When we last slipped behind the wheel of the CX-9, Mazda’s biggest sport-utility vehicle, three years ago, the car was powered by a V-6 engine and gulped a gallon of gasoline every 22 highway miles. Today’s redesigned CX-9 comes with a sprightly 227-horsepower turbocharged Four rated at 27 mpg on the highway. It’s a likable SUV in many ways.
Our test car was a top-of-the-line 2016 CX-9 Signature. The goofy-grin grille has been replaced with a benevolent-smile grille with a bit of an overbite. We couldn’t help but wonder how this design could be aerodynamic enough to achieve the two-ton SUV’s impressive fuel-economy numbers.
With this model, Mazda tries, mostly successfully, to strike a balance between a rugged, all-weather SUV and roomy, versatile minivan – something Mazda no longer builds, having phased out the Mazda5 minivan in favor of a compact SUV called the CX-5. While not intended to chase a Jeep Wrangler Trailhawk up a logging road, the CX-9 stands high, with 8.8 inches of road clearance. All-wheel drive, standard on Signature-badged units, completes the package. Meanwhile, with a bench rear seat and two-passenger third row, the CX-9 can transport seven people in comfort, as long as the two in the way-back are relatively small.
CX-9 sales never have approached the likes of the Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer, Chevrolet Traverse and Toyota Highlander, but the Mazda SUV deserves a look by those sizing up the more popular mainstream SUVs. At $45,215, our CX-9 carried a premium price tag, but it’s also premium goods. Mazda didn’t scrimp on the interior materials and switchgear, and at the Signature trim level, the standard-equipment list moves it from near-luxury to full-blown luxury.
Other Mazdas we’ve driven have exhibited BMW-like road manners. As it happened, we had a BMW X1, a subcompact SUV, the same week we took delivery of the CX-9, and the differences were substantial. Where the BMW rode firmly, the CX-9’s ride was quite soft, and it didn’t take corners with anything like the BMW’s aplomb. In this respect, our clear favorite in the Mazda crossover-SUV line is the roomy, sweet-handling, five-passenger CX-5.
For our tallest driver, the CX-9 proved a little short in the leg-room department – a surprising deficiency in an otherwise well-designed SU with big, plush bucket seats. A wider range of adjustment on the 8-way power seat, or adjustable pedals, would solve this problem.
The base CX-9 Sport, with front-wheel drive, starts at $31,520. It comes with a rear-view camera, 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels, a multi-function Commander control, seating for seven, cruise control, and an impressive list of telematic features.
Crash-test data on the CX-9 are not yet available. The smaller CX-5 has been rated a Top Safety Pick Plus by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The 2015 CX-9 did not fare as well in the institute’s crash tests, but the 2016 model benefits from a full redesign.
Steven Macoy ([email protected]) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.
2016 Mazda CX-9 Signature AWD
Engine: 2.5-liter inline turbocharged Four, 227 horsepower, 310 lb.-ft. torque
Transmission: 6-speed shiftable automatic
Ground clearance: 8.8 in.
Weight: 4,301 lb.
Suspension: MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear
Wheels: 20×8.5-in. aluminum alloy
Tires: P255/50R20 all-season
Seating capacity: 7
Luggage capacity: 14.4 cu. ft.
Maximum cargo capacity: 71.2 cu. ft.
Towing capacity: 3,500 lb.
Fuel capacity: 19.5 gal.
Fuel economy: 21 mpg city, 27 mpg highway
Fuel type: regular unleaded gasoline