2016 Mazda CX-9: Family vehicles can be sexy [First Look]

2016 Mazda CX-9 (Photo by Jill Ciminillo)

I have been a fan of the Mazda CX-9 since I first drove it at the original press preview back in 2007. I loved how it drove, and I loved the sleek design. At the time, it was one of the first non-luxury cars I saw that had blind-spot monitoring and a keyless ignition.

It was innovative and comfortable. It sat 7 and still managed to be fun to drive.

The first-gen CX-9 proved to me that family haulers didn't have to be boring.

So, to say the all-new 2016 model had a lot to live up to is an understatement.

Luckily, the folks at Mazda came through with another sexy beast.

I never thought I could be mesmerized by an SUV, but when I first saw the CX-9 on the pedestal at the 2015 Los Angeles Auto Show, I stared. I left the display. I came back, and I stared some more. I did the same thing at the Detroit Auto Show, the Chicago Auto Show and then again in New York. It's something about the new liquid-looking Machine Gray Metallic paint combined with the svelte lines that keep me coming back for more.

The CX-9 is the latest iteration of the Mazda "KODO - Soul of Motion" design philosophy, and I think it's one of the best implementations yet. From the aggressive, forward-leaning grille all the way to the long sweeping lines surrounding the vehicle, this new 7-passenger crossover looks like it's moving even when it's not.

At the press preview for the CX-9, Robert Davis, the senior vice president of U.S. operations for Mazda North America, discussed the changing face of Mazda. He noted that 40 percent of the previous-generation CX-9s sold were in the Grand Touring trim. He also said that the current CX-5 is close to 50 percent Grand Touring. This is why you're going to see something novel in the CX-9 for a non-luxury brand: real wood, stamped aluminum accent pieces and Nappa leather.

Yeah, in a Mazda.

Davis calls it "Mazda Premium," which is code for a luxurious experience from design to technology to craftsmanship.

This newest Mazda has a whole host of available high-tech safety features and some pretty nifty gadgets. I was particularly fond of the head-up display that projects onto the windshield instead of using a weird plastic window that pops out of the dash behind the steering wheel. Other available features include navigation, blind-spot monitoring, smart city braking, adaptive front lighting, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and lane keep assist.

The big tech news with the CX-9, however, is Mazda confirmed it will be getting Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but it won't be available at launch and there is currently no set date for the integration.

The CX-9 is also the last vehicle in the Mazda lineup to get the Skyactiv treatment. Thus the 3.7-liter, V-6 engine from the previous generation has been replaced with a 2.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine. This means there is a slight loss of horsepower - 23 hp to be exact - but there is a significant increase in torque. It was 270 pound-feet in the V-6, and it goes up to 310 pound-feet in the 4-cylinder. Engineers at the press preview stressed that this was done on purpose based on real-world driving habits.

The end result is more torque up front for quicker launches and better fuel efficiency overall.

The CX-9 is available in front and all-wheel-drive configurations, and EPA estimates city/highway fuel economy to be 22/28 mpg and 21/27 mpg, respectively.

Our day-long drive wasn't really enough time to get an adequate gauge of actual fuel economy, but it was plenty of time to realize how fun this vehicle is to drive. Our drive route consisted of several twisty bits that were better suited to a sports car than an SUV. Yet the CX-9 managed to surprise and delight me and my driving partner. It handled the curves very well, hugging the road. We almost forgot we were driving a 7-passenger vehicle.

The CX-9 also did very well on long highway stretches, providing a comfortable and quiet ride. And when I say quiet, I mean virtually silent. Mazda paid a lot of attention to noise, vibration and harshness, creating a thicker floorpan and adding more insulation between the floor and carpet. The windows also have better seals and sound-absorbing acoustic glass. The result is tomb-like silence while driving at highway speeds. I was very impressed.

The new CX-9 will have a four-tiered trim system, starting at slightly more than $31K and topping out at about $45K. Key standard features at each trim include:

  • Sport: Three rows of seat for up to 7 passengers and three-zone automatic climate control.
  • Touring: Leather seats, heated front seats, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, passive entry and push-button start.
  • Grand Touring: The full suite of i-ActiveSense safety features, 20-inch aluminum alloy wheels and power sliding-glass moonroof.
  • Signature: Nappa leather seats, genuine Rosewood interior trim and leather-wrapped steering wheel with red box-stitching.

I love almost everything about the exterior design of the CX-9. The downward sloping hood casts a mean side profile, and the attention to detail - right down to the ridged lines inside the taillights - is impressive. The styling overall is bold yet elegant.

We were driving the Signature trim, and the interior was downright sumptuous. The seats were comfortable enough for 6 hours of seat time, and I liked the bright "Auburn" color of the leather. Mazda paid significant attention to detail here as well, giving the interior an up-level feel with soft surfaces and reverse stitching.

However, as much as I loved the new CX-9, there were a few things about the vehicle I thought were peculiar.

Given the attention to detail throughout the vehicle, the tiny dual exhaust pipes are a bit of a non sequitur. With such an elegant design everywhere else, I'd like to see the same attention here - perhaps having the tailpipes integrated into the rear bumper with more of an oval or trapezoidal shape rather than a small circle.

Additionally, the location of the USB ports are inconveniently located inside the center console - this goes for front and rear USB ports. While I understand this was probably done more for aesthetics, there is a nice shelf behind the gearshift that holds a smartphone perfectly, and it would make sense to have the ports located there.

I also thought it was odd that there were no heated rear seats available and no ventilated front seats. Both Kia and Hyundai offer both of these features in vehicles that are decidedly less luxurious.

Last, though the middle seats can be maneuvered to give access to the rear seats with a car seat strapped in, they were really difficult to move. I found myself struggling to slide them forward and then pop them back into place.

But in terms of complaints, that's it. The CX-9 is a beautifully designed vehicle inside and out. It's well-powered and efficient. And it makes sense for both suburban and urban environments because it's both comfortable and easy to maneuver.

Limited sales for the CX-9 started in May, and the new SUV will be hitting dealerships en masse starting this month.


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