- 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.
2016 Mazda CX-9
Taut lines and its best interior yet give the Mazda CX-9 great presence and elegance.
The CX-9 is the latest expression of Mazda's suave design instincts. With some of the same curvature and long-nose looks of its 6 sedan, the CX-9 has an effortlessly handsome look that could be a dead ringer for Jaguar's new F-Pace, from some angles.
At the front, the CX-9 sits tall and leans slightly forward, like the Volvo XC90, while in back the roof pillars arc and rise in an uncomplicated way. The CX-9's overhangs are quite short, giving this model a long, wide, and planted visual presence—reinforced through the use of some large wheels, up to 20-inchers, plus tapered fenders and a new more upright version of the Mazda family grille and front end.
That grille can be lit by LEDs on top versions, while all models sport circular LED headlights (like those on a Jaguar, frankly) and taillights.
Inside, the design is more car-like than ever, with a low-set version of the horizontal, shelf-like dash that’s been used in Mazda’s other contemporary models. The infotainment screen sits atop the dash like a non-wall-mounted television, afterthought-ish and aftermarket-ish. Mazda likes black gloss plastic, and there's plenty of it on the CX-9's door panels and console.
We haven't seen a CX-9 in base drag yet, and our first drives were only in the most expensive models. On those, there’s a very warm look to the cabin appointments, with supple Nappa leather, Japanese rosewood, and aluminum trim.
It's part of an effort dubbed Mazda Premium, to fit its top vehicles with more overtly luxurious trim. It works well in the CX-9; with its extensive sound deadening, the SUV gives no impression that it's from a brand more known for its compact hatches and frugal economy cars. It's a richer, more pleasant presentation than, say, a Range Rover Evoque.
2016 Mazda CX-9
The CX-9's enlightened body and powertrain give it great road manners.
Mazda's biggest efforts in the new CX-9 have gone to trimming weight and saving fuel. Through lighter-weight construction, they've saved between 200 and 300 pounds over comparable versions of the last CX-9, much of that in the drivetrain.
The lighter-weight feel is abundant in the way the SUV accelerates and controls its body motions. It's a distinct pleasure to drive, a distinction not many of its competitors can match.
A new turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-4 powers the CX-9. It can run on regular or premium gas, and the choice makes a difference in output. On regular, it's rated at 227 horsepower; on premium, it makes 250 hp. Mazda says the power gap happens entirely above 4,500 rpm—a range few SUVs ever see. Maximum torque on either is 310 pound-feet of torque, reached at just 2,000 rpm.
The turbo relies on some nifty tech tricks to produce low-end torque comparable to the previous 3.7-liter V-6, while saving substantial weight. The new turbo has a set of valves that can push more air toward the turbocharger at a higher rate at low engine speeds, then open for more airflow across the rev range. The engine's exhaust ports are paired in such a way to create a stronger, more efficient exhaust draw.
What the crossover-SUV driver will pick up on is strong, almost lag-free acceleration. Sure, the turbo gets caught napping in brief windows just off idle, like they all do. But even Porsche's new Carrera turbo-6 has about 700 rpm from launch to peak torque.
The engine is paired with a 6-speed automatic transmission, There's no paddle shift control of the gearbox, and it's down a few cogs on rivals and their 9-speeds. It's better off for the number of gears, nicely packed toward the low end of the range, with a lump-free shift quality that's now rare in this class.
Sport mode enlivens the drivetrain, moving revs up a few hundred and quickening shifts, but it doesn't exert any control over other driving traits as the same switch would in other utility vehicles. Mazda says they're adamantly against "chasing a spec sheet" with features like those.
It also does without fancy things like adaptive dampers. The CX-9 uses a simple front-strut and rear-multilink design, and it's one of the better-controlled setups out there. Absorbent and comfortable on California's better secondary roads, it's not flawless. When it runs out of range to damp bumps, especially on its big 20-inch wheels, it patters and pistons with more pronounced wheel movement than in, say, a more softly sprung Honda Pilot.
We weren't able to sample a CX-9 on base 18-inch wheels and tires, and given our experience with other SUVs of this size, they might make for a better ride/handling trade-off.
The CX-9 has firm-feeling electric power steering that winds and unwinds without much feel. But it stops confidently, with responsive pedal feel. The brakes are the same size as those on the previous model, which means better stopping power, given they're fitted to a lighter vehicle.
All-wheel-drive capability is of course part of the package, available on all versions and standard on the top Signature model. Mazda's latest AWD system can send up to 50 percent of engine power to the rear wheels, though it lacks the electronically simulated torque-vectoring control of some rivals (using individual braking to limit understeer). What it promises to do is to find a better balance than more complex systems.
