Mazda has brought a Japanese sword to a knife fight in the cutthroat arena of seven-passenger crossover sport utility vehicles.
Mazda has made a strong move up-market and deeper into advanced technologies for the redesign of its second-generation three-row CX-9 crossover.
In the past, the CX-9 was minivan-like in function and utility. The new model has all of that good usability, but with strong styling and Mazda’s “horse and rider” drivability (at least for a three-row utility vehicle).
At 199.4 inches long, the 2016 CX-9 is 1.2 inches shorter than its predecessor, but its wheelbase is 2.2 inches longer, improving rear legroom and third-row entry and exit. Overall, the CX-9 is about 198 pounds lighter, but 53 pounds of sound-deadening mats were added to the body.
Competitors include the Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Santa Fe, Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota Highlander.
The CX-9 is sold in four trim levels in front- or all-wheel drive with a new top-line Signature model. Starting prices range from $33,320 for the front-wheel drive Sport to $45,215 for the Signature with standard AWD (today’s tester). Pricing includes the $900 freight charge from Hiroshima, Japan.
The Signature model packages various safety technologies, such as lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist, radar cruise control, Smart Brake Support with Distance Recognition, rear cross-traffic alert and blind-spot monitoring, none of which were intrusive to the driving experience. The LED headlights turn a few degrees with the steering wheel and have an auto-dimming feature, both of which are good driver supports at night.
The Signature model’s interior has handsome leather, attractive, dark wood trim with visible grain and brushed aluminum. The front seats — heated, but not vented — are full-bodied with eight-way power adjustment for the driver, but just four-way adjustment for the passenger.
The redesign is a complete evolution, but the best part may be the powertrain. It is a seemingly modest 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with a six-speed automatic transmission. On regular, unleaded gas the engine has 227 horsepower. But run premium fuel and the power grows to 250 horsepower with 310 foot-pounds of torque that peak at 2,000 rpm. There is NO hesitation of horsepower when the foot goes down — and the CX-9 with AWD weighs 4,301 pounds. AWD fuel economy is 21 mpg city, 27 highway and 23 combined. Front-wheel drive economy is 22/28/25 mpg.
Part of what makes the CX-9 a pleasurable drive may be how Mazda rethought turbocharging with its dynamic pressure turbo engine. It varies the degree of exhaust pulsation depending on engine speed. Mazda explains the technology as similar to clamping your thumb over the nozzle of a garden hose to adjust the pressure. This approach allows the turbocharger to spool up quickly for an instant boost, Mazda says.
The interior is also well-done, for it has handy features and simple usability. The smallish steering wheel is wrapped in neatly stitched, glove-soft leather. The heat-AC vent controls are placed somewhat low and recessed, so it might take owners time to adapt to making adjustments without taking their eyes from the road. There is a handy bin ahead of the shifter column, but it could have benefitted with a charging port or two. There are two USBs in the center armrest console, but you’ll have to prop your phone in a cup holder. The visors are large and include extenders and lighted mirrors.
The second row has reclining seatbacks with fore-and-aft adjustment capabilities to help third-row passengers with footroom. A fold-down armrest has two USB ports, one of which is the more potent 2.1 amp. There are also rear fan-temp controls with directional choices for feet or face, but no heated seats. There is door storage, and there are side-window shades, seatback pockets, grab handles (at all doors) and coat hooks. A slide-and-tilt feature eases third-row access, but it takes a hearty heave to push the second-row seatback into an upright position.
The pair of third-row seats may be the most padded of any seven-row crossover. The second and third rows fold flat, but there is a small gap between the seats, which could cramp campers or prove challenging for loading dog crates or other big, boxy items.
Cargo space ranges from 14.4 cubic feet behind the third row to 71.2 cubic feet with both rows folded. There is a 12-volt plug, two grocery bag hooks and some basement storage. There are no power seat folders or even a strap to help hoist the seats back into position.
The Mazda way may be humble, but the CX-9 is a showcase of more premium materials and a new luxurious trim line.
Mark Maynard is online at email@example.com. Find photo galleries and more news at Facebook.com/MaynardsGarage