MAZDA’S CX-9 IS BUILT FOR AMERICA, AND AMERICANS ARE SEEMINGLY ALLERGIC TO DIESEL. ERGO, THE ONLY MOTOR YOU CAN GET FOR THE ALL-NEW 2016 MAZDA CX-9 IS A TURBO PETROL.
Sound familiar? The last turbocharged petrol SUV Mazda sold was the CX-7, and that car was mostly known for its monstrous thirst. Has Mazda learned nothing?
In fact, it’s learned a lot. The Japanese automaker has learned how to make a petrol engine that drives like a diesel, and it’s also learned, Mazda tells us, how to make it sip - rather than guzzle - fuel.
We won’t see it in Australia until the middle of 2016, but Mazda decided to flick us the keys to a camouflaged prototype in Los Angeles to get an early taste. We came away thoroughly impressed.
Vehicle Style: Large SUV
Price: To be confirmed
Fuel Economy claimed: TBC | tested: 14.9 l/100km
Most people will agree (well, most motoring journalists anyway) that large SUVs should have a diesel engine. Diesels make big torque and SUVs weigh lots, so when you’ve got a big heavy car a diesel engine makes the most sense.
But consider this: if you look at the entirety of SUV sales to private buyers, diesels account for less than half of overall volume. Furthermore, the second most popular large SUV, the Toyota Kluger, is only available with a big, thirsty 3.5 litre petrol V6.
Clearly, availability of a diesel isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for strong sales.
That didn’t stop Mazda’s local subsidiary from requesting one for the all-new 2016 Mazda CX-9, but that request wasn’t granted.
Instead, Mazda has given its biggest passenger car just one engine - a 2.5 litre turbo petrol four-cylinder that it says delivers outstanding driveability while simultaneously returning excellent fuel economy.
Is Mazda right?
- Standard equipment: Australian specification levels have yet to be finalised, but expect to see keyless entry and ignition, tri-zone climate control, satellite navigation and a colour head-up display offered.
- Infotainment: Mazda’s MZD-Connect infotainment system was present on the pre-production prototypes we drove, though Australian feature list has yet to be announced.
- Cargo volume: 267 litres with all rows raised, 928 litres with first and second row raised.
We’re not going to talk a whole lot about the interior quality, given the cars we drove were hand-assembled prototypes made of pre-production parts.
Also, being a camouflaged prototype much of the interior was wrapped in a heavy shroud of black vinyl to ward away any prowling spy photographers. We can’t comment on the quality of the switchgear and dash plastics that sat beneath, but hey, that camera-repellent vinyl sure feels durable.
What we CAN say is that the seats provide excellent comfort. Designed for American rumps they’re plenty accommodating, but they don’t feel excessively broad and provide great support under the thigh and in the small of the back.
The second row offers an upright seating position that affords a good view of the outside environment for adults and kids alike, while it also slides fore and aft and has adjustable backrest recline.
Like the current-gen CX-9, there are also rear-zone climate controls built into the back of the centre console, along with face-level air outlets and useful door bins in both rear doors.
There are a couple of negatives though. One consequence of being built with US buyers in mind is that the 60/40 split second row has the larger section of seating on the left-hand side, making it a hassle to gain access to the third row if you have more than one baby seat strapped in the middle.
There are no air-vents for the two rearmost passengers and headroom is also quite tight for adults back there.
That said, the third row has generous seat cushioning and ample toe-room (something of a rarity in three-row SUVS). Mazda says it’s worked on reducing the intrusiveness of the power tailgate motor, but more work could still be done to improve third-row accommodation.
Though official numbers have yet to be released, Mazda claims boot space is identical to the current model, which offers 267 litres of cargo room with the third row raised, and 928 litres behind the second row.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 169kW/420Nm 2.5 litre turbocharged petrol 4cyl
- Transmission: 6-speed automatic, front or all-wheel drive
- Suspension: MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear
- Brakes: Ventilated disc
- Steering: Electrically assisted
So you’ve no doubt read our rundown on the new CX-9 and its 2.5 litre turbo petrol engine - the first turbo petrol engine in the SkyActiv engine family. You're probably wondering: does it work?
