For a company that champions emotion as much as it does, sometimes Mazda makes decisions like it was run by a bunch of Vulcans. Witness their new three-row crossover, which comes with the same horsepower rating as a first-generation WRX. Yes, usable turbocharged torque is up, thanks to a clever butterfly valve system that amplifies exhaust pressure at low rpms, but on paper the CX-9 needs to be explained. It's just the kind of thing a brand run by engineers would do.
Thank V'ger this thing's pretty. Mazda can point to research showing accessible grunt is more useful in daily driving compared to marketing-friendly peak power numbers until they're blue in the face, but to get folks to walk into a showroom you need less of the pointy-eared logic and a little more Shatner-style sex appeal.
It's not just pretty, either, but drop-dead gorgeous. Fitted out in Machine Grey paint, the Signature-grade CX-9 is stunning. Like Honda's Acura and Toyota's Lexus, Mazda once planned their own luxury marque in the 1990s: Amati. Neither the brand, nor its W-12 powered Amati 1000 flagship, ever came to fruition, but the CX-9 feels like it could have carried a premium badge. It's nicer than a Pilot, but not quite as costly as an MDX.
The good looks continue inside, with genuine rosewood trim and high-quality materials. Matter of fact, the cabin's nice enough that the Mazda infotainment and navigation controls look out of place. They're still easy to use, but the same functionality that suits a CX-5 is shamed by near-Lexus-level surroundings. Still, you get a proper heads-up display, instead of the flimsy plastic screen in the Mazda3.
The CX-9 feels designed around a family with two near-adult children. Second row legroom is excellent, the third row is basically vestigial; with all three rows deployed, cargo space is limited. Sliding the second row forward is tricky for smaller kids. There are roomier crossovers in this class. Or you could just buy a minivan.
However, when it comes time to hustle a bit, the CX-9 twiddles the emotional knob further. This is a great-driving car, with the typical Mazda dynamic advantage. At 258 pounds lighter than the outgoing V6 model, it takes a linebacker off the nose for better balance. The 2.5-liter turbo-four makes a peak 227 hp on regular fuel, 250 hp on premium, and 310 lb-ft of torque at 2000 rpm no matter the octane rating. The six-speed automatic does its job well, harvesting the low-end torque for easy driveability.
You don't hurry a three-rower like you would a two-seat roadster. On opposing weeks, I shucked an MX-5 back-to-back with the CX-9 on the same coastal road; the former was crimson and effervescent, the latter was smooth, quiet, competent, and direct. It's Soul Red versus Machine Grey, but the CX-9 is hardly boring.
A few suggestions. First, Mazda would do better to offer 19-inch alloys on everything, rather than 20-inch on top-level cars and undersized-looking 18's on volume models. Secondly, strap a bigger turbo on this engine and shoehorn it into the CX-3 to create the next Mazdaspeed model. Flipping the bird at the AMG GLA45 for half the price sounds like a hell of a good idea.
The Highlander has heft. The Pilot has tech. The Edge has style. The new CX-9's chief winning characteristic is its Mazda-ness. It's light on it feet, quicker than the power rating suggests, and looks like the RX-Vision concept jacked up on 20's. Like Spock, it's a blend of the logical and the emotional. May it live long and prosper enough that we get a new RX-7.
2016 Mazda CX-9 Signature
Price as tested: $45,215
Powertrain: 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder; six-speed automatic transmission
MPG: 21 city / 27 highway
Away-Team Suggestions: Buy your least-favorite kid a red shirt