Flagship CX-9 turns heads, stirs hearts.
Three-row, midsize SUVs are popular models, taking over largely where minivans left off. The Mazda CX-9 is one of several models in the segment and is now in its second generation. In many ways the CX-9 is the flagship of the Mazda fleet, offering more passenger room, utility, and size than any other model from this zoom-zoom brand.
Mazda may be best known for its cars and zoom-zoom, but this small automaker based in Hiroshima, Japan, is attracting quite a following for its SUVs. The manufacturer offers three utility vehicles, including the subcompact CX-3 and the compact CX-5.
In the medium segment is a three-row CX-9, introduced in 2007 and now in its second generation. It competes in a class with such models as the Ford Explorer, GMC Acadia, Nissan Pathfinder, Dodge Durango, Honda Pilot, Chevrolet Traverse, Toyota Highlander, and the Buick Enclave. Like its competitors, front-wheel drive is the standard and all-wheel drive is available.
The 2016 Mazda CX-9 is an all-new model, replacing the first-generation CX-9 sold from 2007 to 2015. Like the earlier model, this one offers standard front-wheel drive and available all-wheel drive.
The most important change besides a “clean sheet” redesign for 2016 can be found in what’s under the hood. In an effort to save weight and improve fuel economy, a 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine is the only engine offered.
Trim Levels and Price
The 2016 Mazda CX-9 is available in four trim levels: Sport ($31,520), Touring ($35,970), Grand Touring ($40,170), and Signature ($44,015). Only the Signature edition offers standard all-wheel drive, otherwise AWD is a $1,800 upgrade across the model line.
Depending on trim level, the CX-9 offers various packages and accessories. A heated power driver’s seat and heated side mirror package is available with the Sport edition. A Touring premium package is offered with the Touring edition. Paint options are available with the two top models.
Who said an SUV has to look boring? Not Mazda. The countenance of this vehicle matches its other models and that’s not an easy feat to pull off. From bumper to bumper this SUV is sleek with distinct curves, body sculpting, and a flowing beltline to consider.
The front fascia is marked by a large gaping upper grille and a sporty lower grille opening. Sleek headlamp assemblies, bumper embrasures, and hood sculpting help amplify this model’s visage. Powerful shoulders are present as are sculpted wheel wells — both contribute to the overall sportiness of the design.
From the side, the upper portion of the hood pushes beyond the grille line, giving this model the appearance of an overbite. The flowing beltline and swept back roofline contribute to the SUV’s overall sporty persona. At the rear, the CX-9 is marked by sleek wrap around combination lamps connected by spear-like metal trim. Additional chrome embellishments, reflectors, and a chrome dual exhaust are also present.
Mazda provides three rows of seating in the CX-9 by offering bucket seats up front, a 60-40 split-folding seat in the second row, and a 50-50 bench seat in the third row. That third row is tight and best left for the teens or younger folk in your group. Access to the third row comes from moving the second-row seat forward and tilting same — yes there is sufficient room to squeeze on through.
Seating support is quite good all around, especially in the first two rows. I expected the first row seats to provide the necessary back and hip support, but the second row was a big surprise, especially for the outboard positions. Both seating positions are plush and bolstered, the middle seat is firmer and leg room is limited by the drivetrain hump.
Throughout my week with the 2016 CX-9, I was impressed by the level of quality apparent throughout the interior. The Signature edition is, of course, the show model in the segment. It comes dressed in leather across the seats, on the dashboard, as well as on the door inlays. Genuine rosewood touches surround the lower center console and extend to the front doors. Soft touch materials and brightwork trim were found elsewhere, but the look overall is elegant and upscale.
I’ve seen similarly appointed interiors elsewhere, but usually on luxury models. The nearest trim equivalent in this class would probably be the Buick Enclave with the Premium Group package or a GMC Acadia in Denali trim.
Just as the CX-9 has a flowing exterior theme, that design carries over to the SUV’s interior. Three large circular displays dominate the instrument panel with the tachometer on the left, a speedometer in the middle, and a digital driver’s information center on the right. Typically, digital displays are located directly between the tach and speedometer, but Mazda chose to place them together, perhaps for greater driving awareness.
The center stack reminds me of Audi with its tablet-like display sitting on top of the dashboard. However, unlike most Audi models, the Mazda display is fixed in place — it neither rises or falls.
Beneath the display is a pair of climate control vents, seat heating switches, as well as buttons and knobs to operate the climate control system. At the very base of the stack is a canted open storage compartment — ideal for storing your smartphone.
Between the seats are the transmission shifter and the drive shift mode switch. A larger control knob, similar to what is offered by BMW is immediately behind the transmission shifter and works as a mouse to control the screen. To the right is a volume knob. To the left is the electronic parking brake.
