Drive Life

Road Test: 2016 Mazda CX-9 – Super Smooth SUV

Road Test: 2016 Mazda CX-9 – Super Smooth SUV

There’s been plenty of hype over the recent release of the CX9; at last Mazda have a freshened 7-seat SUV to take on the likes of the Prado and Santa Fe. The previous model CX-9 was getting a little outdated, and was struggling against the competition.

To add more pressure, the CX-9 was also added to the shortlist for Car Of The Year, which several members of DriveLife submits votes to.

Would the CX-9 impress us enough to gain crucial votes? There’s only one way to find out: test one.

First Impressions

It was an ominous start. I happened to visit the Mazda New Zealand website to check out the CX-9 before I picked it up. There was lots of photos of the CX-9, nearly all of them grey – including the new ‘Machine Grey metallic paint’ – a $250 option (ug). Then I downloaded the PDF brochure to read more. Lots more pics of the CX-9 – nearly all of them grey, like 90% of them. What is up with manufacturers these days? Don’t they want to show off their cars in actual colours?

Then I duly rocked up to pick up the top-of-the-range CX-9 AWD Limited and there were two – one a stunning metallic red, and the other grey. My heart sank – surely I would get the grey one, as I always seem to (and I hate grey/silver cars with a passion).

But no – it was the red one. It was going to be a good week.

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So really, what is my first impression of the CX-9 in the flesh? It is a sensational looking SUV. Stunning, especially in Mazda’s Soul Red – I got many comments during my time with the CX-9 on the colour and the look of the car – some comments simply from people walking past as I was getting out of the car. I expect that just the design of this SUV will get sales. That frontal look, while obviously Mazda, has really taken to the larger, wider dimensions of the CX-9 perfectly. And then there’s the back – so, so sexy. The taillight design with a nice chrome strip between them (just the right width too) is fantastic. Jaguar F-Type style taillights? Yes please. Side on it’s a great looker too – those 20” alloys that the Limited version has are very complementary to the shape of the car.

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First impressions on the inside are a mixed bag for me – luxury, sure, but also quite dark with lots of black leather, black door panels and black headlining. Jumping into the driver’s seat and looking around, it feels smaller than the actual size of the car, because of all the blackness. Some people may not mind this – it’s almost cosseting – but it doesn’t give you the feeling that it’s Mazda’s largest car for sale.

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Still, the luxury is certainly there and the redesigned dashboard looks a world away from the previous model – much more modern and a lot more usable as well.

The Range

There’s 3 models to pick from in the CX-9 range: the GSX FWD, the GSX AWD, and lastly the Limited AWD (our test car). Prices range from $52,995 to $62,995.

All share the same engine – the all-new 2.5 SkyActiv-G turbo four cylinder, which replaces the Ford-sourced 3.7-litre V6. There are no diesel options for the CX range.

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The GSX models are pretty well specced, but naturally the Limited has all the goodies.

As standard, the GSX gets full leather, 3-zone climate AC, cruise control, electric and heated front seats, driver’s electric lumbar adjustment, voice command system, 6-speaker audio with BlueTooth, a leather steering wheel, an 8” touchscreen central display, keyless entry and start, SatNav, dual exhaust tips, DRLs, electric park brake, Hill Launch Assist, automatic LED headlights and auto wipers.

The Limited goes further with an electric tailgate, electric tilt/slide sunroof, adaptive cruise control, a 12-speaker 294-watt Bose audio system, the option of ‘natural stone’ leather, 2 memory positions for the driver’s seat, Adaptive Headlamps, proximity keyless entry, heated side mirrors, rear privacy glass, lighting signature tail lamps, rear pull-up windows shades, Active Driving Display (HUD) and one-touch power windows front and rear. That’s quite a bit of extra kit for the $7K over the GSX AWD model ($55,495). If you bought the GSX AWD, would you regret not spending the extra for the Limited model? Probably.

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The Limited models also have an incredible amount of driver assistance and safety features; Blind Spot Monitoring, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Smart City Braking, Radar Cruise with Stop/Go function, Forward Obstruction Warning, Smart Brake Support, Lane Departure Warning, Lane Watch Assist, Driver Attention Alert, and a 5-Star ANCAP rating.

