggage space, nor does it have cavernous bins and cubbies strewn about the cabin. But it is still a sizable and comfortable machine that will seat up to seven passengers.

Second-row seating is spacious and comfortable. Curiously, even in top trim Mazda does not offer second-row captain's chairs as many of the competitors do. Third-row seating is comfortable, but the raked roofline does require passengers to be a little shorter-than-average to sit there comfortably.

Up front, driver and passenger are treated to supportive seating that’s heated but not cooled, even in top Signature trim models.

Every trim level comes with a dash-top screen, and while entry-level GS and GS-L SUVs won’t come standard with navigation, the SD card can be purchased as a standalone accessory from Mazda dealers. The Signature trim machine we drove featured an 8-inch screen operated by Mazda’s now-familiar console-mounted rotary knob. The system is quick to react and presents crisp graphics. Both GT and Signature trim vehicles provide entertainment through a 12-speaker Bose surround sound system that delivers clear sound and good bass.

Taking turns as a passenger, my driving companion and I both remarked how smoothly the CX-9 rides, before admitting the roads around Vernon are in uncommonly good condition. A drive down a rutted logging road showed that even when the pavement doesn’t resemble a billiard table, the CX-9’s suspension does a fine job of absorbing bumps. There was little difference in ride between the GS-L with 18-inch wheels versus the 20-inch wheels on the Signature.

Although Mazda’s i-ACTIV all-wheel drive system has been enhanced to provide proactive action at the slightest hint of wheel slip detected through the sensors (far sooner than any human would notice), the CX-9 is certainly no off-roader. Its ground clearance is minimal, and we were cautioned to tread carefully through some of the logging road ruts for fear of removing the front air dam.

Not only is the new Mazda a smooth character on the road, it’s very quiet too. Extensive weight reduction as part of the SKYACTIV treatment during the development of this new machine meant the engineers had permission to add in 24 kg of sound deadening material and insulation to help dramatically reduce noise and vibration in the cabin. Windshield and front side windows are double-layer acoustic glass to aid in the serenity. Make no mistake, the CX-9 is definitely luxury-car quiet now.

What makes that serenity even more impressive is that Mazda no longer offers a V6 in any CX-9. Every trim level of the new crossover beats to the heart of an all-new Skyactiv four-cylinder turbo engine displacing 2.5 litres. At first thought, this might seem a misstep, especially as Mazda plans to move the top-tier CX-9 into the premium SUV arena, but this engine is a remarkable bit of engineering.

Mazda’s engineers were far less concerned with numbers in a brochure than they were about developing a vehicle that meets or exceeds most SUV drivers’ needs in terms of performance and efficiency. Whereas many engines can be driven in unrealistic, optimal conditions to achieve impressive power and frugality, real-world driving usually results in considerably higher fuel consumption and high revving to get the promised power.

The CX-9’s Skyactiv-G 2.5T engine has been developed to deliver its torque – lots of it too, at 310 lb-ft – from 2,000 rpm, and ride a plateau of thrust to nearly 5,000 rpm. This is the sweet spot in which most drivers spend the vast majority of their time and it results in a CX-9 that feels lively and requires fewer downshifts making for a smoother and more rewarding driving experience.

Mazda achieved this sorcery through clever engineering and an industry-first Dynamic Pressure Turbo System that closes the primary exhaust port feeding the turbo and forces the exhaust gases through a smaller port. This increases the pressure, which in turn, spools the turbo up to 25% quicker than a competitive twin-scroll turbo set up.

That’s all fine and well for the promotional materials, but in driving up and down the twisty, hilly roads near Vernon, it proved to be the reality for the CX-9. This is a very good engine and despite being in an age of 7-, 8- and 9-speed transmissions becoming the norm, Mazda has stuck with a 6-speed automatic and seems no worse for it. There’s no constant up-and-down gear hunting that usually comes with the too-many-speed transmissions. It’s well matched for this engine.

There is no penalty at the gas pump either, since the CX-9 betters all its competitors in fuel efficiency (save for the Toyota Highlander Hybrid). Officially it’s rated at 11.2 L/100 km city and 8.8 L/100 km highway for all-wheel drive versions. FWD CX-9s ring in at 10.5 and 8.3, respectively. This represents a considerable improvement over the outgoing model.

Dimensionally, the CX-9 casts a smaller shadow than its previous self, and sheds 148 kg in AWD guise. With carefully tuned suspension settings, I found myself actually having fun hustling a seven-passenger family bus down twisty country roads. Sure, it’s not as nimble and frisky as a CX-3 or CX-5, but given its size, the CX-9 is an impressive handler and an engaging drive, in line with Mazda’s other offerings.

These days, active safety features are popping up in every new car release like so many mushrooms. Mazda infuses the CX-9 with its i-Activesense Safety suite that includes smart braking systems, dynamic cruise control, rear cross-traffic alert, high-beam control and – as a first for Mazda – lane-keeping assist. This last point is especially notable since competitive products were benchmarked and picked apart due to the way they all but eliminate the driver from the equation. Here, Mazda sought to make the system a last-resort helper in the event that the driver really starts to wander off-course and gently nudge the CX-9 back into place. This differs from competitive systems that constantly try to force the vehicle into the centre of the lane creating a needlessly busy – and artificial – steering feel.

The mid-size crossover SUV market is expected to continue to grow in Canada. Positioning this new – and very impressive – CX-9 to compete not only against the mainstream brands, but also several premium name competitors, should do well for Mazda in terms of bolstering sales and elevating the Hiroshima brand’s status amongst consumers. Mazda Canada hopes to move 2,000 CX-9s a year to begin, which seems a very reasonable target.

The 2016 Mazda CX-9 is available now at dealerships starting at $35,300 for a FWD GS model, and reaching to $50,100 for a Signature grade AWD model.