It was a mistake to think we’d own the spotlight by driving a camouflaged prototype through Beverly Hills. Even though we’re thrilled to be driving a preproduction 2016 Mazda CX-9, passers-by in this sunny paradise are so jaded by wild cars that they barely glance at us or Kris Jenner, who’s stopped at a light next to us in a pink chrome Porsche Cayenne Turbo.
But people should stop and take notice of the new Mazda CX-9, swirly vinyl wrapping or not. The latest version of Mazda’s three-row crossover is a major step forward for the brand. Not only does the 2016 Mazda CX-9 introduce the brand’s first turbocharged Skyactiv four-cylinder engine, it also represents the top tier of Mazda’s push toward more premium cars.
We sampled the highest-spec Grand Touring model equipped with all-wheel drive for our trip around the city of Los Angeles and along the winding crests of the historic Mulholland Drive. The prototype car we drove is still two significant steps away from production, but Mazda was confident it would instill in us a strong sense of what the new CX-9 is all about.
Easy riding in sunny Los Angeles
Mazda’s biggest step with the latest CX-9 is the new Skyactiv-G 2.5T engine. A turbocharged version of the 2.5-liter Skyactiv engine currently used in Mazda’s lineup, the 2.5T is specially tuned to meet the needs of three-row crossover drivers. What exactly does that entail? Mazda dove head first into its research to find out. “At one point, and stay with me here, we would drive past schools when parents were picking up their kids,” said product development engineer Dave Coleman. “We wanted to drive how they drove, so we could tune the engine to meet the demands of our customers.”
The takeaway was that the new engine needed to strike a balance between responsive, abundant low-end torque and real-world fuel efficiency. Trudging through traffic in Beverly Hills and along the palm-dotted boulevards near Bel-Air, we appreciated the CX-9’s generous and immediate thrust. An impressive 310 lb-ft of torque is available as early as 2,000 rpm, and it arrives smoothly each time the six-speed automatic transmission slides into the next gear. We never needed to breach 3,000 rpm, which helps the engine run efficiently and keeps cylinder temperatures low enough to avoid the need for wasteful fuel enrichment.
True to Mazda form, the mark of an enjoyable car is one that’s satisfying to drive at any speed. There’s a friendly weight to the steering that you notice even during low-speed lane changes; the brakes are very responsive, even perhaps a touch too grabby. The 2016 Mazda CX-9 shrugs off road imperfections with its pleasantly compliant suspension, and impacts are well-damped so as to never jar passengers.
One of America’s most famous roads, in a three-row crossover
It’s killing us that there’s a brand-new MX-5 Miata sitting back at the hotel, and we’re about to tackle Mulholland Drive in a three-row crossover. But the Mazda CX-9 endeared itself to us quickly, and for many of the same reasons the Miata is such a joy on tight, twisting roads. The soft suspension tuning allows a fair bit of body roll, but the car nonetheless feels totally planted at all times. The CX-9’s suspension constantly communicates information to the driver about speed, grip, and weight transfer.
“We engineered the front end to pitch down just slightly on turn-in, to help the car feel like it’s rotating around the turn as you hold your line,” explained development engineer Stan Hortinela. That kind of focus on nimbleness and driver feedback is expected on a sports car, but it’s a pleasant surprise in a seven-passenger crossover that weighs more than 4,000 pounds (about 200 pounds lighter than before). Steering is somewhat dead on-center with a smidge too much play, but unlike the last CX-9, it loads up with confident heft the farther you turn the leather-wrapped wheel. It puts the Ford Explorer’s limp, lifeless steering rack to shame.
Of course, it also helps that the 2016 Mazda CX-9 is blessed with a brilliantly executed transmission that makes sure you’re always in the proper gear entering a turn. Especially in Sport mode, the six-speed drops crisply into a lower gear as you brake before a bend in the road. Smart tuning ensures there’s always lots of torque on tap, and it really help scrape the big CX-9 out of tight corners.
The avant-garde Mazda
It’s not a huge surprise that the 2016 Mazda CX-9 drives well, especially given how much the outgoing version surprised us with its great dynamics when it launched in 2007. Where Mazda really blew us away was its progress toward managing noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH).
We’ve long complained that though every Mazda in the lineup drives well, there is a noticeable trade-off when it comes to wind and road noise. “NVH has been our Achilles’ heel,” says 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.”
In the CX-9, things are different. The extra seals around the panel gaps, increased use of acoustic glass, sound-blocking plastic underbody panels, thicker floor panel sheetmetal, and 53 pounds of sound deadening under the carpet (versus just 7 in the CX-5) are immediately apparent to anyone who has driven a Mazda in the last decade. At highway speed, we detected almost none of the tire roar or wind turbulence off the mirrors that we often we complained of in our Four Seasons 2014 Mazda 3. For long road trips, the 2016 Mazda CX-9 won’t wear down drivers’ stamina and patience nearly as much.
In fact, our early impression is that the 2016 Mazda CX-9 won’t wear down drivers in any situation. It’s just as spacious and family-friendly as the last CX-9, but the new focus on real-world driving pleasure and fuel economy should be a hit for anyone with lots of people and stuff to move around. Mazda is aiming for global sales of 50,000 units (a number it has never achieved with the CX-9). If this latest model is still two steps from finalized production and it’s this good, we think it deserves much more.