First Drive: Mazda’s Turbocharged CX-9

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Mazda CX-9 grille | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Mazda CX-9 grille | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Is it wrong of me that I’m this excited about driving a three-row soccer mom machine? As of late I’ve been off working with some of the most extreme aftermarket cars in America and driving big-ass trucks like the all-new, 6.2-liter GMC Sierra Denali when I’m at home, so to hear that I’ve got my undies in a twist over a Mazda SUV must seem pretty bizarre to some of you.

But this isn’t your average Mazda, or your typical refresh. Japan’s underdog is hellbent on bringing its turbo game back to the forefront and in the process maybe slap around some elite SUV manufacturers. The redesigned CX-9 tosses almost every connection the brand ever had with Ford out the window, and instills a surplus of unexpected additions to the mix that elevate it to luxury status.

LED lights and Kodo design | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

LED lights and Kodo design | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Built exclusively for the American market and rocking trim levels that go from Sport up to Signature, with front and all-wheel drive options sprinkled throughout, the CX-9 has been re-sculpted both inside and out in hopes of cleaning up at the awards. Oh, and by inside we don’t just mean the interior, because it’s what’s under the hood and hidden beneath the floorpan that will makes this machine a hit. After a full day of driving San Francisco’s most scenic routes, this is why we think it might just be one of the greatest SUVs of all time.

20-inch alloy wheels | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

20-inch alloy wheels | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior

With French-born Julien Montousse in charge of design, you can see the European flair in the automaker’s Kodo design comes from, and why he was tapped to lead this project. With its trapezoidal stance, meticulously layered trim lines, and sensational front and rear LED light clusters, it’s hard not to fawn over the new CX-9, even if you typically prefer something boxy and brutish looking.

CX-9 lights | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

CX-9 lights | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior pros and cons

+ That LED illuminated, multi-layered “Alluring Prestige” design language translates to Mazda making one of the sexiest SUVs in history.

+ Proportionally, it doesn’t look like a three-row family car, and we like that.

+ 20-inch alloy wheels look sharp with just the right ride height.

– No bumper integrated dual port trapezoidal exhaust, or spoiler-hidden rear wiper arm.

2.5-liter turbo motor| Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

2.5-liter turbo motor| Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain

The meat and potatoes of the platter at hand is a 2.5-liter turbocharged Skyactiv four-banger that generates 310 pound-feet of torque, and up to 250 horsepower if you prefer to spend a bit more and run it on 93 octane. Mazda has been out of the turbo game for a hot minute now, but the CX-9 shows they never really lost it. Opting to lean more toward torque over the horsepower number game, engineers have built the CX-9 to be both equal parts engaging and practical, especially once outfitted with all-wheel drive. The last of the Mazda line to receive SkyActiv technology, this clever SUV holds the key to proving why “Driving Matters,” and how there is indeed a replacement for displacement.

Sport mode and gear selector | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Sport mode and gear selector | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain pros and cons

+ 310 pound-feet of torque and up to 250 horsepower can be had at any time if you run 93 octane.

+ 3,500 pounds of towing capacity out of a 2.5-liter turbo inline four isn’t shabby at all.

+ Sport mode recalibrates shift points in order to hold higher revs longer, with rewarding results.

– No multiple traction modes like what we found on the new Honda Pilot.

Aluminum trim accents | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Aluminum trim accents | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior

Signature trim is the only way to go as far as we’re concerned. After spending just a few minutes in this lush cabin I was convinced that it takes Mazda’s interior game to a whole new level. From the hand-selected and carefully carved real wood trim and the use of dished gray aluminum accents to real Napa leather and a split center console, almost everything about this interior has me rethinking what materials I want my sarcophagus to be made of when it’s time to kick the bucket.

Leather interior | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Leather interior | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior pros and cons

+ Real Napa leather, hand carved Japanese wood trim, and smooth aluminum accents make this one of the nicest interiors on the market today.

+ Three rows of seating room, with multiple USB ports for the first two, and a one-off Bose audio setup to shake the heavens.

+ From behind the wheel, the feeling you get from all those high quality controls and that leather wrapped wheel in front of you is something that is typically reserved for luxury automakers.

– Even with a hidden storage compartment, rear cargo space is limited.

– Second row seats don’t always want to fold out of the way in a single swift motion, and the gap they give you to access the rear bench is pretty narrow.

Multi Information Display | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Multi Information Display | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech and safety

“Drive safe and be sure to enjoy it,” should have been Mazda’s motto, because everything tech-wise in the Signature version is designed to keep you and your loved ones safe while offering both passengers and driver copious amounts of enjoyability. The pilot gets the perks of a HUD and a redesigned MID that cycles through menus with PC game precision and stats to match, along with the peace of mind associated with knowing that Mazda’s i-ActivSense safety system is always on the lookout.

Meanwhile, the rest of the car’s occupants get rewarded with an eight-inch color infotainment display with voice command, SMS text messaging, audio delivery, replay options, and a duo of available headrest mounted display screens for movie time.

Back-up camera | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Back-up camera | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech pros and cons

+ In Signature trim you get every safety bell and whistle imaginable via Mazda’s i-ActivSense package, with lots of clever tech to balance it all out in the fun and informative departments, as even the door ajar image has leather insert details.

+ Unlike other Mazda models, the new CX-9 features a windscreen-generated, customizable heads-up display, which is crystal clear even in direct sunlight.

+ Backup camera is vivid and features proximity warnings, along with digital imagery to give you a better feel of what and where.

– No wireless charging like what we found in certain Toyota and GM products.

– Front USB ports are exclusively located in the center console.

| Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

| Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The drive

Snaking through the mountainous roads north of San Francisco I began to get what Mazda was talking about when they mentioned this SUV was designed to inspire an emotional response every time you get behind the wheel. In all-wheel drive trim, the MacPhearson and multi-link suspension combo works fluidly with the drivetrain to keep you surprisingly planted in the corners, and while the brakes were not as aggressive as I would have liked, for the average parental unit they should be more than adequate.

In Sport mode, the shift points are the only component on the car that get tweaked, with 4th gear being held all the way up until 60 miles per hour. On the straights, the 2.5-liter turbo hits you with a blast of torque right at 2,000 RPM and just builds from there, with a sexy spooling sound serving as your boost gauge. On the opposite end, traction is reliable and responsive, and even on gravel wheel slip didn’t seem to be much of an issue.

LED lights | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

LED lights | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Wrap up and review

This is totally a driver’s car. It’s a vehicle that has been built from the ground up to be enjoyable, both for driver and passenger. It looks and performs like a fat sport hatchback instead of a two ton soccer mom machine, and the connectivity you feel with the road is a near perfect example of why Mazda has zero interest in going autonomous.

Forming a bond between man and machine is not an easy task, and even though the 2016 CX-9 isn’t able to give us all we crave, it sure as hell comes close. There’s nothing about this car that is overstated, ungainly, or improperly placed, and after spending an entire day driving one I can affirm that the hype is real.

Starting at $31,250 and topping out at $44,000 when opting for the Signature line, the new CX-9 lands right where it should in the segment price-wise. An affordable entry option that can be easily molded into a magnificent luxury SUV, Mazda’s latest flagship has been redesigned, engineered, and fully rebuilt to be brilliant in almost every aspect. So when we say that this could be the beginning of a turbocharged Mazda revolution, we mean it, and the benefits are all 100% in our favor.

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