Mazda would like you to believe the CX-9 is a three-row Miata. Ha!
It’s funny because it’s true. The all-new crossover is a bright spot of fun in an otherwise very functional segment, though this shouldn’t come as a surprise. As the ads say, “Driving matters,” and that truly applies to every car and crossover Mazda makes. When you’re the little guy, it helps to stand out.
The $32,420 CX-9 is far from small on the outside. It’s longer than many of the vehicles it competes against, including the Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota Highlander. A prominent shark nose adds a few of those inches and flows into a very long hood. It enhances an athletic profile that I’d describe as unique if it didn’t resemble Jaguar’s new F-Pace, even if Mazda had it first.
The sloping rear roof cuts into the trunk, however, which is also narrow with a high floor. If you’re in the market for maximum cargo carrying, the cavernous Honda Pilot is a better bet. That goes for people carrying, too. The Pilot can seat up to eight with room to spare. The seven-passenger CX-9’s third row can fit two adults, but they won’t be thrilled.
The story is different up front. The styling and materials would work for a premium brand, especially in high-end models, like the top-of-the-line Signature I tested with an out-the-door price of $45,215. It’s trimmed with real aluminum, electric guitar-spec rosewood and nappa leather, and they didn’t miss a spot where it matters.
Refinement has never been Mazda’s strong suit, but it’s finally figured it out with the CX-9. The doors shut with an authoritative “thunk,” and it’s as quiet as the proverbial bank vault on the move.
And, boy, how it moves.
All CX-9s – whether front- or all-wheel-drive – have a 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. It’s rated at 227 hp on regular gas, but a tank of premium will round up another 23 horses. That’s not a lot for a vehicle this size, but the 310 lb-ft of torque that goes with it is. Some full-size pickups have less, and only the twin-turbo V6 Ford Explorer and HEMI V8 Dodge Durango offer more in the CX-9's class. Nevertheless, the Mazda delivers unbeatable fuel economy: 23 mpg combined in AWD models and 25 mpg combined for two-wheel-drivers.
The CX-9 is relatively light and gets up to speed in a hurry, but it’s what it does when it gets there that pulls it ahead of the competition. The body is solid, the steering is responsive and the suspension is tuned with body control and handling in mind. There are sedans that are less able and entertaining on a windy road. Even the brakes impress.
The front seats aren’t very soft, but they’re deep and supportive, and their racy shape fits the car’s overall vibe well. A head-up display helps keep your eyes on the twists, turns and traffic in the road, while a full suite of optional driver aids (emergency braking, lane keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, etc.) is on call for less interesting highway slogs.
Like all Mazdas these days, the CX-9 has an infotainment system with a large tablet-style touchscreen on top of the dashboard and a rotary controller. It’s fine, but the software is a little dated, and it doesn’t offer Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. The excellent Bose audio system it controls is a nice consolation.
You won’t need it to get into the groove, though. A mountain road will do just fine.
Just follow the Miatas. They’ll show you how to find one.
2016 Mazda CX-9
Base price: $32,420
As tested: $45,215
Type: 4-door, 7-passenger CUV
Engine: 2.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Power: 227 hp/310 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
MPG: 21 city/27 hwy
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.