The redesigned 2016 Mazda CX-9 has been a long time in coming, and my wife and I have been patiently waiting for it. You see, we’re going to be replacing a 2005 Nissan Murano with a new crossover SUV this coming spring, and we’ve been auditioning candidates for the role of Wardlaw Family Schlepper. In the new CX-9, we thought we might find the perfect blend of upscale style and amenities, enjoyable driving dynamics, and the safety systems and technologies we demand in our next kid hauler.
Given that I’ve owned one Miata or another for most of the past 20 years, and considering Mazda’s near sweep of segments in our inaugural Daily News Autos Awards last spring, expectations ran high. Perhaps too high, like a first date with a gorgeous, funny, and intelligent human being who, as it turns out, suffers from horrendous halitosis.
Mazda gets the CX-9 exactly right in so many ways. It looks terrific, inside and out. The Signature trim level is upscale enough to impart luxury. It drives like a Mazda should, though maybe with just one “zoom” instead of two. And it is packed with practical technologies to both simplify and preserve life.
Too bad it fits like a cheap, off-the-rack suit.
Design: 8.7 rating
Making a vehicle look attractive, distinctive, and timeless is not easy. Just ask Nissan. Mazda isn’t having any trouble in this regard, and while the CX-9’s front and rear overhangs are more excessive in real life than they are in the photos on the company’s website, from almost every angle this midsize, three-row crossover SUV is an appealing vehicle.
Bold and distinctive, the prow-shaped front end makes it impossible to mistake the CX-9 for any other SUV, even at night thanks to standard LED headlights and Mazda’s running light pattern, which gives the SUV “eyes.” Offered only in white, silver, gray, and black, the Signature trim level upgrades the CX-9 with minor exterior cosmetic enhancements, but delivers a significant improvement in terms of interior materials.
Inside, the CX-9 Signature is lavish and upscale, building on the SUV’s superior interior design with Auburn-colored Nappa premium leather and genuine Japanese rosewood trim. Real aluminum accents are shared with the CX-9 Grand Touring. It looks terrific, and the Signature could pass for a luxury SUV if Mazda had spent a little bit more money upgrading the plastics that cover the lower half of the cabin, and designing a center console armrest that didn’t sound and feel like it might break each time you lean on it.
Comfort: 6.0 rating
After spending a week driving the new CX-9, I’ve determined that this is the first Mazda in a long time that encourages occupants to be passengers rather than the driver.
First, understand that I am six feet tall, weigh about 250 pounds (yeah, yeah, I know), and wear pants with a 33-inch inseam. Thus, I have long legs, a short torso, and am overweight.
I prefer to sit up nice and high in a vehicle, like I’m sitting down at a dining room table to enjoy a high-calorie meal that I really shouldn’t be eating, and on a seat with a cushion that adjusts for thigh support. Especially in a vehicle that either is or performs a credible impersonation of a luxury model, seat ventilation is expected to enhance comfort on hot summer days.
The Mazda CX-9 is lacking on all of these fronts.
Wrapped in premium leather, the driver’s seat itself is comfortable in terms of support, even after several hours spent behind the steering wheel. But it lacks ventilation, and in relationship to the rest of the CX-9’s interior it cannot provide the combination of seat height, thigh support, and legroom that I require.
After two days with the Mazda, I finally found a driving position that proved acceptable, but I still felt like I was sitting too low in relationship to the dashboard, center console, and armrests. This compromise, coupled with occasional pain from bracing my knees against the Japanese rosewood trim on the center console and door panels, meant I was never happy to get into the CX-9 and never reluctant to leave it.
Compounding comfort problems, the CX-9’s climate control system had trouble coping with temperatures in the 90s and humidity levels in the 50s. It took a looooooong time to cool the cabin, making the omission of front seat ventilation even more noticeable.
Because the AC fan runs so loud for so long, it almost negates the 53 pounds of sound deadening materials that Mazda installs in order to quiet the CX-9’s cabin. On cooler days, however, this sound insulation clearly works, making the CX-9 nice and quiet at 75 mph on the freeway.
Comparatively speaking, these comfort complications make the CX-9’s lack of a front passenger’s seat height adjuster nothing more than a minor irritation. From my perspective, the front passenger sits high enough off of the floor that this omission isn’t a big deal, and because the dashboard design falls down and away from the windshield the person seated there feels like he or she is sitting higher inside of the vehicle.
