If there’s a modern-day descendant of the sleeper-iffic turbocharged Dodge Caravan, perhaps it is the new 2016 Mazda CX-9. There’s three rows for people, all of whom you can terrify with the fun pedal. Maybe it, too, will someday be tuned into lunacy. Only you may want to live in Siberia if you get one.
(Full disclosure: Mazda wanted us to drive the new CX-9 so much that they dropped one off at my house with a full tank of gas.)
While offspring-averse folks like myself may not think twice about a seven-seat people-mover, this is a particularly important car for Mazda.
Until this year, the CX-9 has been on a shared platform with the Ford Edge and Ford Fusion. For this year, the CX-9 shed a few pounds in a complete redesign on a Mazda-only platform, and a new, more powerful turbocharged engine.
The redesign is handsome, and the car handles as well as a Mazda should, but the CX-9's real killer app lies under the hood. Mazda blessed that new inline-four 2.5-liter Skyactiv-G turbo engine with enough low grunt to satisfy even the biggest turbo haters in the city, while still having a nice, gradual turbo whoosh at higher revs for when you really need to show an on-ramp who’s boss. The motor puts out a silly 310 ft-lbs of torque and 227 horsepower.
Ours came in the many-bell-and-whistle’d Grand Touring trim with an MSRP of $43,170, however, you can pick up an AWD CX-9 with fewer options starting at $33,320. Not bad at all.
Like it or not, Americans these days are all about the crossover. Mazda’s new range of crossovers ultimately will determine whether the one company that not only makes fun a priority but is also accessible to the masses will be able to hold their own here.
Want to keep getting Miatas, enthusiast-oriented Mazdaspeed cars or perhaps a new rotary-powered coupe? Or better yet, you hope that Mazda sees the light and figures out a way to shoehorn the CX-9's engine into a Miata? You better hope Mazda’s more pedestrian, mass-market offerings sell well, then.
Fortunately, the CX-9 doesn’t just tick off a box for parents who’ve outgrown their Mazdaspeed3 anymore. It’s genuinely a joy to drive.
I’ve never had a vehicle this large that I didn’t want to quit driving.
Usually, size precludes fun in a way where I use the behemoth-mobile for its intended purpose—towing, hauling things, or what have you—and groan a bit when I feel compelled to use it for the rest of the week I’m testing it. With the CX-9, I found myself making excuses to go on twistier roads and longer drives. It’s that good.
Full throttle in the CX-9 is the kind of turbo-crazy kick in the face that far too many crossovers are content to neuter in the name of catering to The Normals. Your mom may not want to peel out at stoplights with a big stupid grin on her face, but you do.
This is a car built for dropping the kids off at the pool, but it absolutely doesn’t drive like one.
Get in to drive, try not to whack your head on the A-pillar if you’re short, and it just doesn’t feel like Mazda’s biggest offering. It feels like we expect a Mazda to these days— a fun practical car in a sea of deeply boring ones.
The CX-9 is a stupidly competent driver that you can toss into twisties like a lunatic. It passes the tight 32nd Street exit “moose test” without lifting from freeway speeds. Throw it around with reckless abandon. It just figures it out.
Some of that is thanks to Mazda’s trick all-wheel-drive system, which is an up-sized version of the system I drove on Mazda’s smaller crossovers in January. It’s front-wheel-drive-based, but a clever electromagnetic center differential sends power to the rear wheels almost instantaneously if it senses the front wheels start to spin.
Most of the time, the CX-9 is front-wheel-drive with the rear wheels not even engaged in the system to be more economical on fuel than a true full-time all-wheel-drive system. This efficiency voodoo works, as the gas mileage for this big 4,301-pound behemoth hovered around the stated 21 city MPG with me flooring it everywhere and giggling.
The final, ready-for-production CX-9 wasn’t out yet in January, so Mazda’s public relations guy took me for a ride around in the pre-production car they had on hand. He got it hilariously sideways in the snow. Drift the kids to school, I say.
