The Three-Row Turbocharged Driver’s Car
At about the same time Mazda revealed the new 2016 CX-9 at the 2015 L.A. Auto Show, we were invited to drive around Los Angeles in camouflaged prototypes. Although it’s always fun driving around in camo, it’s difficult to speak authoritatively about some important parts of the driving experience: ergonomics, for instance, since the interior was also completely covered. Furthermore, Mazda made it clear that the tuning on this hand-built prototype wasn’t complete. Could have fooled us—from start to finish, the new CX-9 drove like a finished, polished production car. Mazda has continued its blitz of affordable, mainstream vehicles that feel anything but mainstream.
We’ll let you be the judge of the CX-9’s looks (check out 2016 CX-9 photos from the auto show below), but we think it’s killer. As usual, though, Mazda’s styling comes second to substance. This is a company that’s secure enough in its products that it did the unthinkable: reduced the Miata’s horsepower—and made a better car out of it. The same thing is happening with the CX-9.
More on the 2016 CX-9: 10 Cool Features on the 2016 Mazda CX-9
To that end, the outgoing CX-9’s 3.7-liter V-6 has been replaced with a turbocharged, 2.5-liter I-4 that prioritizes low-end torque over marketing-material high-revving, screaming horsepower. It includes some tricks that don’t help fuel economy on the silly old EPA tests—though Mazda expects the CX-9 to offer class-leading EPA mpg anyway—but will assure that customers actually get those numbers in the real world.
Peak horsepower is just 227 hp on 87-octane fuel or 250 hp on 93. In either case, the important number is 310 lb-ft of torque that peaks at 2,000 rpm on either fuel. That sort of low-end grunt gives the CX-9 a waftability befitting larger, more powerful luxury cars: It means the engine doesn’t have to be screaming to accelerate briskly onto an onramp.
That’s good, also, because nobody wants to hear a screaming four-cylinder trying to keep up with traffic. The 2016 CX-9’s six-speed automatic does its part to keep revs high enough to mask lag but then minimize drama by keeping the engine quietly in its big low-rev operating band, and it will shift up under full load at just 5,000 rpm unless you’re in Sport mode.
The screaming-engine soundtrack isn’t the only thing missing from the CX-9’s cabin. There isn’t much road or wind noise, either. Weight-saving measures in the structure (and the lighter engine) gave Mazda’s engineers some latitude to put back in extra sound-deadening materials. By comparison, the CX-5 has 9 pounds (4 kg) of sound-deadening material in the floor, and the CX-9 has 53 pounds (24 kg). The CX-9 also has acoustic glass in the windshield and, for the first time in a Mazda, in the front-side windows.
The view out is expansive, and the driving position is good, though we reserve final judgment until we drive an un-camoed CX-9. Taller drivers might find that the steering wheel doesn’t telescope quite far enough, but the seats are comfortable, and the primary controls are well-placed.
The CX-9’s electrically assisted power steering is fantastic, with a surprising amount of feedback. We felt some torque steer from our front-drive tester, but that’s a very worthwhile tradeoff versus many modern steering systems that filter everything. The steering weights up in lockstep with cornering loads and continues to keep the driver abreast of what the front wheels are doing. It’s uncommonly good, as is the excellent body control and unexpectedly high cornering grip provided by the all-season tires. The brake pedal reacts with immediacy and linear, crisp engagement of the clampers. The CX-9 is, in prototype form, at least, the driver’s car of the three-row crossover segment.
There’s no surprise there. This is, after all, a Mazda.
Demerits? There are few. Access to the third row is, as in all crossovers, nowhere near as easy as in a minivan. And the engine’s huge midrange torque promises passing performance that the small turbo can’t deliver. Both of those complaints were engineered in. If the CX-9 had sliding minivan doors, families would run screaming from it, and if the turbo were big enough to provide big power at 6,000 rpm, it’d suffer from big lag at low revs where it’s used every day.
We’ll report back after we’ve driven the production-spec 2016 Mazda CX-9, but one thing’s not likely to change: Like its SUV of the Year-winning predecessor, this new family machine might reset the bar for fun-to-drive, efficient family transportation.