Given a choice, I might actually elect to sit in the Mazda CX-9’s second-row seat. Rear seat riders are positioned tall in the vehicle, the cushion providing good thigh support. Soft front seat back covers, manual side window sunshades, and separate climate control settings for rear occupants demonstrate a level of thoughtfulness that is not expressed for the driver and front passenger. Plus, this seat slides to make more room available to people crammed into the third-row seat.
Meant for occasional use, the 50/50-split third-row bench will accommodate an adult, but that person will quickly grow impatient with their seat assignment. Plus, entry and exit clearance is tight, requiring unbecoming contortions of grown-ups.
Children will be happier riding in the way back area, though the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) makes it clear that the safest location for little ones (or anyone) is in the second-row seat. The low seat cushion and high side panels likely make the third-row seat feel like a kiddie cavern, and it is worth noting that the rear seat head restraints are nearly flush against the tailgate’s window.
Should you elect to use the third-row seat for any reason, know that if you’ve got a child safety seat mounted on the right side of the second-row seat, you don’t need to remove it in order to access the third row.
Controls: 9.0 rating
Though Mazda struggles to make all of the CX-9’s occupants comfortable, the SUV’s dashboard design, instrumentation, and control layout create a cabin that could serve as a model for the automotive industry.
Gauges are stylish yet imbued with purposeful clarity, the controls are laid out in a logical fashion, and while the Mazda Connect infotainment system forces a steep learning curve, with time, mileage, and practice it mostly becomes second nature.
Furthermore, the majority of the materials used for the upper half of the CX-9’s interior are impressive, including those employed for the switchgear and various displays. The significant exception would be the clamshell-style design of the center console storage bin’s armrest cover.
Utility: 6.5 rating
Each time I got into the CX-9, I’d lean on the center console armrest to get situated before buckling my seat belt. And each time I’d lean on it, the armrest would display a little bit of give and emit a cracking sound. I can almost guarantee future warranty claims for this component, as it will almost certainly suffer fatigue and ultimately break.
Mazda should probably redesign this, switching to a single-piece armrest that opens to the rear of the vehicle. While they’re at it, the entire center console area could benefit from a revision. If the shifter were moved to the left, and the cup holders were relocated to the right of the shifter, then Mazda could enlarge and lower the center console bin, simultaneously improving storage space and comfort.
Otherwise, interior storage areas are reasonably generous up front and are impressive for second-row occupants. They get dual seat back pockets, Mazda clearly supplying space for smartphone or tablet storage separately from other items. The rear center armrest also contains dual cup holders and a covered storage area.
Cargo space behind the third-row seat is limited to 14.4 cubic-feet, and that includes the different storage wells provided beneath the load floor. My CX-9 included a power tailgate, and when gratingly raising the hatch it sounded like Mazda may have used Legos to construct its inner workings.
The small amount of cargo space behind the third-row seat gives CX-9 owners a good reason to keep it folded down the majority of the time. The seat backs are light and easy to manually drop or raise, so power operation is unnecessary. When they are folded down, the CX-9 supplies 38.2 cu.-ft. of space shaped to accommodate full-size suitcases for a family of four plus room for duffel bags or a folding stroller.
Should you require maximum cargo volume, fold the second-row seats down to access 71.2 cu-ft. This number is closer to compact crossover SUVs than it is to midsize crossovers.
Technology: 7.3 rating
Daunting to the uninitiated, the CX-9’s standard Mazda Connect infotainment system is quite similar to Audi’s Multi-Media Interface (MMI) in terms of its design and operation, and in some ways represents an improvement over the MMI system.
Mazda Connect uses a tablet-style touchscreen display mounted on the top center portion of the dashboard like a miniature drive-in theater. The system displays modern graphics, a pleasing font choice, and houses a wide variety of features and settings.
A 7-inch display is standard for the base CX-9 Sport, while the Touring, Grand Touring, and Signature trim levels employ a larger 8-inch display. All versions include an E911 emergency notification system, text message delivery and replay, internet radio access, and two quick-charge USB ports. Navigation is standard for the Grand Touring and Signature models, and these versions also come with a 12-speaker Bose premium audio system that sounds good but not great.
In keeping with Mazda’s “Driving Matters” brand tag line, the company attempts to eliminate unnecessary distraction while the CX-9 is moving. For example, Mazda Connect’s touch-sensing screen works only when the CX-9 is motionless, and none of the deeper vehicle settings can be adjusted while the SUV is underway. While I appreciate this dedication to helping the driver to focus on the road ahead, it also proves somewhat aggravating when trying to review settings and execute changes while passing time in stop-and-go traffic conditions.
