2016 Mazda CX-9: More fun with fewer cylinders
By Jil McIntosh
Sep. 7, 2016
It’s usually the case that when a vehicle morphs into an “all-new” version, it gets bigger. Mazda has bucked that trend with its 2016 CX-9, though. The wheelbase is longer, but the overall length shrinks slightly, and it’s lower. But most importantly, there are now two fewer cylinders under the hood.
Yes, the previous V6 is gone, replaced in all trim lines with a 2.5-litre direct-injection four-cylinder and new turbocharger technology for performance and fuel economy. The combination makes less horsepower than the outgoing six-banger but considerably more torque and at lower engine speeds.
All trims include three rows of seats. The CX-9 has a starting price of $35,300 for the base GS in front-wheel drive, which can be optioned to all-wheel for $37,800. All other trims are AWD, including my next-up GS-L tester at $41,500; the GT at $45,500; and the new-for-2016 Signature trim, topping the lineup at $50,100 before freight and taxes.
Pros & Cons
- + Good fuel efficiency
- + Off-the-line responsiveness
- + Steering feel
- - Small third-row seat
- - instrument panel
- - A few cheap interior touches
Despite being Mazda’s largest vehicle while wearing the same basic styling as the company’s smaller sport-utes, the CX-9 looks smooth and never clunky. The long rear doors open very wide for access to the third row—although it still requires some gymnast genes for adults to wedge back there—and you’ll have to remind passengers to be careful when other vehicles are parked alongside lest they ding some sheet metal.
Both the base GS and my GS-L ride on 18-inch alloy wheels, but the “L” puts a smoked finish on them, as well as adding a sunroof, LED fog lamps, automatic headlamps, rain-sensing wipers, and a height-adjustable power liftgate to the exterior.
Although it is marginally lower than its predecessor, there’s still good headroom inside, while the large rear window and relatively thin C-pillars provide good visibility for shoulder checks.
The CX-9 is well-outfitted even in its base form, with tri-zone automatic climate control, pushbutton start, one-touch up and down windows, eight-way driver’s seat and heated front chairs. My next-up GS-L trim added leather upholstery, heated steering wheel, auto-dimming rearview mirror, power passenger seat, and illuminated vanity mirrors.
Overall, the cabin design is simple and handsome, with attractive chrome and gloss-black accents. It’s unfortunate that the infotainment screen looks tacked-on in its trough atop the dash, but that’s probably going to be the new normal going forward with most manufacturers, since it keeps your eyes up toward the windshield when you’re looking at the screen. It also lets designers lower the dash, since the screen doesn’t have to be fitted into it, which in turn can make a cabin look roomier.
There are a few other quibbles as well. The white dot-matrix readouts in the instrument cluster and climate controls look dated. It can also be hard to quickly read the all-white monotone cluster gauge when the top portion fills with cruise control information. The toggle switches on the steering wheel feel flimsy and cheap, too. And while it’s probably only an issue for shorter drivers, the centre console is too tall, and when I adjusted my seat up for maximum visibility over the hood, the steering wheel covered the top part of the speedometer, making it impossible to check my speed on the highway.
First- and second-row occupants enjoy comfortable seats and good legroom, but alas, those in the third row do not. Those very-back chairs are flat and knee room is lacking, and there isn’t much space for slipping one’s feet under the row ahead. This is definitely more for children than for adults.
The CX-9’s infotainment system uses a combination of touchscreen and a joystick controller on the centre console, styled somewhat along the lines of BMW’s iDrive or Mercedes-Benz’s COMAND. Hard buttons alongside let you move quickly to specific functions, such as the stereo or the home page. It’s a seven-inch screen on the base GS, but eight-inch on all others. Included in the system are USB ports, Bluetooth with text message function, satellite radio, and Internet radio functionality.
The controller includes a button for navigation, but the option itself is standard only on the GT and Signature trim lines. On the GS and GS-L, you must purchase an SD accessory card from the dealer to actually get the map function itself.
The GS-L and up include blind spot monitoring with cross-traffic alert, and low-speed emergency braking if an object ahead is detected and the driver doesn’t respond. Available on the GT and standard on the Signature are adaptive cruise control, higher-speed emergency braking, and lane departure warning with lane-keeping assist.
The new 2.5-litre engine, the first turbocharged unit to be part of Mazda’s fuel efficiency-focused SkyActiv umbrella, uses a system called Dynamic Pressure Turbo, which the company says is a world-first. Depending on the engine speed, it varies the degree of exhaust pulsation by closing valves ahead of the turbine at lower rpm, and opening them at higher revolutions. By maximizing the pulsation, the turbo can spool up quickly to produce boost in a very wide range of engine revolutions. Meanwhile, a cooled EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) prevents knocking, so the engine can run on 87-octane fuel.
It churns out 227 horsepower, which is considerably less than the 273 ponies made by the outgoing 3.7-litre V6. However, it makes 310 lb.-ft. of torque and at just 2,000 rpm, whereas the V6 made 270 lb.-ft. at 4,250 lbs—and when that light turns green, it’s torque that gets you moving.
It’s a rumbly little engine, especially at idle when you’re standing outside the CX-9, but the interior is so well insulated that only a keen little growl gets through on acceleration. It’s mated exclusively to a six-speed automatic. The combination works well, although when you’re at cruising speed and need a burst of power for passing, it can take a split second for the transmission to take notice and downshift.
Still, it doesn’t detract much from the driving experience, which is further enhanced with the firm, tight, but not-too-heavy steering that Mazda puts in all its vehicles. You can often forget how big this thing is and actually have some fun with it.
All that under-hood technology is about saving fuel, and the published figures bear it out. The 2015 version with all-wheel drive was rated at 14.3 L/100 km in the city and 10.6 on the highway, while the 2016 AWD officially clocks in at 11.2 and 8.8 respectively. In a week of combined driving, I averaged 10.1 L/100 km.
The segment is fairly well matched across the three-row rivals, but the CX-9 starts near the top of the charts. The Honda Pilot has a slightly higher base price, but models such as the Chevrolet Traverse, Toyota Highlander, Nissan Pathfinder and Kia Sorento all start lower. Still, at $41,500 for what was in it, my tester felt about right: not a steal, but not terribly overpriced either.
The addition of the new trim levels gives buyers more choice, while the new engine provides great performance and potentially fewer fuel stops. Not everyone wants or needs three rows of seats, but if it’s on your checklist, this one’s a contender.