AFTER WHAT SEEMS LIKE AN ETERNITY SINCE THE FIRST GENERATION MODEL LAUNCHED (2007, FOR THOSE PLAYING AT HOME), THE ALL-NEW LARGE 2016 MAZDA CX-9 SUV HAS ARRIVED.
And if anything is going to challenge the Kluger’s dominance of the large unibody SUV segment, it’s this car. Cover the Mazda badge, and you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for something from a more prestigious brand.
We’ve driven it overseas and were impressed by its poise and outstanding driveability, but now it’s here on local roads (and stripped of camouflage) we’re able to assess it in its entirety.
From its roomy and refined interior to its amazingly capable turbo four-cylinder, to its superb on-road manners, the new CX-9 elevates Mazda to the top of the large SUV pack.
Vehicle Style: Large SUV
Price: $42,490 (CX-9 Sport FWD) to $63,330 (CX-9 Azami AWD)
Engine/trans: 170kW/420Nm 2.5 litre turbo petrol 4cyl | 6sp automatic
Fuel Economy claimed: 8.4 l/100km (FWD), 8.8 l/100km (AWD) | tested: 10.1 l/100km (AWD)
The now-superseded CX-9 made it to the ripe old age of nine, making it one of the 'wrinkliest' cars in its segment. Its all-new replacement however is very much the spring chicken.
Built on the largest version of Mazda’s efficiency-optimised SkyActiv architecture, the 2016 CX-9 sets itself apart from rivals by shunning big-capacity petrol or turbocharged diesel engines in favour of a turbo petrol 2.5 litre four - currently the only turbo petrol motor in Mazda’s inventory.
It’s an interesting strategy given Mazda’s previous experience with turbocharging - the CX-7 resulted in one of the thirstiest SUVs in recent memory - but Mazda assures us this new engine is able to at least equal, if not better, the fuel economy of its naturally-aspirated petrol rivals like the Toyota Kluger.
Mazda reckons they will sell around 500 per month for a total of 6000 cars over the first 12 months. We think that’s conservative once buyers see how good the CX-9 is first-hand.
- Standard equipment: Cloth trim (Sport) or leather (all other grades), power front seats (Touring, GT, Azami), cruise control, tri-zone climate control, power windows, rear parking sensors, reversing camera, 18-inch alloys (Sport, Touring) or 20-inch alloys (GT, Azami)
- Infotainment: 7-inch colour touchscreen (Sport) or 8-inch colour touchscreen (all other grades) with satellite navigation, AM/FM/USB audio (DAB in high grades) and Bluetooth phone/audio integration.
- Cargo volume: Behind third row: 230 litres. Behind second row: 810 litres. Second and third row folded: 1641 litres.
From the base Sport to the flagship Azami, the CX-9’s interior exudes class.
Mazda knows design, and it knows that a good-looking car is something that buyers crave: customer surveys conducted by the company show that interior and exterior design was the number one reason for purchase.
And when it comes to interior presentation, the new CX-9 is gorgeous. Soft leather, fine-grained plastics and flashes of chrome-like trim are brought together in a harmonious manner that takes the already-handsome design cues of the rest of the Mazda range (well, maybe excluding the BT-50) and scales it up to SUV proportions.
It’s very well executed, and very well specced too.
All models get Mazda’s MZD Connect infotainment suite with a 7-inch LCD display in the base Sport and an 8-inch display in all other variants, while mod-cons like tri-zone climate control, LED headlamps, an electronic parking brake, self-dimming mirrors, blind spot monitoring, rear parking sensors and autonomous emergency braking are standard across the range.
Move further into the more premium models, and features like power-adjustable memory seats, a power-operated tailgate, head-up display, digital radio, second-row retractable window shades and radar-assisted cruise control become standard as well
It’s a big cabin, but a peek at the raw numbers reveals that it’s actually fractionally smaller than the superseded CX-9. Headroom, legroom and shoulder room all lose a millimeter here and there, while the boot area has shrunk by 37 litres with all seats up and drops 118 litres with only the second row up.
However, by lowering the floor at each outboard second row seat to increase foot room, engineering thinner backrests to improve knee-room and raising the overall height and stretching the wheelbase by 55mm, the new CX-9 doesn’t really feel any less roomy than the car it replaces.
The second row can slide fore or aft to free up some additional room in the third row, and this 5’8” writer can fit comfortably (though snugly) in the CX-9’s rearmost seats.
Getting in and out of there is easily accomplished by flipping the second row backrest forward (which then unlocks the slider to move the seat out of the way), and Mazda has kindly put the 40-percent section of the 60:40 split second row on the left for Aus-bound cars - US-market cars have it reversed.
There are however no face-level air-vents for third row passengers.
NVH suppression is admirable, especially considering Mazda’s less-than-stellar reputation for quiet cabins.
At idle the engine is so quiet and vibration-free that you need to look down at the tachometer to see if it’s actually still running, and on smooth tarmac there’s virtually no road noise to speak of. On coarse-chip roads, Mazda says the 2016 CX-9 is around 2.5 decibels quieter than its predecessor.
An acoustic glass windshield helps cut out wind noise, and, in a first for Mazda, there’s acoustic glass in the front doors as well.
