The Mazda offers a touch of sportiness and an interior that feels upscale.
Back in 2014, one of the cars that disappointed me the most was the Mazda CX-9. Not only was it majorly in need of an update, I just didn’t get it. It drove harsher than competitors, felt slower and returned poorer fuel economy. When Mazda announced that they would be re-vamping the CX-9 for 2016, I was glad to hear that they’d be making some big updates. The first time I saw it in person, I was thoroughly impressed at how well Mazda had incorporated their corporate KODO styling (“the soul of motion”) into such a large platform. I borrowed the the “volume” seller model – a 2016 Mazda CX-9 GS-L, which is one step up from the GS base model.
The GS-L package adds some interior luxuries such as leather seating, heated steering wheel, power moonroof, LED foglights, rain sensing wipers and all the typical electronic driving aids. That makes the GS-L a fairly well equipped family hauler, but the downside is that the exterior still looks quite a lot like the base GS. The GS-L does get a little more chrome on the fins of the grille, but otherwise it could pass for a GS, especially with the visually small 18” wheels.
The black plastic cladding on my tester, which is found on all trim levels of the CX-9 also cheapens that exterior look a little bit. I did notice that the cladding stood out more on my Sonic Silver tester compared to the darker Machine Grey available. Trim aside, the styling, as mentioned, is very well executed and the signature Mazda grill definitely gives the new CX-9 a strong presence on the road. The body lines flow exceptionally well, especially for a large CUV, and the overall exterior fit and finish is also impressive.
For the new CX-9, a base GS with AWD starts at $38,830, and my GS-L tester would run you $41,500, plus freight and PDI. For context, a fully trimmed out CX-9 GT Signature goes for over $52,000,whichs a lot of money for a family CUV and puts the CX-9 right in line with some very tough and established competitors like the Toyota Highlander (reviewed here), Honda Pilot and Ford Explorer (reviewed here).
One advantage the Mazda CX-9 does have is its very driver-centric interior layout. I’ve always been, and still am, a fan of Mazda’s infotainment system. I am particularly fond of the centre console mounted HMI Commander, which allows you to adjust everything on the screen without taking your eyes off the road. Beyond the infotainment, everything else is well placed and easy to operate. The instrument cluster has an interesting black and white digital screen that would look right at home in an all-business sports car. The interior itself is a lot of matte black plastic and black leather, all of which fits together quite well.
The CX-9 might look fairly big on the outside, but it feels even bigger on the inside. The second row has loads of head and leg room, even for adults. The third row is on the tight side for adults, but more than adequate for children. One big plus is that there is a usable amount of cargo space behind the third row should you need to use all the seats. Storage up front is well thought out, with a deep storage bin at the front of the center console. Oddly though, the two nice deep cupholders in the center console get very warm after driving for awhile. I suspect some drivetrain heat is making its way up through the console. This is nice for keeping your coffee warm in the winter, but not so nice for your cool drinks in the summer.
I did spend quite a bit of time behind the wheel of the CX-9 and I have to say that while it’s not perfect, it’s a dramatic improvement over the previous generation. As typical with Mazda, the steering and handling is the strongest piece of the driving experience. Steering feel actually exists, which is a welcome rarity for a CUV, and steering response itself is nice and sharp. The CX-9 handles corners with more confidence than most competitors, but there’s no forgetting that you’re behind the wheel of a seven passenger utility vehicle.
The nice thing with the new CX-9 though is that you don’t pay for those delightful handling qualities by giving up ride quality. The CX-9 rides comfortably, even on horrible city roads, and sound proofing has also improved greatly over the previous generation. The doors now shut with a reassuring thud as opposed to the tinny sound that bugged me in older Mazda products, and those doors do a much better job at keeping road and wind noise out of the cabin.
Power comes from a SKYACTIV 2.5L turbocharged inline four-cylinder, which puts out 227 horsepower (or 250 horsepower if you opt to run premium fuel) and 310 lb-ft of torque. Power feels adequate even if the idea of a four-cylinder in a seven seater still takes a bit of getting used to mentally. When boost kicks in around 2500RPM, power feels great, but then promptly falls off again as soon as the six-speed automatic upshifts.
The burst of power does come with one big downside and that’s torque steer. Laying your foot down in the CX-9 will get things moving fairly quickly, but you’d better have both hands firmly on the wheel, as the steering wheel does have a tendency to pull under firm acceleration. Again, even though it looks aggressive and sporty, and sports a big turbocharger, you must remember that this is a full-sized crossover and it’s going to react like one if things get a little too spirited.
Thanks to the SKYACTIV four-cylinder, fuel economy is yet another element that’s been improved over the previous CX-9. That said, my average for the week of mixed rush hour commuting came to 11.8L/100km, which falls short of the rated numbers 11.2L/100km city and 8.8L/100km highway. I am starting to notice that the new crop of turbo four-cylinders are clearly capable of delivering great fuel savings, but they need to be driven strictly for economy in order to yield those results in the real world. Not picking on the CX-9, as this is a trend I’ve noticed across the board, but this example is a good illustration of what I am talking about.
The 2016 Mazda CX-9 GS-L puts Mazda back in the full-sized crossover game, and it’s a worthy competitor when lined up against some of the heavy hitters in this segment. The Mazda offers a touch of sportiness and an interior that feels upscale for its class. It is what I would consider the “most sedan-like” of the current CUV crop, being more driver-focused and more responsive on the road than the competition. If you’re in the market for a safe AWD family hauler before winter hits, and you’re struggling with the idea of giving up your sports sedan, the CX-9 is very likely your best option. It won’t be a painless transition, but you’ll come to appreciate the Mazda’s unique merits.