The Inside

As mentioned, it’s dark in here – but still a nice place to be. Most controls fall easily to hand, and the surfaces used are at the higher end – it was difficult to find any hard plastics used. The electric front seats are extremely comfortable, and the 3-stage heating was welcome for this time of the year.

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Mazda has put a tacked-on display into the new CX-9, a la Mercedes and BMW. I’m not a fan, and I know others aren’t either. I can see what they are trying to achieve, but it comes across as an afterthought. Still, that’s a first world problem and the display itself is crisp and easy to use. Sometimes I used the touchscreen function, but mostly – since it’s a stretch away up there on the top of the dashboard, I just used the jog dial to control it. The jog dial works perfectly, and is so intuitive you can work how to use it in seconds. Mazda have done brilliantly on this front.

I also appreciate the much smaller volume knob (yes – an actual knob) to the left of the jog dial. It falls to hand so easily and pushing it in mutes the music. Other systems use a touchscreen type of function for the volume (if you don’t want to use the steering wheel controls) but this knob is great.

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Speaking of volume…the 12-speaker Bose audio system in the Limited is excellent. Fantastic clarity and volume, I loved it. In fact the test CX-9 came with a Mazda USB key already plugged in, with some ‘sample BOSE tracks’ on it, like In the air tonight and Thunderstruck. I ended up playing the tracks on the USB key over and over; they really highlighted the quality of the audio system. Lifting the cover in the boot shows the Bose sub-woofer sitting inside the centre of the spare wheel – nice touch.

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You get some good media options with the CX-9: USB, phone, radio, Aha, Pandora and Sticher.

All models comes with 4 USB ports – two in the front, and two in the middle console. Teenagers will be happy. I was surprised though that there’s no Android Auto or Apple Car Play capability – I would have thought at this level, it would be standard equipment.

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The colour heads-up display of the Limited is generally excellent. As a base, only the speed is shown. When using SatNav, direction are also shown, and you can option in to show the tacho as well. I did try that as I thought it would be quite cool, but it places the rev counter above the speed, which is a bit distracting. The HUD does not show the current speed limit, which would be a nice touch – and one that some other manufacturers do.

It was interesting to note that the HUD is colour – but the only colour it seems to use is for the redline of the rev counter (which I turned off) and the white lines for Lane Watch turn yellow if you run over them.

The HUD also has a nice feature where it shows you in the HUD if cars are in your blind spot. This is a great idea – not only warnings on the mirrors, but right in front of you as well.

Getting in and out of the third row is not ideal. The middle row seats flip down, but only the backrest drops down – there’s no flipping forward of the seat base at all. Your only option is to lift the handle to slide the middle row forward. But then once someone is in the third row, you can’t simply flick the backrest back up – the headrest hits the front seats. So you must slide the seat back first, then flick the back of the seat back up. It just all seems a bit old school – but is exactly the same as the previous model.

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Actual legroom in the third row isn’t massive – don’t expect to take any lanky teenagers on a long trip back there. Middle row leg room is much better, and as mentioned you could slide the seat forward anyway, on a long trip. On the middle row, the rake is adjustable so that’s one bonus for those long trips.

Cargo room in the boot with the third row up is a bit limited – just 230 litres, and smaller than the previous model. Part of the issue here is that lovely sloping rear design – it angles down sharply at the back which looks awesome but sucks up a massive amount of storage room. The boot area is shallow, as you would expect.

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The Drive

It was always going to be top of the list: how does the new 4-cylinder turbo motor compare with the ‘old’ 3.7 V6? Very well! This motor is a jewel – silky smooth, especially for being such a big lump of a 4-cylinder engine. The SKYACTIV-G motor has a Dynamic Pressure Turbo which Mazda says “eliminates turbo lag”. This was explained to John at the CX9 launch in Christchurch.

In the same way a garden hose works, the large flow of water can pour out of the hose as per the water pressure from the mains. If you then put your thumb over it, the spray become finer, and flows with a much more pressure. The Turbo does the same thing, by having two channels to the turbo. One large and one small. When the main valve is open the flow can pass into the turbo as expected. When closed, the smaller channel is left open, allowing a small amount of exhaust though, just enough to keep the turbo spinning. And yes, it totally works. I never noticed any turbo lag, just surges of torque whenever you want it.

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Comparing the numbers, the new engine puts out 170Kw@5,000rpm and 420Nm of torque at a very low 2,000rpm – and remember this is from a turbo petrol engine. Impressive. The old V6 managed 240Kw of power but just 321Nm of torque. When you have nearly two ton to haul around (plus passengers), torque is where it’s at.

