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2016 Mazda CX-9 Hits L.A. Show with Fresh Design, New Turbo Engine

Three-row crossover sheds 198 pounds.

The original Mazda CX-9 that debuted in 2006 was groundbreaking in its own right, proving a three-row crossover didn’t have to be boxy or dreadful to drive. The 2016 Mazda CX-9 has been engineered to improve upon that foundation in every possible fashion, from looks, to performance, fuel economy, luxury, and technology. Debuting at the 2015 Los Angeles auto show, the CX-9 crossover is about 20 percent more efficient than its predecessor, 198 pounds lighter, has the most torque in its segment, and raises the bar for interior design and material quality.

Kodo’s largest canvas yet

With the addition of the 2016 Mazda CX-9, the brand’s Kodo design language has now been applied to every vehicle across the model range. This latest evolution of the so-called “Soul of Motion” design is said to find a balance between the active, sculpted athleticism of a car like the Miata and the strong, stable poise of an SUV.

Mazda wanted to give the CX-9 a powerful foundation, which builds from a trapezoidal stance that looks steady on its haunches. Aiding this effect are shorter overhangs front and rear, although the wheelbase has been stretched 2.2 inches to increase legroom as well as ease of ingress and egress. The more fluid and active design we’ve seen in other Mazdas is apparent more in the upper half of the 2016 Mazda CX-9. Lines emerge primarily from the shield grille up front, which flows into the LED headlamps, with contours continuing along the side of the car toward the rear. A fast roofline echoes this approach, finishing at the rear with a nicely raked rear window. The result is an SUV that looks stylish but subtly capable, which is fitting for the Mazda that’s most geared toward utility as well as comfort.

Improved materials and design

Finding the right combination of openness and intimacy was Mazda’s main goal with the layout of the CX-9’s interior. The upper portions of the interior, such as the dashboard, are all angled slightly away from the driver to emphasize spaciousness, while lower sections of the interior are meant to create an enveloping effect for the driver.

But what you’ll notice more than anything else inside the CX-9 is a profound commitment to using better materials. The 2016 Mazda CX-9 will offer both real leather and high-end Nappa leather, unique hand-laid Japanese wood, and actual aluminum. Even more so than in impressive interiors like the Mazda6, the CX-9 is pushing harder and harder toward a premium space rather than the mainstream one it’s more widely known for. Interior dimensions aren’t yet available, but we’re told that space is more or less unchanged compared to the last CX-9.

In addition to its available suite of active-safety features (adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning), Mazda overall aimed for a cleaner and less complicated interface and ergonomic approach to keep the driver focused. Looking ahead, you’ll also be greeted by a head-up display that’s now projected directly onto the windscreen, replacing the chintzy pop-up HUD we once likened to something from a StarFox cockpit.

On top of the safety technology, there’s lots of convenience tech packed into the new CX-9. In the center stack is a 4.6-inch touchscreen, there are two USB ports positioned for passengers in the rear, and Bose supplies the optional 12-speaker sound system.

New turbocharged Skyactiv-G engine

Like just about every other automaker, Mazda is embracing the idea of turbocharging smaller-displacement engines for the attractive gains in fuel economy and weight reduction. The new Skyactiv-G 2.5T is a 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder mill that is tuned specifically for low-end torque, which peaks with 310 lb-ft at just 2,000 rpm. Mazda doesn’t think drivers will often need to dip into the new engine’s peak output of 250 hp (or 227 hp if you use regular gas instead of premium), which arrives higher up the tachometer at 5,000 rpm. The engine pairs with a six-speed automatic transmission and either front- or all-wheel drive. Mazda focused on offering so much low-end torque so that the CX-9 could respond quickly to throttle inputs without having to downshift.

Interestingly, Mazda has made a point to not only up its game on the EPA test cycle, but also in real-world driving, where turbocharged engines sometimes don’t deliver as advertised.

Although this smaller-displacement turbo four-cylinder has lower internal friction and reduced pumping loss than a Skyactiv V-6 would, fuel efficiency drops when the engine is under high load, as the engine runs richer to help keep the cylinders cooler. Real-world driving subjects the engine to a lot more of these high-load episodes than the mild tests the EPA runs, so Mazda added some special tech to make sure efficiency doesn’t take a hit outside of lab testing. It uses a cooled exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) unit to help keep temperatures inside the cylinder down, allowing a high compression ratio of 10:5:1.

To make sure the engine is responsive, Mazda’s new Dynamic Turbo Pressure system works by varying the amount of exhaust pulse used to run the turbocharger. You want the turbo to spool up more quickly at low rpm for quick response, so the system sends engine exhaust to smaller ports to increase boost pressure. As the revs climb, the larger ports open up as well to let in more exhaust air.

i-ACTIV all-wheel drive aims to be predictive, not reactive

While the 2016 Mazda CX-9’s optional all-wheel-drive system is derived from the one in the CX-5 and CX-3, the components are all unique to the CX-9 to handle its higher loads. And compared specifically to the AWD system on the old CX-9, the new system strives to prevent wheel slip from ever happening, rather than correcting for it when it is sensed. Using the huge array of existing sensors already on the car, for things like ABS, temperature, steering input, and g-force, Mazda says the new system works so well that “it’s practically invisible. You never know it’s even there.”

Fixing the Achilles heel — NVH

We’ve written at length about how much we enjoy driving great-handling cars like the CX-5 and Mazda3, but those attributes always come at the expense of a stiffer ride as well as plenty of wind and road noise. “NVH [noise, vibration, and harshness] has been our Achilles heel,” says Mazda development engineer Dave Coleman. “It’s totally at odds with the values of steering and handling, but we made the effort to correct those drawbacks for the CX-9.”

Coleman says the CX-9 has more seals around panel gaps, acoustic glass added for the front side windows in addition to the windshield, sound-blocking plastic underbody panels, thicker floor panel sheet metal, and 53 pounds of sound-deadening under the carpet versus just 7 in the CX-5. These measures have been implemented to cut out the two primary sources of unwanted noise — roar from the tires and wind turbulence from the side mirrors.

Big possibilities ahead

The 2016 Mazda CX-9 has a great chance to fill its predecessor’s shoes with one of the best Mazdas we’ve seen yet. But for all the nuts-and-bolts improvements in performance and fuel economy, it’s still a Mazda, which means it’s all about the driving experience. As Mazda’s North American design head Julien Montousse says, “We are not a performance-metric company. We are an emotion-metric company.” We’ll have to get behind the wheel to see whether that lofty promise proves true in the real world when the car goes on sale in spring 2016.

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