Mazda has finally produced a large SUV that has style, panache and the zoom-zoom factor that inhabits all Mazda vehicles and differentiates them from the herd. Until it introduced the second generation 2016 Mazda CX-9 SUV at the 2015 Los Angeles Auto Show, this model had been based on a Ford platform used in Mazda’s former partner’s Edge SUV and Fusion sedan. Now with its own bespoke front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive platforms, designed and produced at Hiroshima, Mazda’s gorgeous CX-9 instantly becomes a segment leader.
A flight to Chicago with a drive to and from Indianapolis was the perfect opportunity to sample this SUV, albeit for way too short a visit. Arriving mid-afternoon with the need to quickly make its way down the interstate, we became friends as the miles melted away on clear roads in early December. The Machine Gray CX-9 Signature All-Wheel-Drive (AWD) with its lush Auburn leather interior presents a classy, high-grade visage at first, fifth or 50th glance.
When the initial Mazda CX-9 came to market, it was propelled by a 3.7-liter V6 engine, but that Ford-based power mill has been supplanted by a far more modern Mazda-designed Skyactiv directly-injected 2.5-liter turbocharged and intercooled Miller-capable inline four-cylinder engine. It emits 250 horsepower at 5,000 rpm using premium fuel (227 using regular), with 310 lb-ft of torque at 2,000rpm, no matter the fuel used, getting the 4301-pound beast away from toll booths and onto the highway with aplomb. Redline is 6,300 rpm; CX-9 will tow 3,500 pounds.
An ultra-slick, shiftable six-speed automatic transmission with normal and sport shift modes has good gearing and allows the CX-9 to run at fairly low revs when traveling at high speeds. MacPherson struts and multilink suspensions, front and rear with stabilizer bars, keep the Mazda CX-9 firmly planted – as do all-weather P255/50R tires mounted on 20-inch, 10-spoke alloy rims. Exceptionally direct steering – as one would expect from a Mazda – is a power rack-and-pinion unit with variable, electronic power assist. Turning circle is a tidy 38.8 feet and only 3.1 turns, lock-to-lock, making for a very agile vehicle.
This nearly 200-inch-long SUV has a nice wheelbase of 115.3 inches and stands taller than I do at 69 inches! The 2016 Mazda CX-9 Signature edition has viable space for seven in three seating rows, boasting cargo space of 14.4 cubic feet with all seats occupied, 38.2 cubes with the third row flat and a whopping 71.2 cubic feet with only the front row of seats in use. With its 135.1 cubic feet of passenger volume, yet very low egress/ingress, it’s easy peasy to get into or out of the CX-9, which boasts a true proximity fob and pushbutton start/stop.
Once inside, what a delightful cabin Mazda has constructed for its class-leading CX-9 SUV! Soft-touch plastics abound and there are flowing lines on the bi-color black and auburn dash, with chrome accents throughout. While Mazda continues to produce vehicles without a temperature gauge, the blue light stays lit for a sufficient period of time to keep even the most distracted driver aware of engine coolness. (It’s wise to keep the revs low when the light is lit).
The eight-way power leather driver’s seat – with two memory settings – offers ultimate comfort and exceptional support; Mazda includes four power settings for the front-seat passenger. There are three settings for the seat heaters, definitely necessary on these December days in the midwest. Design of the interior is so elegant that even the seat headrests have the sculpted look of a vehicle worth far more than this one. All materials look and feel exceptionally rich, including the carpeting that covers a thicker floorpan with added sound deadening, one that keeps road noise to a minimum.
A Mazda CX-9 driver has excellent controls with which to harness power and enjoy infotainment. Directly in front lie the tachometer, speedometer, fuel and mileage gauge (and also gives outside temp, range and overall miles). The latter right-side pod can change with whatever information you want to pull from the available options and works well with the eight-inch stand-up navigation screen that lies dash center. With long arms one can access the touchscreen or use the knob in the tunnel area that resembles BMW’s i-Drive physically, but thankfully is much easier to operate than the German one.
The included navigation system is excellent and gives information through the center mounted screen as well as in the excellent heads-up display (HUD), the latter visioning redundant info like current speed, lane departure, blind spot monitoring and radar cruise control settings onto the windshield. It’s also got the current legal speed limit and, thankfully, doesn’t change to red when the driver exceeds (all the time), as some Mazda navigation systems are wont to do. All windows are a one-touch while rear windows have pull-up shades and privacy glass.
As is usually the case, syncing the phone is a simple affair, as is inputting information necessary for any trip; any such info must be input while at a standstill. In addition to Sirius/XM radio, the Mazda CX-9 also has AHA and Pandora available. Driver assistance is standard on this Signature model, including radar-based active cruise control and collision warning, which doesn’t work well if the driver’s adept at doing his or her job. It’s a bit too sensitive and can slam on the brakes when the driver has lifted from the accelerator to slowly edge toward sitting traffic. Although it can be turned off or adjusted, the system reactivates to factory settings each time the CX-9 is ignited. Lane departure and blindspot monitoring are standard on all CX-9 models.
While there’s lots of space in the front, the split second row “bench” doesn’t have nearly as much leg room – but does have its own heating, ventilation and air conditioning vents and controls. Space is acceptable for three consenting adults, but the rear, third row of the Mazda CX-9 is best delegated to a couple of kids. All seats must be folded or returned manually, unlike the cargo hold which is power actuated (and the interior button to return the hatch to closure is easily reached).
There were very few items to kvetch about concerning the 2016 Mazda CX-9. First would be its mileage which is rated at 21/27/23; I was lucky to see 25mpg in discerning cruise-control driving from the 19.5-gallon tank. Around town I was able to get the 21mpg attested to, using regular fuel but the over-the-road figure never came close to 27, which is disappointing, considering Mazda’s use of the four-cylinder direct-injection turbo, unlike all of its competitors, who stick with V-6 engines for their large SUVs. This CX-9 had nearly 10,000 miles on it at pick-up, fully broken-in, so added efficiency likely isn’t on the docket.
During this cold visit it would have been nice to have a heated steering wheel, something that’s found in many competitors’ competing SUVs, but that item wasn’t included in the $45,215 fee for the 2016 Mazda CX-9 Signature AWD model. The only option on the vehicle was a $300 charge for the luscious gray paint.
Things to love about CX-9? Oh, everything else. The body lines of this SUV are sexy to the max; the flowing lines and performance promising front end is marked by LED lights that permeate the exterior and interior of the SUV. I love the chrome accents at the base of the grille and at the rear light surrounds, marking elegance and purpose of design. The CX-9 performs admirably in all weather situations (although the air conditioning wasn’t needed this trip) and feels like it weighs far less than it does. My comment during the drive: “It feels like a sports car.” I stand by that.
The Bose audio turns the CX-9 into a rolling amphitheater with direct sound and great clarity. It can be accessed on the left side of the thoroughly grippable leather steering wheel, together with phone operation; there are also controls on the dash and through the multimedia interface on the central tunnel. Cruise control operation is on the right side of the wheel. A clamshell central storage area has two USB plugs, together with space for many smaller items; open storage at the base of the central stack is deep and has a grippy floor. There’s a 12-volt plug on the passenger’s side of the cabin. A small tilt-slide sunroof is included, as are rain-sensing (and snow-sensing) wipers.
On the return to Chicago, the weather looked quite ominous, so the 2016 Mazda CX-9 went back to the barn a bit sooner than expected and I got on an earlier flight out, not getting stuck in delay after delay. While I wish I’d had more time in the CX-9 it, like so many other Mazda products enchanted me. I’d recommend it in a heartbeat.
Words and photos by Anne Proffit