The 2016 Mazda CX-9 is a 'driver's' car that can seat seven

Mazda's latest CUV is fun for the whole family

Mazda CX 9

Miata is always the answer is that many driving enthusiasts have when asked for vehicle buying recommendations. While I absolutely adore the Mazda Miata in all of its iterations in the past 27 years, it isn't the answer for a family car – unless you're a single parent.

Mazda understands the desire for parents to not give into the urge of life-less family vehicles as a sign of adulthood, and has injected its spirited driving DNA into anything from minivans to crossover utility vehicles (CUV).

That spirit is alive and well in Mazda's latest CX-9 crossover, but with a twist.

Mazda CX 9

Instead of focusing on tiny engine displacements and strapping on turbochargers, Mazda focused on high-compression motors with excellent fuel economy and weight reduction. This resulted in Mazda's SkyActiv branding, which started with the Mazda 3 and last applied to the CX-3.

Now that Mazda's small vehicle lineup has all received SkyActiv makeovers, its turning to the CX-9, the last remaining car based on a Ford platform and its only car that can fit seven passengers. With the new CX-9, Mazda is now completely free of any Ford platforms or drivetrains.

To sample the latest iteration of the Mazda CX-9, I packed my bags and headed to San Francisco to spend a full day driving through the windy roads of Sonoma County and end up in Bodega Bay at The Birds Café for lunch. This is where the Alfred Hitchcock flick The Birds was filmed – but the only casualty here was a CX-9, as a result of a fly-by dropping.

Simply striking

I'm a fan of Mazda's Kodo design language, but the CX-9 cranks up the sexiness with a bolder, in-your-face schnoz and sleek behind. I never thought a crossover could look so sexy without stepping up to a German or British brand, but Mazda pulls it off.

On trim levels with adaptive cruise control, the radar sensor is stealthily hidden behind the Mazda M badge. It's a subtle detail, but makes the front of a car look cleaner, instead of a piece of piano black plastic that's tacked onto the front of the car.

Mazda CX 9

Inside, the interior takes a driver-focused approach with a low slung dashboard with excellent forward visibility. Mazda claims its going upmarket with "premium" materials, and the CX-9 doesn't disappoint. At first glance, there's gratuitous use of padded soft-touch materials with real, analog gauges for the speedometer and tachometer.

I don't like the tombstone placement of the LCD touchscreen display, however. It looks tacked on and doesn't flow with the rest of the interior. Most of the frequently touched surfaces are high-quality materials, but the less-used seat adjustment switches feel extremely cheap and flimsy.

Mazda CX 9

Step up to the new Signature trim and you're treated to Nappa leather, real rosewood – the same kind used on guitars – and genuine aluminum trim. While the seat switches remain the same, the rest of the Signature interior looks and feels higher quality than what you get in an Acura or Infiniti, which is an amazing feat considering how low-quality Mazda interior materials were during the Ford era.

Technology

The CX-9 features the same OpenCar-based Mazda infotainment system as shared with its smaller siblings. It relies on an ergonomically-placed control knob below the shifter, a touchscreen and steering wheel controls.

Touring and higher trim levels gets a standard, 8-inch touchscreen display while stepping up to the Grand Touring or Signature gains navigation capabilities.

Mazda CX 9
That's real rosewood interior pieces in the Signature trim level

Mazda's user interface is intuitive to use once you get the hang of it, but setting radio station presets is a very clunky procedure that requires navigating a few sub menus. Once the presets are set, it's straightforward to use.

The 3D navigation maps include building details, which was very useful while driving through San Francisco. There are safety lockouts that prevent the driver and passenger from inputting addresses when the car is moving.

Mazda CX 9

When the car is moving, the touchscreen is deactivated completely, annoyingly. I find complete system lockouts extremely frustrating, since it prevents my passenger from using the navigation functions – please, just let me agree to a warning disclaimer and use it as I please.

Neither Android Auto nor Apple CarPlay are supported on the CX-9, despite Mazda being listed as a supported manufacturer for both. When I asked Mazda representatives about Android Auto and Apple CarPlay support down the road, I was told the company is looking into it but will not support it until the user interface is perfected with its control knob interface.

Mazda CX 9

Driver assist technologies available on the CX-9 include adaptive cruise control (ACC), blind-spot monitor (BSM), automatic emergency braking (AEB), lane-keep assist (LKAS) and head-up display (HUD). ACC in the CX-9 is a major disappointment, unfortunately.

It's not a full-speed range system and requires driver intervention below 20 mph, which isn't very "premium." Cars like the Hyundai Santa Fe and Kia Sorento offer full-speed range systems in the same class.

Mazda CX 9
The ACC sensor hides behind the M badge

Mazda's LKAS can gently nudge the car back into the lane if you happen to veer off. It's not a steering assist system that actively follows the road for you, like in the Honda Pilot.

However, Mazda claims its LKAS is tuned for spirited driving and can detect when you're trying to clip an apex like a race car driver, so it doesn't interrupt your fun.

I found the Mazda LKAS very subtle and it wasn't hard to fight. I didn't notice the system in action through most of my drive until I purposely let the car drift out of the lane.

Mazda CX 9

The best driver assist in the CX-9 is the full-color HUD, which displays your speed, BSM, turn-by-turn navigation and cruise control information. It's the first Mazda with an actual HUD that projects an image onto the windshield, instead of a flip-up plastic lens on the smaller cars.

