Will the CX-9 allow Mazda to make a legitimate push towards snagging the premium customers that have so far eluded it?

The 2016 Mazda CX-9 sees the Japanese automaker at a crucial turning point. This completely-redesigned full-size SUV has finally been brought into the Skyactiv fold - that is to say, gifted with the range of fuel-saving technologies that are a staple of the Mazda line-up in Canada.

More importantly, it also seeks to answer two very important questions: can Mazda preserve the fun-to-drive character that has long distinguished its offerings when compared against the competition, despite the pressures associated with a big family hauler and the need to boost efficiency? And will the CX-9 allow Mazda to make a legitimate push towards snagging the premium customers that have so far eluded it? We spent a sunny California day with the sport-utility vehicle driving on the roads just north of San Francisco to get a better understanding of where Mazda is headed with its latest SUV.

2016 Mazda CX-9

There's not much about the 2016 Mazda CX-9 that's been carried over from the previous model aside from its mission statement to carry as many as seven passengers as comfortably as possible. The three-row SUV has gained distinctly-sharper styling to go with its new platform, and the shorter overhangs front and rear pair with a slightly stretched wheelbase and a longer hood to create a new, muscular sense of proportion for the CX-9. In profile it's a definite improvement, but there's really no bad angle from which to gaze upon the Mazda's well-executed design.

Inside it's a similar story. One of the most glaring faults found on the previous-generation Mazda CX-9 was its lacklustre cabin, a state of affairs forced on it by virtue of the fact that its platform dated back nearly a decade. The 2016 CX-9 erases any such concerns by way of its well-appointed passenger compartment, which is packed not just with updated infotainment and comfort features, but which has also been gifted with a range of material upgrades that elevate the SUV well above its roots. Gone is the hard plastic of the original model and in its place we found a mix of genuine metal, soft-touch surfaces, and on higher-end editions of the Mazda, real wood accents and Nappa leather.

2016 Mazda CX-9

Those last two items listed above are a key aspect of the CX-9's secret weapon - the Signature trim. Not since the 90s has Mazda so blatantly courted luxury seekers as it has with this new addition to its family of people movers, and we can tell you straight up that it's far from a wasted effort. Although the top-of-the-line CX-9 Signature stretches the SUV's $35,300 MSRP all the way to $50,100, it offers a riding environment that compares favourably with class-above rivals like the Acura MDX and the Lincoln MKT. These models feature window stickers that start where the CX-9 ends, which is good news for drivers who want to be coddled without having to pony up.

For budget-conscious SUV shoppers, even the entry-level GS model improves on the CX-9 of old. Features such as LED headlights, a new 7-inch LCD touchscreen matched with the Mazda Connect infotainment system, USB charging ports, Bluetooth connectivity, and three-zones of automatic climate control are standard with the 2016 edition of the Mazda, and moving up through the GS-L and GT trim levels nets you items such as navigation, a power liftgate, a heated steering wheel, heated and cooled seats, and an upgraded 8-inch Mazda Connect display. A raft of optional new safety technologies are also onboard, including lane departure warning and lane keeping assistance, forward collision warning with automatic braking, and of course a blind spot monitoring system.

 

2016 Mazda CX-9

As momentous as the changes are to the 2016 Mazda CX-9's sheet metal and interior trappings, what's gone on under the hood is equally tectonic in terms of drivetrain shift. Gone is the Ford-source 3.7-litre V6 that was plucky, yet thirsty, and in its place is a new 2.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder motor that turns up the torque. With up to 250 horsepower available (when running 91 octane fuel - 227 hp on regular), combined with 310 lb-ft of twist, the CX-9 never felt out of breath during the day we spent flogging it up California's Highway 1.

A big part of that has to do with the small engine's powerband, which has been tuned to deliver maximum torque as low as 2,000 rpm. This allows the 4-cylinder to really come into its own during the day-to-day commuting that most owners will use the CX-9 for, rather than asking them to peg the throttle and claw forward thrust out of the upper echelons of engine speed. Low-end torque combined with a retuned six-speed automatic transmission has also helped significantly improve the Mazda CX-9's fuel economy, with front-wheel drive editions now posting 10.5 L/100 km city and 8.3 L/100 km highway (compared to 14.2 / L / 100 km city and 10 L/100 km highway the year before). All-wheel drive remains an option on all but the Signature model, where it's standard.

2016 Mazda CX-9

Are there a few blemishes on what is otherwise an outstanding redesign of Mazda's flagship SUV? Sure - despite its lighter curb weight, the electric power steering system on the new CX-9 can't match the road feel of the outgoing hydraulic rack on the previous generation vehicle, deadening much of the 'fun' when driving in a spirited manner. Then there's the rear row: it's best enjoyed by children, not adults, but this is a fact that Mazda readily acknowledges, and an effort has been made to improve passenger comfort and interior access by way of scalloped seatbacks, a simplified folding mechanism for the second row, and the ability to slide and recline the middle tier.

While it might not be as engaging to drive as it once was, the 2016 Mazda CX-9 achieves something much more important by enhancing its fuel efficiency, radically making over its interior, and embracing a host of new safety technologies. It's a more powerful SUV that's better equipped to do battle in an increasingly high-stakes segment, and the strong push into the premium space made by the Signature trim translates into shots fired by Mazda over the bows of more established competitors like the Ford Explorer, the Nissan Pathfinder, and the Toyota Highlander.

2016 Mazda CX-9

 

ENGINE

2.5-litre 4-cylinder turbo

OUTPUT

227 hp (87 octane) 250 hp (91 octane / 310 lb-ft

TRANSMISSION

6-speed automatic

0-100 KMH

7.0 seconds

Towing Capacity

1,588 kg (3,500 lbs)

FUEL ECONOMY

10.5 L/100 km City / 8.3 L/100 km Highway

WEIGHT

1,842 kilograms (4,054 lbs)

SEATING CAPACITY

7

CARGO VOLUME

2,017 litres (71 cubic feet)

BASE PRICE

$35,300

AS-TESTED PRICE

$50,100 (Signature)

 

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