Sitting right at the top of my list of favourite activities is road tripping with my fellow car nuts, in this case the rest of the team here at our magazine. Multiple times a year, we venture down south into the United States for media events. When there are more of us or the drive is less than ten hours, it’s often more economical to take a car rather than fly. This time, for a round trip to New York City, our choice was the 2016 Mazda CX-9 Signature. Brand new from the ground up, the CX-9 is Mazda’s range-topper, and with three rows of seating and a potent new motor, it was our pick for this 1,800km adventure.
Very obviously still resembling its predecessor, the new CX-9 is pretty long overdue. The last model was a result of the Ford-Mazda alliance, and felt quite dated at the end of its life cycle. The lack of features, aging styling, and most of all the absence of SKYACTIV technology hindered sales at the end. The new model turns things around significantly, starting with the sexy lines. Sharing traits with the rest of the Mazda lineup, the CX-9 has pretty LED lighting (with a grille light strip on this Signature trim), swooping cues throughout the side profile, and attractive 20” wheels that look both sporty and elegant.
Perhaps the most important improvement on this CX-9 crossover is the powertrain. Replacing the old Ford 3.7L V6 is the SKYACTIV-G 2.5L inline four-cylinder engine. Despite the fact that the two major competitors, Honda’s Pilot (reviewed here) and the Toyota Highlander, receive V6 engines, Mazda has opted to use this four cylinder, albeit boosted by way of the new Dynamic Pressure Turbo. What makes this setup special is a unique valve body, located between the turbocharger and the exhaust valve. This valve restricts the flow of gas to the turbocharger, which allows for higher pressure, in turn reducing turbo lag and smoother power delivery.
This is all fine and dandy, but the V6 rivals from Nissan, Honda and Toyota push between 240 and 300 horsepower – how’s the Mazda’s inline four-cylinder in comparison? The CX-9 offers 250 horsepower at 5,000RPM, and 310 lb-ft of torque at just 2,000RPM. Power is perfectly acceptable, and the car was able to haul four of us plus about a billion pounds of camera gear effortlessly. Throttle response is good, and the motor actually makes a nice sound, reflective of Mazda’s passionate driving philosophy.
Honda introduced a nine-speed automatic transmission for the new Pilot, and the upcoming 2017 Highlander gets an eight-speed. It’s surprising to see Mazda only offer a six-speed unit as the only choice, though it’s acceptable considering the engine size. The transmission shifts well, with no jerkiness or confusion, and there’s a manual shift mode that we utilized when pushing the crossover through the mountain range. It allowed us to keep the CX-9 in lower gears when conditions demanded it, and the “Sport” mode sharpened things up for a more involving drive.
Something interesting is that the above power numbers are when the car is run on premium 91-octane fuel – if using regular (which the Mazda can), power drops to 227, though torque stays at 310. Mazda suggests 11.2L/100km city and 8.8L/100km highway. Our drive was almost all highway, with only a few kilometers on city streets, none of which involved any traffic. This exact drive with a Honda Pilot last year netted 8.8L/100km, which was the target number for us. Unfortunately, the Mazda only returned 9.8L/100km. The 74L tank size is right in line with the rest of the segment, which allowed for longer distances before needing to refuel.
What many buyers will like is the interior quality of the CX-9, which is inarguably comparable to many more premium vehicles. Our Signature trim featured Nappa leather in Chroma Brown, which contrasted beautifully with the matte Rosewood trim used throughout the cabin. The panels fit together perfectly, and the large 8” touchscreen display is brilliant. Interior lighting is also LED, and the Bose stereo speakers sound great. The car is comfortable and has a perfect driving position, something we didn’t find with the Pilot – the Honda felt a bit “truck-ish” in this regard.
Interior space and overall organization is a huge priority for crossover buyers, and the CX-9 did not disappoint. The third row is easily accessible, though there isn’t too much space for adults back there. Four adults fit extremely well, with the second row seats having sufficient fore/aft adjustment along with recline. There’s no panoramic sunroof hampering rear headroom, but there’s enough space that we wouldn’t have minded seeing this feature implemented – it would air up the cabin nicely. The higher beltlines on the Mazda don’t really make for big blind spots, but the windows aren’t as large as I’d like.
Pricing for the new CX-9 starts at $37,330 for the GS FWD trim. All models come with all-wheel-drive in Canada (with the exception of the base GS), and the GS still includes LED headlights, a rear-view camera, and 18” alloys. The line continues with the GS-L, GT, and Signature, which tops out at $52,130. Our tester is a bit on the pricey side, but includes the aforementioned delightful interior upholstery, navigation, moonroof, heated seats and steering wheel, and four USB ports. What came particularly handy on our trip was the new Active Driver Display, which is a colour heads-up display system.
Safety suites have become the pride of almost every manufacturer very rapidly, and Mazda has loaded this CX-9 up with all of their available driver assist toys. This includes adaptive cruise control, Forward Obstruction Warning, lane departure warning, Lane Keep Assist, parking sensors with camera, hill assist, blind spot monitoring, Smart City Brake Support, and rear cross traffic alert. This is all on top of the standard dynamic stability control on all models.
The 2016 Mazda CX-9 Signature offers plenty to the interested buyer, including versatility, comfort, and premium appointments. It still lacks a few things we would have liked to see, such as heated rear seats and ventilated fronts, but it’s a runaway winner in the driving involvement section of its segment. The Highlander and Pilot may be slightly better choices with regards to straight practicality, but if driving matters (pun intended), the CX-9 is the way to go.