Weight savings generated from switching to Mazda’s ultra-efficient SkyActiv chassis architecture also allowed designers to add some weight back in the form of a thicker floor and 24kg more sound deadening.
Mazda’s engineers made a concerted effort to make the CX-9’s cabin one of the quietest around, and it shows.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 170kW/420Nm 2.5 litre turbocharged petrol inline four
- Transmission: Six-speed automatic, choice of front-drive or all-wheel drive
- Suspension: MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear
- Brakes: Ventilated discs front, solid discs rear, sliding calipers
- Steering: Electrically assisted, 11.8m turning circle
- Towing capacity: 750 unbraked, 2000kg braked
We’ve covered how the CX-9’s Skyactiv-G 2.5T engine works in great detail already (click here to find out more), but what you need to know is that this engine is not like other turbo petrol motors.
For one, it’s got a torque curve that looks like what you’d find in a diesel-drinker. The lower reaches of the rev range provides abundant torque - peaking at 420Nm at just 2000rpm - while redline is a relatively low 6000rpm.
Power tops out at 170kW at 5000rpm. Want to know a cool trick? This engine will happily run on 91RON petrol all day, but throw some 98RON premium unleaded into the CX-9’s tank and you gain an extra 16kW for a total of 186kW.
Yes, the previous V6-engined model made 34kW more power, but according to Mazda’s engineers that peak output occurred in a part of the rev range that the bulk of SUV drivers rarely ever accessed.
This new turbo motor, however, delivers all the oomph you require without the need for any high-rpm histrionics. The result is not only a more relaxed drive and less noise, but improved fuel economy as well.
By employing tricks like a variable exhaust manifold to help spool up the turbocharger early and a cooled EGR to boost fuel economy, this 2.5 litre turbo petrol behaves like a diesel.
The engine is matched up to a silky-smooth six speed automatic which rarely, if ever, put a foot wrong. There’s a manual shift mode but we didn’t use it - in full-auto mode this ‘box always knew exactly what gear we needed to be in and never hunted through its ratios.
Considering its heft and the fairly fast nature of the launch route, our on-test fuel consumption of 10.1 l/100km in an AWD model wasn’t too far from the official factory claim of 8.8 l/100km. A longer test drive should give us a more accurate appraisal of the new CX-9’s real-world efficiency, however.
Mazda prides itself on how its cars handle, and the new CX-9, despite its bulk, upholds that strong tradition.
Its electrically-assisted steering is more responsive than the average SUV, and the CX-9’s chassis feels buttoned-down and stable. We can't say the same of the CX-9’s main rival the Toyota Kluger. While the Kluger pitches and rolls, the CX-9 is virtually unshakeable.
We were concerned how it would ride on the big 20-inch wheels of the high-grade CX-9 GT and Azami, but discovered little in the way of increased harshness. It’s only on sharp bumps that you truly notice, and there’s no huge increase in road noise either.
On the 18-inch wheels of the Sport and Touring grades the CX-9 displays excellent ride comfort.
We did encounter some torque steer in the FWD models under hard acceleration and the extreme wet weather encountered at the launch proved a touch overwhelming at times for the CX-9’s Falkens.
One other minor issue concerns the brakes. They pull up the 1.9-tonne CX-9 no probs, but the brake pedal requires a firmer prod than you may prefer. It feels like the first inch or so of travel doesn’t do much, and stopping from higher speeds requires the driver to bury the pedal into the carpet.
Mazda may have been aiming for a progressive feel for the brakes, but we’d prefer something a little more linear. It’s the least car-like aspect of the CX-9, which in all other respects drives like something a lot smaller.
Those niggles aside, this is easily one of the best-handling SUVs you can buy. When it comes to keeping you and your family out of the hedges, that’s important.
ANCAP rating: 5/5 Stars - this model scored 35.87 out of 37 possible points.
Safety features: ABS, EBD, brake assist, traction control, stability control, 6 airbags(front, front side and full-length curtain), blind spot monitoring, reversing camera, rear parking sensors and autonomous emergency braking are standard on all CX-9 variants.
The flagship CX-9 Azami features lane departure warning, collision detection, lane keep assist, fatigue monitoring and a higher speed threshold for the autonomous emergency brake system.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
The Toyota Kluger is without doubt the primary rival for the CX-9, but don’t discount the Hyundai Santa Fe or Kia Sorento. All offer big seven-seat cabins in front- or all-wheel-drive configurations, but only the two Koreans give you the option of a diesel powertrain.
The Nissan Pathfinder is another rival worth considering, but like the Kluger and CX-9 is petrol-only. The Ford Territory and Holden Captiva also compete but both are too old to be considered truly competitive with this bunch.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
The new CX-9 is a real home run for Mazda. It’s proof positive that a downsized turbo four can work well in a gargantuan three-row SUV, all while keeping fuel consumption to a realistic level.
That premium interior is another highlight, but we expect nothing less of modern Mazda. As far as mainstream brands go, it’s verging on true luxury these days.
We’ll be spending a lot more time in the CX-9 over the coming months, and will put it up against a few of its chief rivals too. If this first drive is anything to go by, it should fare very well indeed.