Unfortunately, the most challenging surfaces we encountered on our test drive came only on roads under repair, nothing that would demonstrate the slick-road capabilities to their best, or worst.
2016 Mazda CX-9
Comfort & Quality
The CX-9 needs more comfortable seats, but three-row space is par for the class, or better.
The 2016 CX-9 offers three rows of seating, for up to seven passengers. It has the flexibility, through second-row seat folding and sliding, to accommodate a wide range of passenger and cargo.
It's spacious enough, but the CX-9 is just shy of the class-best Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander in terms of space and utility. It carries seven passengers at most, while those other SUVs can tote 8. It has slightly less interior leg room, too. Its third-row seat rivals the Volvo XC90's for slim head and shoulder room for adults.
Still, those are edge cases, and for what drivers use these big crossovers for on a daily basis, the CX-9 is up to speed.
Who fits, and where
By the numbers, the CX-9 is 199.4 inches long, longer than either the Pilot or Toyota Highlander or XC90. Its wheelbase of 115.3 inches is up 2.2 inches over the outgoing model, and considerably longer than than of the Pilot (111.0 inches) and Highlander (109.8 inches), while the Volvo is even longer (117. inches).
Comparing any of these vehicles to each other leads to one conclusion: one may have a bit more knee or shoulder room than another, but most do a good job of providing space for most tasks.
In front, the CX-9 acquits itself well, with good front-seat range of adjustment. Its standard tilt-telescope steering wheel leaves tall drivers with a good view of traffic lights and the CX-9's gauges. The deep center console has a split door, there are decently sized side pockets in the doors, and slim storage on either side of the center console. There is also a deep bin ahead of shift lever, where you could stack three or four smartphones—if that nightmare scenario ever proved true.
Mazda put more effort into designing a slimmer set of seats to spare weight. No complaints there—we'll reserve those for the front seat bottoms. They're very flat, and even with power operation, the passenger front seat won't tilt its bottom cushion for better comfort. After a couple of hours of riding shotgun, it wears on most passengers. Heating is an option, but ventilation is not. We haven't sampled a CX-9 with the base cloth interior yet.
The second-row seats have about an inch more leg room than Pilot or Highlander, and they recline, but they don't have much sculpting, either. The split-fold bench does slide on a track, giving the driver control over passenger space versus cargo space.
The Pilot still leads this class for third-row hospitality, but the CX-9 isn't too far off. Mazda's closest to the Highlander, while the XC90 has a bit more leg room. The Pilot has considerably more leg and head room in the third row, which explains why we fit comfortably in the back of the Honda, but had to bend over to sit in the CX-9's third row—and even then, had almost no lower-cushion support.
Cargo and storage
The CX-9 is no minivan, but Mazda doesn't sell one, so it's forced to cover for that type of vehicle. It's a reasonable trade-off, unless you're loading wide stuff through the side doors.
The second-row seat does its part to help with cargo. It's foldable, on a 60/40-split. To help create easier third-row access, it’s facilitated with a single lever pull.
The third-row seat folds completely flat. Behind it, there's 14.4 cubic feet of space. With the third-row seats lowered, the CX-9 has 38.2 cubic feet of space.
The cargo space is easily accessed, thanks to a moderate-height load floor and a lighter tailgate that's power-operated on most models. Additionally, there are two storage bins underneath the rearmost storage floor.
2016 Mazda CX-9
The new CX-9 adds a raft of cutting-edge safety features, but skips others and hasn't been crash-tested yet.
There's no crash-test data for the Mazda CX-9, from either the NHTSA or the IIHS. Mazda's made big promises for the rest of its lineup and has met those targets, so we expect to report good things here in future updates.
In the meantime, the CX-9 smartly catches up with the rest of the segment on active-safety features. Along with the usual airbags and stability control, the CX-9 has a standard rearview camera and trailer-sway assist coded into its traction-management systems. Bluetooth is also standard.
There are two LATCH/ISOFIX mounting points in the second row. The right side of the split-fold rear seat folds in a way that permits a child seat to stay in place when passengers load into the third-row seat.
Some new safety technology is fitted on more expensive models, but unavailable on the base Sport model. Mid-range versions get blind-spot monitors, while the top trims add a bundle of safety technology that includes adaptive cruise control (good for operating at up to 90 mph), lane-keep assist, lane-departure warnings, and forward-collision warnings with automatic emergency braking. The CX-9 also gets rear parking sensors and automatic headlights on upper trims.
