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2016 Mazda CX-9 GT Signature: Four cylinders, seven seats
By Dan Heyman
Oct. 21, 2016
Is it my fault that I consider the CX-9 the oft-forgotten Mazda, the Black Sheep of a brand that specializes in making sporty hatches and compact crossovers? Should I be more observant? More considerate?
I’m not sure, but when I look at just how revolutionary this latest version is, it seems I wasn’t the only one who thought something serious had to be done in order to bring Mazda’s largest North American vehicle back onto the radar in the growing and ever more competitive mid-size, three-row crossover class.
And it all comes down to an engine. But more on that in a minute.
Pros & Cons
- + Smooth, strong engine
- + Interior design
- + Sharp handling
- - Buggy infotainment system
- - Small front footwells
- - Pricey base model
From almost every angle, the CX-9 is a rather handsome beast, yet one that is still quintessentially a Mazda. The fantastic, squinting headlamps (which are LEDs on every trim, but get extra sparkly thanks to the signature lighting on the GT trim seen here), proud horizontal grille and spidery wheels – the GT gets a nice, full-fat set of 20-inchers while other trims get 18s – are all proper touches from a company that knows how to build good-looking cars. The stance is great, too, when viewed from either the front or rear three-quarter angles.
Where I start to take issue, however, is with the straight-on side profile. The grille looks good from the front, but when seen from the side it sticks out in a rather untoward manner. I know they needed to accommodate the large radiator (and pedestrian impact standards, probably. —Ed), but couldn’t’ they have swept it back, just a little?
Holy moly, does this thing ever look good inside.
Like their exteriors, Mazda has managed to develop a bit of a penchant for delivering high-quality, well-laid out and handsome interiors. Even the bargain-basement Mazda3 GS looks good inside; imagine what Mazda can do with the top spec of their flagship.
In our car in particular, they’ve gone whole hog. I mean, just look at those seats! In that colour! That’s something I would expect to see from a luxury car line like BMW or Audi, but not so much here. Until you consider, of course, that unlike so many car brands, Mazda doesn’t have a luxury division, so this is pretty much it. Which is why you need that fancy red-brown two-tone Nappa leather, open pore wood, AND real aluminum inserts. Is it all a little much? Too many conflicting shapes and materials, perhaps? I don’t think so. When you consider what’s included, there’s a lot going on but it doesn’t look it, and doesn’t make you feel confined or boxed in by too many shapes.
What did have me feeling slightly boxed-in, however, is the pedal box and driver legroom. The centre stack is a wide affair and the console has to widen at the front to meet it in search of some symmetry; in practice, it means taller front seat occupants just don’t have as much room for their knees. The numbers don’t lie, either; the Mazda’s 1,041 mm of front legroom is less than the Hyundai Santa Fe XL and Toyota Highlander, while the Honda Pilot falls short by – wait for it – one whole millimetre.
The CX-9 is a long car overall, though, so all that space has to be used for something if it’s not going to be the front seats. Indeed, the second row seats are properly roomy and the third row seats are actually usable by adults. I know we’ve come a long way when it comes to three-row SUVs and CUVs, but that doesn’t mean I’m not impressed with a third row as usable as this. Both rear rows can be folded flat, of course, resulting in 2,017 L of cargo space, although once again the CX-9 is in arrears of the competition when it comes to interior space.
Ours being the GT Signature trim means we had all the bells and whistles; head-up display, navi, Bluetooth, back-up cam, sat radio with support for Aha! and Stitcher, tri-zone climate control (that gets a digital display for the second row), eight-inch display screen (a seven-inch example is standard), heated steering wheel and heated front seats.
On the safety front, Mazda is following the trend of semi-autonomous driving with my car’s tech package of adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist and automatic braking. The backup cam, stability control, and anti-roll control all come as standard.
All that stuff’s great… when it works. For some reason, the infotainment system on our car had a tendency to get stuck – seemingly out of the blue – in an endless loop of restarting itself. There is a firmware update that’s required to fix it – dealers will do it for free – but really? In this day and age, when infotainment and connectivity continues to matter more and more, this is a pretty basic feature that should work. Every new Mazda sold from here on out, however, should already have the firmware fix installed, so there’s that.
Right. That engine we alluded to.
The CX-9 is the first ever three-row Mazda crossover in North America to use a four-banger, and it joins an ever-growing list of crossovers with this setup; it appears that we’re finally getting what the Europeans have known for quite some time.
Thing is, instead of using diesel as they would for their various Renaults, Citroens and Vauxhalls, Mazda has kept it petrol, but added a turbocharger to make up the difference. Power is rated at 227 hp and a generous 310 lb-ft of torque, and while the former figure is down on the competition, the latter figure beats them all. And they’re using less fuel-efficient naturally-aspirated V6’s.
Peak torque arrives at 2,000 rpm, so even though I was sure that our trip through the mountains – fully laden with camping gear and wine from BC’s Okanagan wine region, mind – would expose the CX-9’s smaller engine, it just wasn’t the case. I honestly felt like I was piloting something with a proper V6 the entire time.
The transmission helps; Mazda’s SKYACTIV Drive six-speed unit is a responsive one, never leaving you out in the wrong gear or wasting precious seconds shuffling around. There is a manual mode, it’s just a pity you can’t operate it via wheel-mounted paddles because, well, there aren’t any. Which, of course, is really only a problem for us journos as I can’t imagine there being many buyers that make much use of these, or will lament their not being included.
What all drivers can appreciate, though, is the CX-9’s ride.
While Mazda has been known for engineering some pretty lively chassis over the years, that doesn’t mean they have to be uncomfortably firm, too. The CX-9 gets stabilizer bars at each end to keep body roll in check, allowing Mazda to tune the front MacPherson struts and rear multi-link set-up to deliver a softer ride without overly compromising chassis fidelity as you take to the twisties. Add a direct and responsive electronically-assisted steering rack, and you’ve got a handling package that both does the Mazda nameplate proud, and instills confidence in the occupants. Very well done here, Mazda.
Starting at $37,320 for FWD versions, the CX-9 does sit on the slightly higher cost of entry side when compared with the other four vehicles mentioned earlier. Adding AWD, however, is interesting in that it undercuts everything but the Highlander. In reality, for most Canadian buyers that’s what matters as the number of FWD models sold of any of these cars makes up a small percentage of the overall sales figure. FWD-wise, the CX-9’s in tough on the value front. AWD-wise, however, it does well to make up for that.
The question is: will the CX-9 continue to remain the Black Sheep of the Mazda family? If we’re talking sales alone, then that’s likely to be the case. That being said, the Pilot, the Santa Fe and the Highlander are all beaten to the sales podium by the smaller cars (three times over) in their respective manufacturer’s line-up, so the CX-9 can’t be faulted there. What really matters is whether the CX-9 will be able to pry sales away from other crossovers, which have proven to have a pretty loyal following.
Well, so far in 2016, the CX-9 has already beaten its annual Canadian sales figures dating all the way back to 2008, so people are starting to take notice. So they should be; fix that infotainment and learn to live with some slightly snugger environs, and you’ll be rewarded with a great driving, good-looking crossover experience.