When driving, users can access Mazda Connect’s primary functions by fiddling with the Commander control knob and short-cut buttons located on the center console, by using the controls located on the steering wheel, or by executing voice commands. Notably, the voice recognition system evidently requires very clear speech in order to understand commands.
Absent from the CX-9’s equipment list are smartphone projection technology (Apple CarPlay and Android Auto), real-time traffic information, a rear-seat entertainment system, and a Wi-Fi connection.
On a hot summer weekend, we could have used traffic updates during a daylong hiking trip to the mountains near Santa Barbara. My wife and I don’t care that much about smartphone projection technology, though, and we refuse to buy a vehicle that puts rear screens in our kids’ faces, as we’d rather have them looking out the windows and asking us questions about what they see. When the landscape is bleak or we’re tired of chatter, the CX-9’s dual rear-seat quick-charge USB ports are available to juice devices used for gaming apps. Sure would be nice to have Wi-Fi.
Mazda also introduces a new Active Driving Display for the CX-9, one that projects information 8.5 feet further out toward the front of the vehicle in order to reduce eyestrain. While this is appreciated, the SUV’s excellent instrumentation makes this heads-up solution somewhat redundant.
Should you get a new Mazda CX-9, my advice is to consult the owner’s manual, choose all of your vehicle settings and arrange all of your favorite radio stations while the SUV is sitting in your driveway, and then for the most part you can avoid any hassles with using Mazda Connect, relying on the short-cut keys and Commander knob for most functions.
Safety: Not Rated
As this review was published, the redesigned CX-9 had not been subjected to crash tests performed by the federal government and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Because these ratings are fundamentally important to any vehicle designed to carry families, we have elected not to rate the CX-9 for safety.
In terms of driver assistance and collision avoidance technologies, Mazda is definitely up to par.
The adaptive cruise control works with or without the adaptive function engaged, depending on the driver’s preference, so that’s nice. However, the system appears to take into consideration its GPS technology and posted speed limits when negotiating bends and curves in the road, applying the brakes more than is necessary to negotiate them.
For one curve on California’s northbound Pacific Coast Highway past Malibu, the system actually reduced speed to below the posted limit, and then accelerated out of the curve without “seeing” a white BMW that was merging into the Mazda’s lane because the road was narrowing from two lanes to a single lane. Ultimately, it was I, the driver, who needed to apply the brakes and not the technology designed to eliminate that requirement.
A forward collision warning system with automatic emergency braking is also available for the CX-9, and you’re going to want to choose the least sensitive setting for this technology or you’ll quickly become aggravated. With the system set to normal sensitivity, it proved far too sensitive, identifying threats that did not exist, and automatically applying the brakes in situations that did not call for it.
Similarly, the stability control system is fairly active when you’re traveling a twisty road with gusto. At least the impact on the driving experience is subtle rather than jarring.
Additionally, every CX-9 is equipped with a standard reversing camera, and most versions are offered with a blind spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alert. Mazda supplies a multitude of settings for the available lane departure warning and lane keeping assist systems, and because my neighborhood is without street lighting I certainly appreciated the adaptive front lighting system with automatic high-beam headlights.
Power and Performance: 6.7 rating
When my wife first learned that the new Mazda CX-9 came with a turbocharged 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine rather than a V6, she was worried about turbo lag, which is the delay in response that frequently afflicts force-fed engines while the turbocharger gets spooled up. As it turns out, Mazda anticipated that, and turbo lag is not a problem thanks to something called a Dynamic Pressure Turbo.
You know how when you’re watering your lawn or garden you can place your thumb over the end of the hose in order to transform a generous but lazy flow of water into a high-pressure stream? Mazda applies a similar concept with its Dynamic Pressure Turbo technology, the end result delivering 25-percent quicker response compared to a twin-scroll turbocharger at engine speeds below 1,500 rpm. Once engine revs climb into the middle part of the rev range, the system feeds greater amounts of exhaust to spin the turbocharger.
The effect is unexpectedly responsive acceleration right off the line, the engine’s generous 310 pound-feet of torque at 2,000 rpm supplying impressive zip in urban and suburban driving situations.
As revs climb, and the engine’s 250 horsepower takes charge of motivating the CX-9 (227 horsepower if you run the engine on regular instead of premium), the engine loses steam and lacks the building crescendo of power common to a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine from Audi or Volkswagen, or a traditional V6 engine. Also, passing power is somewhat lackluster at higher vehicle speeds.