Immediately between the seats is a covered armrest, serving in a dual capacity as a storage compartment containing a pair of USB ports, an audio port, and an SD slot. Two cup holders sit in front of the armrest; the rear facing section includes climate control buttons and vents.
All four doors come with bottle holders and storage compartments. Fold down the second-row seat middle armrest and you’ll find two cup holders, an open storage area and a pair of USB ports. That storage area is large enough for you to line a pair of smartphones side by side while recharging.
The rear seat includes wall-embedded drink holders and open storage on both sides of the vehicle.
The CX-9 has a feature I haven’t seen yet — dual seat-back storage pockets for each of the front seats. One is deeper than the other, but together they offer interesting storage possibilities. I like to think families would find them useful for holding coloring books, folders, and the like.
Behind the third-row seat, you’ll find hooks and tie downs. You’ll also find the temporary spare tire sitting on the floor and a pair of concealed storage compartments on either side. A 12-volt, 120-watt outlet is also present.
Engine, Transmission, and Performance
Mazda took a risk this year by replacing a naturally aspirated V-6 engine with a turbocharged four-cylinder. The new engine makes 227 horsepower (250 with premium grade gasoline) compared with the 273 horsepower in the previous model. When it comes to torque, the new engine has the edge, making 310 foot-pounds versus the previous 270 foot-pounds.
Helping matters for the new model is a 250-pound drop in overall weight despite the addition of 53 pounds of sound-deadening materials. This engine is paired with a 6-speed automatic transmission. The EPA rates the 2016 CX-9 at 22 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway.
Take this Mazda on the road and you’ll discover the performance side within thanks to its DNA. The CX-9 moves away from a dead stop at a normal clip and travels down the road with authority as soon as the turbo spools up. More than once I forget a boosted four banger was under the hood — it behaves much like the engine it replaced.
The difference maker for this SUV is the sport mode — what ramps up the driving characteristics. Once engaged, the engine throttle controls and transmission shift points adjust for sportier engagement.
Tackling the twisties may be more to your liking in a rear-wheel drive sports car, coupe or sedan, but the 2016 CX-9 delivers surprising enjoyment there too. Thanks to the I-Activ all-wheel drive system, this model offers excellent control and balance. Much credit should be given to the torque sent to the rear wheels as needed in an effort to deliver a more composed drive.
Standard and Optional Technologies
Mazda Connect is the name of the Mazda infotainment system. It comes with either a 7- or 9-inch color display and features voice command, short messaging service with audio delivery and replay, emergency notification, and an optional navigation system. I mentioned the interior layout earlier, but it bears reiterating the Mazda system rivals that of some luxury makes. It also works as planned and if you want to avoid the dial, then voice commands will do.
I was also glad to discover that a head’s up display (also known as active driver display) was included with the test vehicle. Unlike the system found in other Mazda models, this one is projected right onto the windshield. It shows such features as your speed, the local speed limit, cruise control, and navigation. Yes, I am a head’s up fan — technology that helps you keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the steering wheel.
The CX-9 also offers a 12-speaker Bose audio system. Bose does an excellent job of distributing clear and crisp sound throughout the cabin and, yes, it as close to any system found in luxury models.
Safety Features and Options
Crash testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is pending for the 2016 CX-9. We’re expecting improved numbers over the outgoing model, which scored poor or marginal in three of the five tests conducted.
All models are outfitted with a suite of airbags, roll stability control, traction control, and a rearview monitor. A blind-spot monitoring system and rear cross-traffic alert are included in the Touring and Grand Touring editions. The Grand Touring edition brings in an optional distance recognition support system, high-beam control, lane keep assist, radar cruise control, rear backup sensor, and brake support.
If leather seats are your thing, you’ll find them in Touring trim. You’ll also get heated front seats as well as an advanced blind spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert. That makes for a generous package starting around $36,000. Certain competing models offer the safety features further up the trim level chain or as part of a package upgrade.
Seriously consider all-wheel drive even if you’re satisfied with front-wheel drive only. The $1,800 upgrade is worth it — the driving dynamics improve and if you ever need to tow something, AWD is certainly helpful when the wheels begin to slip. As for the Signature edition, you might consider one if you have a luxury model in mind, but prefer to stick with Mazda and all its zoom-zoom fun.
Kudos to Mazda for making a complete package in its second go around with the CX-9. The look, feel, and drive of this SUV puts it a cut above most mainstream models, even in the base edition. Mazda may not have the sales numbers of a Toyota, GM, or Volkswagen, but from model to model they consistently exceed industry and consumer expectations.