2016 Mazda CX-9 First Drive: Zoom Cubed

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Here they go again. Mazda is replacing another vehicle we loved—our 2008 SUV of the Year—with a new one powered by a smaller, less powerful engine. Might it be better than the car it replaces, as is the case with the smaller, depowered fourth-gen Miata?

There was no way to economically “SkyActiv-ate” the aging Ford-designed, Mazda-built 3.7-liter V-6, so it’s been ash-canned in favor of a 2.5-liter turbo-four tailored to suit the needs of three-row crossover buyers. To better understand those needs, teams of Mazda engineers stalked school carpool pickup areas, the parking lots of big-box home-improvement centers, and other crossover haunts. They shadowed departing owners, pacing their rates of acceleration, and found that while everybody gets on the gas way harder than the EPA’s robo-drivers ever do, almost nobody ever needles the top of the tachometer. Mid-range über alles!

The team set about devising innovative “replacements for displacement” to ensure the 2.5 could waft like a 5.0. They chose a smallish Mitsubishi turbo to ensure swift spool up, and then devised a super-smart exhaust manifold and a few other tricks (see our accompanying Turbo Tech sidebar story) that resulted in an engine that makes a stout 310 lb-ft of torque at just 2,000 rpm on regular or premium fuel. More important than the number is the fact that it can deliver a rate of top-gear acceleration that would have required two downshifts to achieve with the V-6.

This is a big part of Mazda’s justification for sticking with “only” six transmission ratios when the trend seems to favor eight, nine, or 10. Mazda views these extra ratios as Band-Aids for insufficiently broad torque delivery. The team doesn’t emphasize peak horsepower much, as it occurs up where big-crossover pilots never drive—at 5,000 rpm, but for the record, it’s 227 on 87 octane and 250 on 93. Here again, don’t bother with the good go-juice unless your family fun includes Friday-night quarter-mile runs.

For our first official drive of its finished product (we sampled a prototype last November) Mazda invited us on a romp up Highway 1 north of the Golden Gate bridge. Slogging up to Highway 1 on the freeway at 55 mph, it’s the hushed cabin that is most impressive. A thicker floor pan, 53 pounds of under-carpet sound deadening, some added weather-sealing, and acoustic-laminated glass forward of the B-pillars work miracles. Mazda claims this is its quietest vehicle ever, and that’s hard to dispute given that most Mazdas cheerfully sacrifice sound deadening on the altar of mass reduction (the CX-5’s floor has just 9 pounds of it). Fortunately, the 132-pounds-lighter engine, 57-pounds-lighter all-wheel-drive system, and another hundred or so pounds of dieting more than offset the NVH countermeasures, leaving the new car about 250 pounds lighter than before.

On the twists and hills of Highway 1, the trademark Mazda electric steering assist made itself known, providing nice linear turn-in with effort levels tracking lateral grip quite nicely. Only AWD variants were available, and they evinced no hint of torque steer. Throttle response is also refreshingly linear as turbos go, from just off idle to the 5,000-rev power peak. That’s the wide-open-throttle upshift point when the automatic is left in normal mode; switching to sport mode ups the shift point closer to redline, but also begs the question why? Sport mode’s best attribute is its effect on transmission mapping, which becomes even more aggressive about grabbing lower gears when you prod the throttle, holding lower gears through aggressively negotiated curves, etc. But the tranny is pretty good about holding gears in turns even in normal mode—much better than most.

Like AMG, Mazda has worked some magic in making its turbo-stifled engine/exhaust note sound impressively stirring when you wring it out to 5,000- or 6,000 rpm. The engine sounds and the sporty steering feel are welcome reminders that, despite the hushed cabin’s posh design and upscale materials including available real wood and aluminum trim (inspired by Japanese guitars and knives!), at its heart this carpool cruiser is an enthusiast.

It’s not perfect. Mazda is still down a ways on the learning curve for collision warning and automatic emergency braking. It can be set to three levels of panic and, even in its most lenient setting, it surprised me and my co-driver with several panic stops—often 10 feet shy of a stopped vehicle in front of us. Please relax that thing, Mazda! The 2016 CX-9 also serves as Mazda’s first swing at lane-keeping assist, and it seems to work well, intervening only when the car starts to leave the lane, rather than maintaining a centered position in the lane as Hondas tend to do.

Although interior space for people and stuff has been reduced slightly relative to the outgoing CX-9, the sliding second row allows adults to fit in all three rows if the front rows compromise on legroom a bit, and the now completely flat, continuous load floor is an improvement. The interior looks great and Mazda’s user-friendly infotainment setup allows for your choice of voice, touch-screen, or twirl-and-press knob to control most major functions. It’s still rated to tow 3,500 pounds and it’s more engaging to drive than ever. So I’m prepared to fearlessly predict that Mazda’s biggest and newest baby will earn strong finalist status in this year’s SUV of the Year contest.

2016 Mazda CX-9 BASE PRICE $32,420-$44,915 VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD/AWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV ENGINE 2.5L/227-hp*/310-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4 TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic CURB WEIGHT 4,050-4,300 lb (mfr) WHEELBASE 115.3 in LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 199.4 x 77.2 x 67.6 in 0-60 MPH 7.2-7.5 sec (MT est) EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 21-22/27-28/23-24 mpg ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 153-160/120-125 kW-hrs/100 miles CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.80-0.83 lb/mile ON SALE IN U.S. June 2016 *87-octane fuel rating; 250 hp with 93 octane