I've yet to come across a full-color, modern HUD that I don't like. It's a fantastic feature that every car should have. With the HUD, I never found myself looking down at the gauge cluster at all. For instance, Mazda's HUD can tell when a vehicle is in your blind spot without looking at the side mirror.

Driving matters

Mazda creates cars that are fun and dynamic to drive, whether it's a minivan with a manual transmission or a seven-seat family CUV. The new CX-9 improves driving dynamics by downsizing the previous generation's 3.7-liter V6 to an all-new, turbocharged SkyActiv 2.5-liter four-cylinder motor that produces up to 250 horsepower (hp) and 310 pound-feet (lb.-ft.) of torque on premium fuel.

Mazda CX 9
It's made for windy roads

Peak horsepower drops to 227 hp if you're inclined to use regular unleaded fuel, but torque remains the same. Overall power is down 23 hp from the outgoing V6, but torque is up by 40 lb.-ft.

Mazda tunes the SkyActiv turbo to produce peak torque at a very low 2,000 RPM, so there's an instant surge of power.

The new motor is paired solely to a six-speed automatic without paddle shifters, but Mazda does let you select your gears manually from the console shifter. Front wheel drive (FWD) is standard, and Mazda's i-Activ all-wheel drive (AWD) system is available if you need the added traction capabilities.

Mazda CX 9

Mazda manages to reduce the curb weight of the new CX-9 by 258 pounds on AWD and 269 pounds on FWD models, which helps fuel economy and handling. Speaking of fuel economy, Mazda expects 21 in the city, 27 on the highway and 23 combined miles per gallon (mpg) on AWD models.

Altogether, the new CX-9 lives up to Mazda's spirited driving demeanor. Throttle response is instant while steering is precise with just the right balance of road feel and weight so you can enjoy clipping apexes or commuting. It's a CUV that carves corners with authority and enough room for up to seven people.

Mazda CX 9

You do feel the weight of the CX-9 when pushing it on windy roads. Mazda engineers did a remarkable job with the suspension tuning, but it's hard to fight physics with 4,301 pounds, or almost the weight of two first generation Miata's (MX-5 for those in the rest of the world).

What we liked

The new Mazda CX-9 is stunning at first glance. The crossover has an excellent HUD, ergonomic control knob for the infotainment system and athletic driving dynamics.

Mazda finally has a proper HUD that projects useful driving information on the windshield with full color and sharp graphics. I find the BSM display in the HUD very useful to give you a quick heads-up if a car managed to sneak into your blind spot while you're looking forward.

I'm a big fan of control knobs for infotainment systems because they're comfortable to use without having to move my torso to reach. The Mazda CX-9 takes a page from the Audi ergonomics playbook to create a simpler yet comfortable control knob that I can operate while resting my right hand.

The CX-9 stays true to Mazda's zoom-zoom driving DNA. I enjoyed driving it along the northern California coast through the windiest of windy roads. The only other large CUVs I can recall enjoying in the same fashion cost significantly more, like the Volvo XC90 T8 and Range Rover Sport.

What we didn't like

All said, this is not a perfect car, unfortunately. The Mazda infotainment system still lacks Android Auto and CarPlay support, and the ACC needs a full-speed upgrade. I wish Mazda would add support already, instead of constantly teasing. As good as factory infotainment systems are when you buy the car, technology changes quickly.

By relying on your phone for infotainment functions, you can take advantage of free maps and traffic updates from Google, Apple or Waze. You also upgrade your phone a lot more often than your car, so the speed gains with new phones are beneficial for in-car use too. Mazda's infotainment system has a responsive user interface, but it lacks the long-term confidence that Android Auto and CarPlay bring to the dashboard.

Mazda's ACC was disappointing and not quite as premium as the brand wants the car to appear. When I think of a premium car, full-speed range ACC is a must-have feature. Even the Kia Sorento, Hyundai Santa Fe and Honda Civic have full-speed ACC.

It's not that the CX-9 isn't ready for a full-speed system – it's drive-by-wire, brake-by-wire, has radar sensors, camera for AEB, and an electronic parking brake, most hardware needed for a full-speed system. Mazda may need to upgrade the sensors to better units, but it stuck with a more mainstream approach to ACC on what it deems a premium car.

Final verdict

Mazda leaves me highly conflicted with the new CX-9. As a former owner of a 1990 Miata and 2014 Mazda 5, both with manual transmissions, the CX-9 had me in a driving trance along the windy roads of Northern California. It's a joyous pleasure to drive that also satisfies my family needs of being able to fit my two kids and enough gear for a weekend getaway, or passenger space for their friends.

The slick HUD lets me focus on the road ahead without any distractions, and Mazda is the only mainstream brand to even offer it – you have to step up to a Volvo crossover to get a HUD with three rows of seating. But, the rest of Mazda's technology is behind the competition, like the limited ACC and lack of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

If Mazda could address those two technology shortcomings, then the CX-9 would be my perfect family CUV that satisfies my driving and technology needs. But, if you can overlook the technological shortcomings, the CX-9 is a seven passenger family car that can harmoniously dance with the road ahead.

However, if you must have full-speed ACC, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, the Kia Sorento and Hyundai Santa Fe are the CUVs you're looking for, but neither of those CUVs are as fun to drive as the Mazda CX-9. As for the other CUVs in the mainstream segment, the CX-9 beats out its Japanese-brethren when it comes to interior materials while beating out the other mainstream CUVs in sheer driving joy.

Ultimately, if you want a CUV with room for seven and sport sedan driving dynamics, the Mazda CX-9 is your only choice short of spending another 10,000 bucks.

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