Mazda also says the CX-9’s engine employs a cooled exhaust gas recirculation system, one designed to eliminate the tendency of many turbocharged engines to use extra fuel as a way to control heat. The goal being, of course, to match real-world fuel economy ratings with those established by the EPA. Based on my testing, that did not happen.
According to the EPA, the new CX-9 should get 23 mpg in combined driving when equipped with its predictive all-wheel-drive system. On my test loop, the Mazda returned 20 mpg, and the SUV finished up the week with a 17.9-mpg average over nearly 500 miles, falling well short of even the EPA’s city rating of 21 mpg.
Before you conclude that I had the 6-speed automatic transmission’s Sport driving mode engaged the majority of the time, the answer is no. While this mode works well on a mountain road when the CX-9 is driven with enthusiasm, it does not behave intelligently in urban settings, seemingly unable to identify the difference between relaxed and enthusiastic driving styles.
While the 6-speed automatic shifts as expected in Normal mode, and detects hills to hold a gear for easier climbing and speed maintenance, it is my opinion that the manual shift gate is mapped in counterintuitive fashion, asking the driver to push the shifter up, toward the dashboard, in order to execute a downshift (and vice versa). Unfortunately, there are no paddle shifters in the CX-9, which would remedy this source of confusion.
Standard for the Signature trim, Mazda’s predictive AWD technology takes into account 27 different factors in order to decide how much power to send to the CX-9’s rear wheels. Up to half of the engine’s output can flow rearward, and Mazda says maximum ground clearance measures 8.8 inches.
Ride and Handling: 9.0 rating
Whereas many midsize crossover SUVs trudge along America’s highways and byways, the new Mazda CX-9 deftly glides like a 4-wheeled ballerina. As is expected from this automaker, the CX-9’s ride, handling, and braking are almost impossible to criticize.
Mazda is using the same size brakes as the previous model, but the new CX-9 weighs 287 pounds less than the old one. Natural in terms of feel, and linear in terms of response, the brakes inspire confidence under most driving conditions. Still, Mazda might want to bump the 12.6-inch ventilated front discs up a bit in terms of size, because on a sunny day with temperatures in the 80s they exhibited gradual onset of fade and fatigue when running the SUV hard in the mountains.
Steering feel, response, and feedback are excellent, and while effort levels are a little high it doesn’t take long to acclimate. Because the driver can easily place the CX-9 exactly where he or she wants it to go, and because maintaining straight-line stability at speed on the highway is an effortless proposition, this Mazda is enjoyable to drive. Plus, the steering wheel itself is pleasing to grip.
Handling impresses, in part because something the CX-9’s size should not prove quite this tossable. While grip is not as outright sticky as, say, a Ford Edge Sport sitting on 21-inch wheels and tires, the CX-9 nevertheless feels relatively light and limber, the body rolling a little bit as the SUV threads S-curves but the suspension remaining unfailingly planted and stable. Mid-corner dips and bumps do not unsettle the CX-9, and like other Mazda products it simply glides down a mountain road.
Better yet, the handling prowess does not come at the expense of ride quality. You’re always aware of the surface and its textures, but the suspension doesn’t bother occupants with too much information about cracks, holes, and bumps. Mazda even went so far as to engineer the seat cushion material to deliver feedback from the road, but with filtration.
Occasionally, the CX-9 does adopt a taut and athletic feel, such as when traveling over the stretches of sectioned concrete freeway that ribbon across Los Angeles. In such situations, a rhythmic thrum is evident. Mostly, though, the CX-9 glides along as seemingly weightless and in tune with the surface as a ballet dancer.
Like almost every Mazda, the redesigned 2016 CX-9 is a real delight to drive. The steering, the suspension tuning, the way the drivetrain behaves in Sport mode when you’re taking the long way home – it all tickles an enthusiast driver’s pleasure centers. The brakes did fade a bit in the heat, but in terms of overall driving dynamics the CX-9 is every inch a Mazda.
From that perspective, the stylish new CX-9 met my expectations. Dynamically, it clearly underlines the automaker’s new “Driving Matters” advertising tag line, and the SUV’s design is expertly executed inside and out.
What Mazda seems to have forgotten about here is the driver, and his or her comfort. Your results may vary, however, and if you find that the CX-9 fits you like a glove, chances are good that you’re going to be happy with just about everything else this SUV has to offer.
Total Vehicle Score:145/190 points
Overall Vehicle Rating: 7.6
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