- Lighter to the touch, across the board
- Well-sculpted exterior
- Warm, well-coordinated cabin
- Comprehensive safety set
- The biggest Mazda ever
- Real-world gas mileage might strain to hit EPA numbers
- A 6-speed, in a world of 9-speeds
- Third-row seat is small for vehicle's size
- Infotainment system is fussy
The 2016 Mazda CX-9 has sharp handling and sleek looks, but falls a bit shy in features and third-row space.
For a brand that leans heavily on its performance credentials, Mazda sells a lot of SUVs: CX-3, CX-5, and CX-9.
In its first go-round, the CX-9 earned a reputation as a smartly conceived crossover SUV, oversupplied with good handling if a bit shy on interior room and features.
Now, a new CX-9 is hoping to move the yardsticks, with even better performance hitched to more interior room, better safety, and more tech features.
It does that, mostly. Priced from between $32,420 and $44,915, in Sport, Touring, Grand Touring, and new Signature form, the CX-9 is the best big Mazda ever sold, though still down on third-row space and some high-end touches.
Less electronica, more instinct
Taut sheet metal and its best interior yet give the Mazda CX-9 great presence and elegance. Its tall front end wears a delicately detailed grille, lit in LEDs on the most expensive models, and circular LED headlamps. Its tapered fenders and roofline square up with a wider stance to give the SUV a planted but athletic look, helped along by available 20-inch wheels.
Inside, the design is more car-like than ever, with a low-set dash dressed in warm Japanese rosewood and aluminum trim on top versions. There's also plenty of gloss-black trim, some errant switch placements, and an infotainment display that sits on the dash like a mid-priced hotel's flatscreen TV. In all, it's a fine cabin, one with plenty of eye-soothing appeal.
The CX-9's enlightened body and powertrain give it great road manners. A downsized, turbocharged inline-4 replaces a heavier V-6. With up to 250 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque coming on boost early, the CX-9 has strong acceleration subdued behind lots of sound deadening and thick glass.
It's quick, and its standard 6-speed automatic does it lots of favors. There's no lumpy shift action or busy torque-converter judders like most of its 9-speed rivals, but the CX-9 also lacks paddle shift controls (forget about a manual shifter). It's frugal, though: With highway fuel economy of up to 28 mpg, it bests the competition in almost every test.
All-wheel drive is available across the board, and it's a straightforward system that ingests a lot of information from all its vital sensors to distribute up to half its power to the rear wheels.
Mazda weaves this all together in a harmonious ride/handling package that relies less on electronica and more on instinct. The steering is electric, but doesn't switch modes or weight—it just delivers predictable, regular responses. The suspension's a straightforward strut-and-multilink design; even without adaptive dampers, it generates little fuss in handling any moderately roughed-up stretch of pavement. It's absorbent enough on 20-inch wheels and tires, and it's entirely likely the base 18-inch setup will be even better.
Comfort highs and lows
The CX-9 needs more comfortable seats, but three-row space is par for the class, or better. The front two rows have arguably better space than those in competitors, but the seats are hard and flat, and lack some needed adjustment. The third-row seat in particular can feel pinched for head and knee room, if adults have been conned into sitting back there; for kids, there's plenty of romper room.
It's no minivan, but the CX-9 does a suitable job of imitating one save for the sliding doors. The back two rows of seats fold flat for cargo storage, and there's storage space under the cargo floor.
The new CX-9 adds a raft of cutting-edge safety features, but skips others and hasn't been crash-tested yet. The most advanced technologies—such as adaptive cruise control and forward-collision warnings—aren't even offered on versions priced below $37,000.
It's a similar story on the luxury front. Mazda fits some high-end gear to the CX-9, but the infotainment system is fussy and some touches like ventilated seats, a panoramic roof, and power-fold seats are not offered.
All models have power features, a CD-free audio system with Bluetooth audio streaming, and a rearview camera. Most versions have leather, blind-spot monitors, and a slew of USB ports for charging and streaming.
No CX-9 has Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Instead, drivers have to spin the wheel with Mazda Connect, a fussy infotainment controller with a touchscreen display that still requires multiple gestures to make simple changes, like adding a preset favorite.