Besides the fact that mere sunlight beaming through the windshield on hot days will make you feel as if you’re piloting a spaceship into the surface of the sun, Mazda made the CX-9's interior a wholly adequate, spacious place to sit.
The seats themselves were everything you’d need in a nicer-ish crossover, complete with nice lumbar support up front. In the evening, the cabin became a genuinely comfortable place to be. The leather was soft whenever it wasn’t flaming hot from being parked outside during the day. (Needless to say, I’m more of a cloth fan.)
Even the third row of seats was surprisingly comfortable. Given that third rows are the kids’ table of car bench seats, I expected it to feel like a cramped afterthought, but no—I’ve had airline seats that had less leg room than that third seat. The middle row had its own set of sliders to adjust as needed, too.
Having a third row meant that the floor in the rear cabin area was somewhat high to make room for the extra seats, but that’s somewhat to be expected.
Of course, there’s the A-pillar. This is one of many cars where all 5'4" of me feels a bit dwarfed, and the ergonomics of getting in and out with that beautifully curved windshield aren’t the best if you have to move the seat up somewhat far to reach the pedals.
Some cars get around this for short drivers by moving the wheel up and the seat back when the car is off, thus making it less likely for you to hit your head on the A-pillar when you’re short. The Mazda CX-9 I tested did not.
The infotainment system was straightforward enough to use, but always took quite a while to start up. It would also always default to turning the heads-up display on, regardless if you turned it off the last time you used the car.
This heads-up display didn’t work that well with polarized sunglasses and felt like more of a distraction with them on. It came back on every time I started the car regardless of the preference of “kill it with fire” I’d left the last time I used the car. For a car I can set to remember my seating position, it seems bizarre that it won’t remember that I last had the heads-up display off.
I encountered one actual glitch with the screen, too, which handles a host of settings for the car, navigation and media. It went blank when it was on XM Radio and I plugged an iPhone in to the car’s USB port to charge. I had to go off of the XM screen entirely and navigate my way back in for it to display accurate information again.
To be honest, the entire infotainment system doesn’t quite feel ready for primetime. I’d have rather had a simpler unit that booted up faster, or that perhaps skipped the big screen and multiple functions entirely to accommodate larger air conditioning vents.
Mazda did a fantastic job of supersizing every aspect their cars to suit the CX-9, save for one that’s far too important during a Texan summer: air conditioning. I found it weirdly lacking here, enough to be an issue I don’t normally find in new cars, let alone press testers.
Full throttle will drive even the most serious driver to giggles, but it also kills the air conditioning with a vengeance. Eventually, because this car is too much fun, you will drive out into nowhere and meet your untimely demise, compelled by madness and dehydration to keep throwing the CX-9 around on back roads. Here lies Stef, last words: “Man, this thing is stable at high speed.”
The CX-9's idea of 60 degrees is more like 78 degrees-plus in a regular car when sun is beaming in through the front windshield on a hot day. Worse yet is the placement of the vents: lower than they would be in a regular car in order to accommodate a tombstone-style screen for the nav unit. Thus, I couldn’t direct air directly at my face.
I briefly tried sitting in the backseat to see if that was any better temperature-wise. There, you sit further from the vast, un-tinted expanse of the front windshield and can pull up the handy window shades for the rear windows. The middle row even has its own climate control system. It was marginally better back there, but unfortunately, you can’t drive from the backseat. That’s where this car shines: driving.
When I made the short 30-minute drive from Austin to San Marcos in 105 degree heat, I was exhausted. All I wanted when I got out of the car was water and ice. I had the same reaction to a boring freeway drive as I did to a muggy track day session: can I stick my face in an ice chest?
None of this matters, though, for there is boost and torque. Your parents didn’t buy the turbo Caravan for the wood paneling. You’re not going to buy the CX-9 for the nav unit, either.
Mazda has done the seemingly impossible: they’ve made a crossover that isn’t a thoroughly hateful experience to drive without also being a pricey German luxo-barge. And the world is a better place for it.
Photos credit: Stef Schrader
[Correction: The article originally listed this as a 2017 model in several places, but this is the 2016. This has since been fixed.]