Mazda doesn't offer surround-view cameras, parking assist, or front parking sensors on any CX-9.
Outward vision is excellent for the driver of the CX-9. The only sore point for any passengers, in fact, comes in the third-row seat. Anyone who volunteers to sit back there should be ready for minimal outside views from the small third-row windows.
2016 Mazda CX-9
Mazda fits some high-end gear to the CX-9, but top safety features only come on expensive models, and the infotainment system is lacking.
Mazda has made strides in boosting the luxury and infotainment features of all its vehicles. The CX-9 SUV grabs more than its fair share—perfectly in tune with its upscale, family-friendly mission—but there are still some lapses.
The base $32,420 CX-9 Sport has power windows, locks, and mirrors; cruise control; air conditioning; LED headlights and taillights; 18-inch wheels; a rearview camera; and an AM/FM audio system with Bluetooth audio streaming and a USB port and a 7.0-inch screen.
There's no CD player on any CX-9—as it should be. However, Mazda has also not anted up yet with either Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, phone-based operating systems that really are better than the complex MazdaConnect setup. It uses a puck-shaped controller, and on some versions a touchscreen display, to rule its secondary systems. Like the similar systems from South Korea and Germany, it's a sometimes maddening setup that requires multiple motions for simple things like setting a radio favorite. Steering-wheel controls help, but don't fix the problem.
An optional package on this trim level adds heated front seats, heated exterior mirrors, and a power driver seat.
For $36,870, the CX-9 Touring comes closer to the crossover state of the art. It adds leather; keyless entry; power front seats; an 8.0-inch infotainment touchscreen; and blind-spot monitors. An option package piles on automatic headlights; navigation; Bose audio; rear parking sensors; satellite radio; and forward-collision warnings with automatic emergency braking.
The $41,070 Grand Touring CX-9 intrudes on some luxury-SUV turf. it gets 20-inch wheels; aluminum trim on the dash; a crisp, colorful head-up display; and a bundle of safety technology, including adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warnings, and lane-keep assist. Parking assist and surround-view cameras, available on many competitors, aren't offered on the CX-9. Neither are ventilated seats. The Grand Touring trim also gains a sunroof, but the CX-9 avoids a panoramic roof entirely; engineers claim it would weigh too much, and dull the CX-9's finer senses.
At the top of the lineup, the $44,915 CX-9 Signature layers on rosewood trim and Nappa leather in the cabin; gets standard all-wheel drive; and gets LED accent lighting on its grille.
Audio and infotainment
Mazda has worked to create in the 2016 Mazda CX-9 what it terms, a “Heads-Up Cockpit,” and it comes with a Mazda Connect infotainment, with either a 7.0- or 8.0-inch display depending on the trim level. Just as in the Mazda 3, Mazda 6, Mazda CX-3, and Miata, the infotainment screen stands atop the middle of the instrument panel and wraps in controls for diagnostics and safety items alongside hands-free calling functions, audio, and navigation.
In front of the driver there’s a 4.6-inch abbreviated screen, as well as (in some versions) a full-color head-up display with readouts for navigation, cruise control, speed and other functions.
Those in front get two USB ports, making it easy to connect smartphones for music streaming via integrated Pandora or Aha music apps, while rear passengers now get two USB ports powerful enough to charge a tablet device.
Other highlights include a 12-speaker Bose premium audio system that’s specially tuned for compressed digital music, and ambient white LED lighting on top trims, that gives a soft glow to the cockpit.
2016 Mazda CX-9
Mazda meets a high standard for crossover-SUV gas mileage.
Mazda claims the CX-9 earns the top fuel-economy figures in the three-row crossover SUV class, and the EPA mostly confirms that.
The CX-9 comes in a single powertrain configuration, with a turbo inline-4 and a 6-speed automatic. That setup, paired with front-wheel drive, nets EPA ratings of 22 mpg city, 28 highway, 25 combined.
Among natural rivals—such as the Kia Sorento, Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, and Toyota Highlander—only the front-drive, 4-cylinder Kia Sorento exceeds that highway figure, with its 29-mpg highway rating.
With all-wheel drive, those figures fall slightly, to 21/27/23 mpg.
Compare those to the Honda Pilot, which needs its optional 9-speed automatic to earn ratings of 20/27/23 mpg in front-drive form. The Highlander's best figures of 20/25/22 mpg come with a 4-cylinder, front-drive model. The Ford Explorer, with its turbo-4, comes closer, at 19/28/22 mpg.