I can’t stress enough just how good this engine is. It gets the CX-9 to 100km/h in 8.6 seconds, which is not too shabby for a two-ton 4-cylinder SUV. On top of that, it is incredibly smooth – V6 smooth.

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Adding to the smoothness is everything else – wind noise is almost non-existent, ditto suspension noise and general NVH is top class. On the motorway, everything is so quiet, and conversations with third row passengers is too easy. Getting into a Skoda Superb after the CX-9, the wind noise was much more noticeable.

While the engine and nice 6-speed auto are near perfect, there are some things which were not so. The Limited model has adaptive cruise control, which is great – love it. The speed set is shown in the HUD, so another bonus there. There is one annoying habit the adaptive cruise has – it is really slow to accelerate, if the car in front (for example) changes lanes and you have a clear road. The CX-9 accelerates, but the word I wrote in my notes was “lethargic”. It borders on embarrassing, as the cars behind you think you are hogging the fast lane, which I never do.

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Often I found myself pressing the gas pedal to make it accelerate more quickly, then settle back to cruise control speed. I realise it’s probably a fuel-saving feature, but it’s just too slow to react. It’s really weird as so many other manufacturer’s cruise control systems accelerate far too quickly, often kicking down a gear (or sometimes two). A happy medium would be nice.

The automatic has a Sport mode, but as is common with cars with gallons of torque, it’s all a bit pointless. Sport mode holds the gears longer, which seems great but when maximum torque is at 2,000rpm you want quicker gears changes, not longer ones.

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While I had the Mazda, the weather was atrocious, wet and wild. The car proved itself daily – totally sure footed, and confidence inspiring. I am sure the AWD helped lots here, but it is still an excellent all-weather car. Even in general driving, the size of the car doesn’t really come into play – it just drives so well. It is wide though, at near on two metres – in fact the CX-9 is almost identical in length and width to the Kia Carnival I had a few weeks ago.

It’s the overall dynamics of the CX-9 that impressed me most – everything works together perfectly. Well, perhaps except for the cruise control.

Oh, and the electric park brake. The brake itself works just fine, but it sometimes released slowly side by side – so you got this sensation of one side of the car moving off before the other. A weird scenario, but we’ve had lots of cars with electric park brakes which work well, so I suspect it was just this test car.

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The CX-9 comes with active Lane Watch, so if you start to veer into the next lane over, you get a vibration through the steering wheel, and the car also nudges the steering wheel back on track for you. I can imagine some people would freak out at this, but it’s a handy safety device.

The CX-9 has an engine auto-stop feature, similar to other manufacturers. However, it does the same annoying thing as other most manufacturers’ auto-stop systems do. Picture this: you stop at the lights, and the engine stops. You know you are going to be a while waiting, so you put the park brake on. The engine, sensing a change in the brake pedal, starts again. It’s almost reverse economy – the time when you are going to be at a standstill the longest, the engine is running. It just feels so pointless. You can overcome this in the CX-9 by putting the car in Neutral, but it’s an unnecessary step. The car should be intelligent enough to realise I’m stopped with the park brake on, kill the engine. How hard can it be?

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General handling of the CX-9 was very good – not flat through the corners, but still good and better than you would expect for the size and weight of this car – and its height. The new model CX-9 is some 70mm higher ground clearance than the previous model. Brakes were ok but did need a fairly good push of the pedal under heavy brake – almost exactly the same as the test Kia Carnival I had the other week.

The steering was quite heavy on the open road – surprisingly heavy, but not uncomfortable. Around town it was just fine, but the initial steering response is really slow. Going from another car into the CX-9, I nearly didn’t make a roundabout as I hadn’t given it enough lock, and the initial turn is slow. I got used to it by the end of my time with the CX-9, but it didn’t seem on par with other modern SUVs in this respect. Actual feel through the steering is average for the class too. Certainly not bad, but it’s normal SUV feel, if there is such a thing

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I only managed 350km in the CX-9 before it went back. It average 11.3l/100km for those miles, a solid 50/50 mix of open road and around town. Stated combined mileage is 8.8, so I was a fair way off from that.

