AUTO REVIEW: 2016 Mazda CX-9 Crossover Balances Style With Value, Power With Economy

(Chicago Tribune/TNS) -
(Robert Duffer/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
(Robert Duffer/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The police officer circled back to us saying, “I gotta stop you, man.”

My kids stopped putting their baseball gloves in the liftgate, where we were having ice-cold sodas from the cooler.

I thought maybe he was stopping to tell us the road was blocked by our doors, which were open to air out a 100-degree day of summer sun on black leather interior.

“Is that the new Mazda CX-9?” He asked, standing up his motorcycle and extending his hand.

Indeed it was. In its “soul red metallic” paint (an extra $300), the three-row crossover that is large on the inside but sleek on the outside stuck out like the retractable dome atop the Milwaukee Brewers’ Miller Park, where we had parked for the afternoon.

For people like our officer friend, whose wife owns the discontinued CX-7, the distinct Kodo, or “soul of motion,” design philosophy of Mazda stands out from cookie-cutter crossovers and middling midsize sedans.

Mazda’s “muscular beauty” is defined by a wide wheelbase and stance typically called athletic, complemented by a long-but-low nose with the front windshield set back as in sports coupes.

No longer sharing platforms with Ford’s midsize crossover, the CX-9 looks better than the competition and its predecessor. Yet in profile the grille on that long nose hangs like an overbite of Mater proportions, even though it’s 2 inches shorter than the outgoing model.

It looks better on the Mazda6 midsize sedan, which shares the platform, but on 20-inch wheels and a larger, taller body, “It kinda sticks out, yeah,” Officer C. agreed.

It’s forgivable on what otherwise inside and out is a beautiful family car that is more premium than mainstream. Mazda calls the completely redesigned second-generation vehicle its flagship, and it is setting sail for people who like nice-looking, well-performing machines without getting gouged in price.

(Robert Duffer/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
(Robert Duffer/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The $42,270 price tag on the Grand Touring trim did make Officer C. whistle and shake his head. “Good thing I’m getting overtime.”

Over a soda, Officer C. checked out the black leather seats and soft dash materials infusing the cabin with comfort and style. The chrome band on the dash winds through the console controls, steering wheel and doors, offering a sleek and subtle contrast of sporty elegance.

In the second row, the kids were more than eager to lift the latch and slide forward the midrow seat so they could get in the third row. It’s fine for showing off, but on road trips, one of those seats will need to fold down for storage, or stay empty for sanity. It’s more of a jump seat, but Officer C.’s two teenaged daughters and their friends could cram in to transport seven during carpool duty.

It’s larger than compact crossovers jammed up with a third-row safety seat, but not as roomy as the Honda Pilot and Ford Explorer. But boy does it drive better.

The CX-9 comes with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine in a class crowded with V-6 engines. Mazda’s SkyActiv powertrain is similar to Ford’s EcoBoost lineup of direct injection turbo engines that do more with less, topping Ford for best-in-class fuel economy. It delivers a whopping 310 pound-feet of torque at 2,000 rpm, providing plenty of punch and power, with an ability to tow 3,500 pounds.

Pair that with no turbo lag and the CX-9 becomes a sporting proposition, according to Officer C., who initially thought it might be a replacement for the family hauler. This fun-to-drive large crossover will be his, especially since he’ll be able to tow his bikes or a small boat.

Nimble and lightfooted on the highway, the CX-9 has more than enough torque to execute any passing move, and it’s more agile than top-heavy on and off ramps and into turns.

In heavy-footed driving, the six-speed automatic transmission goes deep in the rpm band before shifting, though it purrs around town in low rpms at slow speeds. It is barely audible at idle. The CX-9’s ability to transition seamlessly from quiet highway cruising to spirited aggressive passing impressed me more each time I drove it.

There is a similar subtle grace on the inside. The light-weighting that accompanies SkyActiv powertrains has been said to cause a louder interior ride, but Mazda smoothed that out with interior padding. It’s quiet on the highway, enough for the kids to sleep and the driver to listen to the radio.

The infotainment system is better than most at this price point. Voice recognition software heard us clearly, though we had trouble getting the system to read our phone contacts and go to destinations without an address. The setup is based around a knob in the console, like the German luxury makes, that works far better than systems in Lexus, Acura and Buick. The knob means the 8-inch touch screen mounted in the dash doesn’t need to be touched.

That’s better for safety, which the GT trim offers in full. Adaptive cruise control keeps the car at a set distance away from the vehicle in front, whether accelerating or decelerating in traffic, and works with lane assist to keep the car on track. We were able to use it in congested areas where traffic slowed to 40 mph, then got back up to 70. We inadvertently tested the forward collision avoidance system while changing lanes on the highway and again around town easing into a stop sign. It’s overly sensitive for our taste, like a passenger slapping their hands on the dash at the sight of brake lights.

The only place the controls lag is on the vehicle info display in the right cluster, which is limited. The redundant steering controls aren’t as complete in design as the rest of the car. With an info button wedged between arrows to change radio functions, it feels cramped.

Compared with the more expensive and larger Ford Explorer Sport, Honda Pilot Elite and Toyota Highlander Limited, the CX-9 feels less like a series of packages slapped on top of each other and more like a uniformly premium flagship.

One long look at it, and Officer C. was sold without even getting behind the wheel.

(Robert Duffer/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
(Robert Duffer/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

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2016 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring AWD at a glance

Vehicle type: three-row crossover

Base price: $33,320 (base Sport trim)

As tested: $42,270 (excluding $900 delivery)

EPA mpg: 21 city, 27 highway

Engine: 2.5-liter turbo four-cylinder

Transmission: six-speed automatic

Parting shot: Fun-to-drive three-row crossover