In terms of driveability, absolutely. Mazda’s efforts to maximise response and torque in the low and midrange has created an engine that feels more like a diesel.
Peak torque is available from just 2000rpm, and it doesn’t struggle to pull the 1700kg-odd CX-9 along from a standstill.
Let’s compare it to the current champ, the Toyota Kluger. That car makes 201kW at 6200rpm and 337Nm at 4700rpm from its 3.5 V6. It might have more peak power, but torque is well down and occurs much higher in the rev range.
According to Mazda’s research, most SUV drivers rarely take their cars beyond 3000rpm.
Putting a big naturally-aspirated V6 that requires more than 3000rpm to access peak power and torque figures means you’re just wasting that engine’s potential.
The Hyundai Santa Fe’s 2.2 turbo diesel delivers performance that’s closer to the CX-9’s petrol motor, with 145kW of power at 3800rpm and 436Nm at 2750rpm.
Unlike a diesel, the CX-9’s engine will rev past 5000rpm, but it gets a bit harsh and buzzy beyond 4000rpm. There’s really no point working it so hard though - it’s designed for low-rpm lugging, not bouncing off the rev limiter.
In the crush of peak-hour LA traffic, we found little to complain about (except for the traffic). There’s so little turbo lag that throttle response - and thus acceleration - is near instant. See a gap in the lane next to you? Just prod the throttle and take it.
Pin the accelerator and ask the engine for more power, and the trans kicks down swiftly. It’s a responsive engine/transmission combo, and though the CX-9 is no lightweight, it’s no slug either.
Flick the Sport mode switch next to the gear selector and the CX-9 perks up further.
The transmission adopts a more aggressive calibration that sees it hold gears for much longer, and it’ll even rev-match on downshifts when braking hard for a corner. Clearly there are more than a few driving enthusiasts in Mazda’s driveline calibration team.
And it holds its own on a twisty road as well. Never before have we experienced a large three-row SUV that’s so completely car-like in the way it handles. The Kluger corners and wallows like a supertanker, the CX-9 feels like a race car by comparison.
Up in the smoother canyon roads to the north-west, it showed exceptional body control, little roll, excellent turn-in (for a large SUV anyway) and nicely weighted steering - not too heavy, not too light.
We only sampled the CX-9 with 20-inch alloy wheels, which is at the upper end of what will be available in Australian-spec production CX-9s.
Ride quality was firm as a result - bordering on brittle on some of LA’s more pockmarked roads - so if you live in an area with poor road quality we’d recommend picking a model with taller sidewalls.
Is it fuel efficient though? It’s a little hard to say. On our stint behind the wheel a lot of time was spent idling during photography, there was plenty of aggressive driving along canyon roads and it was all capped off with an hour of pure LA traffic mayhem.
The result was 15.8 miles per gallon on the trip computer, or 14.9 l/100km when measured in a metric that actually makes sense.
That’s a little far from Mazda’s claim of “20 percent better economy than the existing model” (which should equate to 8.8 l/100km) but we subjected the car to a pretty demanding duty cycle with very little actual highway driving.
Australia-bound CX-9s will also come standard with engine start-stop, which should see a mild reduction in average fuel economy.
We’re not issuing a rating for the CX-9 just yet, which is fair given our cars were hand-built prototypes and not exactly showroom-spec. That said, our first taste of it leaves us hungering for more. It’s very, very good.
Mazda’s decision to keep a diesel out of the CX-9 might seem like a dubious one when judged at face value, but after experiencing it in the real world it’s not been to the detriment of driveability.
They’ve run the numbers, they’ve done the calculations and have clearly decided the resulting engine is 'fit for purpose'.
The proof is in the pudding, and our first stint behind the wheel was a positive one. We still need to validate its fuel consumption credentials, but that will come when we test it locally.
In fact, if you're thinking of getting into a large three-row SUV, it might be worth holding off until the CX-9 arrives in Australia around the middle of 2016.
It’s mighty promising, diesel be damned.
(Disclosure: Tony O'Kane travelled to LA as a guest of Mazda Australia.)
- Interested in buying MAZDA CX-9? Visit our MAZDA CX-9 showroom for more information.