Robin’s 2013 CX-9

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Robin contemplates trading up…

Robin Johnston purchased his V6 CX-9 new in 2013. With a growing family, he wanted a seven seater, but one with enough power to get them around to the sports events they travel to regularly.

“We needed to get six kids in the car,” Robin says, “we’ve got fairly big kids and they needed to be relatively comfortable. We test a Mitsubishi, a Honda Odyssey and a BMW. But the CX-9 won out.” What made him decide on the CX-9? “The interior really won us over, and also the dealer let us try the car out for a week, which was great. That happened at the same time as a trip to Napier, so we really get to do a real world test on it.” And yes, the dealer knew about the Napier drive.

Robins says it’s ‘grunty’ which is great for long trips, although it does like a drink. “We average 14.3l/100km everywhere, all the time. It never changes.”

There’s been no problems he says, and I had to ask: would he buy another one? “Looking at the new one, it’s very tempting. They just drive so well. It’s on the fuel economy of my current CX-9 that hurts me, otherwise I love the car.”

The Competition

Hmmm the most economical and down the lower cost end of the chart – the CX-9 has a lot going for it.

Brand/Model Engine Power/Torque

Kw/NM

Fuel L/100km

(claimed)

Price Highest to Lowest
Hyundai Sante Fe Elite 7-seater 2WD 3.3-litre V6 petrol 199/318 9.6 $69,490
Toyota Highlander GLX 7-seater AWD 3.5-litre V6 petrol 201/337 10.6 $67,490
Holden Colorado LTZ 7-seater AWD 2.8-litre 4-cyl diesel turbo 147/500 9.2 $66,990
Nissan Pathfinder Ti 7-seater AWD 3.5-litre V6 petrol 190/325 10.2 $65,990
Kia Sorento Premium Urban 7-seater 2WD 3.3-litre V6 petrol 199/318 9.9 $63,990
Mazda CX-9 Limited AWD 7-seater 2.5-litre 4-cyl DOHC VTI turbo petrol 170/420 8.8 $63,990
Ford Territory Titanium 7-seater 2WD 4.0-litre 6-cyl DOHC petrol 195/391 10.5 $59,990

The Pros and Cons

Pros Cons
  • Stunning looks
  • Performance
  • So, so refined
  • Equipment levels
  • Build quality
  • Comfort
  • Audio system quality
  • Park brake problems
  • Initial steering response
  • Dark inside
  • Access to 3rd row
  • Storage space with 3rd row up

What do we think of it?

I would happily have the CX-9 as a daily driver. The dynamics of this car are brilliant. It looks sensational (and I don’t mean that lightly), goes extremely well and is so smooth and quiet, it’s raised the benchmark for NVH of the entire segment.

Yes, some things were not perfect, as I mentioned. But overall this is a fantastic package. In the market for a 7-seat SUV? Drive the others, then drive the CX-9. You will be impressed.

I’ve got to award the CX-9 4.5 Chevrons, and it’s so close to a 5 it’s not funny.

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Vehicle Type 7-seat Crossover SUV
Starting Price $52,995 + on-road costs
Tested Price $62,995 + on-road costs
Engine SKYACTIV-G 2.5 litre turbo in-line, 4-cylinder, 16 valve, DOHC S-VT petrol engine with i-stop and i-ELOOP
Transmission 6-speed automatic with Sport Mode
0 – 100 kph 8.6 seconds
Kerb Weight 1924 kg
Length x Width x Height 5075x1969x1747
Cargo Capacity 230/810 Litres
Towing Capacity 750 unbraked, 2,000 braked
Fuel Efficiency Advertised Spec – Combined – 8.8 L / 100km

Real World Test – Combined –11.3L / 100km

Fuel Tank 74 litres
ANCAP Safety Ratings 5 stars
Warranty 5 year unlimited kilometre warranty
5 year roadside assist
3 years free servicing

 

How an earth to start this? I've been car/bike/truck crazy since I was a teen. Like John, I had the obligatory Countach poster on the wall. I guess I'm more officially into classic cars than anything else - I currently have a '65 Sunbeam Tiger that left the factory the same day as I left the hospital as a newborn with my mother. How could I not buy that car? Recently my wife and I drove across the USA in a brand-new Dodge Challenger, and then shipped it home. You can read more on www.usa2nz.co.nz I am heavily into the motorbike scene as well, and my current ride is a BMW K1200GT. There is nothing like a ride on a bike!

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