Mazda's turbocharged CX-9 is more fun than a seven-seater should be

It's the largest model that the automaker builds, but yes, the 2016 Mazda CX-9 still handles like a Mazda should.

Mazda isn't the first to claim that one of its large SUVs shares a soul with its smaller, more nimble sports cars, but it is one of the few that can make good on that claim. As I pilot the SUV casually -- but with spirit -- up the Pacific Coast Highway north of San Francisco, I can feel that this seven-passenger people mover has received the same level of obsession with lightness and the same dedication to driving feel as the Mazda Miata.

No, no, that doesn't mean that the CX-9 handles exactly like a Miata, but I can sense the shared DNA in little things -- like the responsiveness of the throttle, the feel through the steering wheel as you let it wind out after a turn, the directness and confidence that the handling inspires and, most importantly, the grin on my face.

Mazda's engineers told me about all sorts of tricks they used to make the CX-9 feel sporty. Things like tuning the suspension and all-wheel drive system to allow just the right amount of roll to make the handling feel natural and the right amount of compliance that it feels planted, but not so much that it feels washed out. But what really matters is that seat-of-the-pants feel that I experienced when the SUV stuck through a sweeping turn, the effortlessness when it accelerated out of a bend and the smooth way that it did so without upsetting anyone onboard.

This is a seven-passenger family hauler: it has no business being this fun to drive!

2016cx911.jpg
Morgan J Segal/Mazda

Driving matters, not numbers

The CX-9 is powered by a 2.5-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine that puts torque through a six-speed automatic transmission. How much torque? About 310 pound-feet which, thanks to a new exhaust manifold design that reduces turbo lag, comes on as low as 2,000 rpm.

Mazda's smaller Skyactiv engines -- such as the 2.0-liter in the Miata or the 1.5-liter in the Scion iA, which is built by Mazda -- have consistently wowed me with their responsive feel, despite not putting up massive horsepower numbers. This larger, turbocharged engine showcases that same attention to driving feel and dynamics over numbers on paper.

The CX-9 makes 227 horsepower while sipping 87-octane fuel. Filling it with more expensive 93-octane bumps that number up to 250 ponies at 5,000 rpm, but it doesn't matter because the gains all happen up near redline, when all of the CX-9's performance lives in that low-to-midrange rpm zone where most drivers actually do their driving. This engine feels alive and responsive. A level of acceleration that would have taken one or two downshifts can now happen with a squeeze of the throttle; and because the transmission's logic doesn't need to get involved, a simple freeway pass happens more quickly and more effortlessly. Mazda thinks that most CX-9 buyers won't notice a difference day-to-day using the less expensive fuel.

On the twistier bits of my test route, I found that I needed to toggle the CX-9 into its sport mode to keep the transmission from hunting around for gears, but even in this sporty mode the trip calculator remained in the low-to-mid 20s for fuel economy. More specifically, the EPA reckons 22 mpg city and 28 mpg combined for the front-wheel drive variant and 21 mpg city and 27 mpg highway for the all-wheel drive models.

The models equipped with all-wheel drive only lose a single mpg when compared to the front drivers thanks to an on-demand i-Activ AWD setup that the CX-9 inherits from the smaller CX-3 crossover. Here, the system has been beefed up to deal with the 310 pound-feet of torque but retains its 80 percent efficiency advantage over the previous generation CX-9's system. Mazda claims that it's tuned its system to be more responsive and to react with rear torque before the front wheels slip, which makes the i-Activ system's operation feel seamless. I wasn't able to really test that claim on dry roads on a warm day exploring the Pacific Coast Highway.

Mazda Connect dashboard tech

At the center of the dashboard is a seven or an 8-inch display that is home to the Mazda Connect infotainment system. The software is identical to what I tested in the new MX-5 Miata and CX-3 compact crossover; and the driver interacts with the system with the same physical control bank located on the center console.

Mazda Connect's strength is in its simplicity. There's just not much to this infotainment software. The maps and navigation get the job done. There's USB and Bluetooth connectivity and a handful of audio streaming app integrations, but Mazda's less-is-more attitude can be seen in action here. There's no CD player, probably because someone at Mazda realized that its target market carries most of their music on phones and could save a few grams of weight by ditching the optical drive. You'll find no superfluous apps that aren't related to driving and no Google Maps satellite imagery, just basic boring tech for hands-free calling, listening to music and navigating.

One disappointment is that there isn't Android Auto or Apple CarPlay integration with this generation of Mazda Connect, despite the fact that Mazda has been listed as a partner with both technologies since their respective launches. Mazda says that neither Apple nor Google yet meets its interface standards. That seems like a pretty flimsy excuse to me, but for now the automaker remains a partner in name only.

mazdacx92016-06476.jpg
Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

i-ActivSense driver aid suite

One area where even Mazda must relent over less is more is advanced driver aid technologies. Even here the gadgetry feels secondary to driver feel and passive safety features, such as responsive handling for evasive maneuvers and solid visibility.

The CX-9 is the first Mazda vehicle to feature lane keeping assisted steering (LKAS), but you wouldn't know it from behind the wheel. The system doesn't have the same invasive twitchy feeling that I've experienced with systems from Acura and Audi. In fact, Mazda's system will only intervene enough to keep the CX-9 from departing its lane, but not enough to pull it back to the center. From the driver's seat, it almost feels like it's not doing anything at all and that's a good thing. The system is even smart enough to notice when you're driving with zest and allows a bit of leeway when you're clipping an apex.

The SUV also features an auto-braking forward collision alert system that I was able to see in action while being shuttled to the starting point of the day's drive. The system can detect pedestrians too. Other available features include blind-spot monitoring, active high-beam assist, an adaptive cruise control system that works all the way down to stop and go traffic speeds, and a rear camera.

The top trim levels feature a full-color head-up display (HUD) that is projected onto the windshield. This is another first for Mazda; previous models used a visor mounted atop the dashboard. It helps to keep the driver's eyes on the road while receiving turn-by-turn directions and speed data. However, I found that the HUD totally disappears when viewed through polarized sunglasses and is barely visible even without them when viewed in bright sunlight at its "automatic" brightness setting. I get that Mazda wants the HUD to be unintrusive, but I didn't really find this feature to be very useful.

Quiet and comfortable cabin

The CX-9 features more lightweight construction methods than the previous generation which, ironically, gave Mazda a bit of leeway to add weight back in to improve the comfort and reduce cabin noise.

The SUV features acoustic glass that cuts down on wind noise and now boasts about 53 pounds of sound deadening between the carpet and the floor to reduce low-frequency noise coming up from the ground. I was pleased with how quiet it was during my drive. And even with sound deadening, the CX-9 is down 198 pounds in its front-drive configuration and 287 pounds with all-wheel drive.

mazdacx92016-06471.jpg
Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Meanwhile, the cabin gets a significantly more premium feel, particularly for the new line-topping Signature trim level. The dashboard features real aluminum trim and nappa leather. The doors and center console have real rosewood. Some bits still feel a bit hard and low-budget, but all of the touch points -- the armrests, steering wheel, dashboard, seats and shifter -- have a high quality soft feel to them.

The driving position is generally good, but the CX-9 has a high central armrest that I'm just not a fan of. The armrest interfered with my elbow during spirited driving and I had to scrunch my right arm inward on curvier passages. It did add a bit of comfort to freeway cruising, so I have mixed feelings.

My feelings are decidedly positive about the ergonomics of the second and third rows of the CX-9. I was able to fit my 5-foot, 9-inch frame into the third row, even with the second row slid into its rearmost position. Indents in the ceiling allow a reasonable amount of headroom, despite the SUV's sloping roofline. I wouldn't want to be crammed back there for an extended journey, but there appeared to be plenty of shoulder room for two adults for a short trip.

Pricing and availability

No car is perfect, so the CX-9 is not without its flaws. Everything that I disliked, however, during my short time behind the wheel -- a too-tall armrest, a head-up display that I had a hard time seeing, no Android Auto -- all felt like nitpicks.

2016cx916.jpg
Morgan J Segal/Mazda

Mazda's biggest vehicle wowed me with its driving performance and handling. The automaker has proven that it can build a big, spacious SUV with a comfortable ride that doesn't handle like it's suspended over wet bread. The new turbocharged engine also boasts performance that you'll feel in the real world, not just numbers that you can brag about on paper, and reasonable fuel efficiency for the money. The premium feeling and quiet cabin and its new, more confident exterior design are the icing on the cake of this exceptional full-sized SUV.

The 2016 Mazda CX-9 starts at $31,250 for the entry level Sport trim level and maxes out at around $44,015 for the new Signature top trim level. These prices do not include a $900 destination charge.