By Barbara & Bill Schaffer
Just when we thought we’d found the best three-row crossover (the Audi Q7) a couple of months ago, the all-new Mazda CX-9 lands in our garage to drive for a week and forcing us to ask ourselves, ‘Is the Mazda better than the Audi?’
Good question. They both offer excellent drivability, comfort and styling, but is the Audi worth the extra price?
The 2016 CX-9 is the last of the Mazda lineup to be redesigned using Mazda’s trademark Skyactiv® technology. Over the last few years we’ve driven all the others, and while we still don’t understand exactly what Skyactiv means, we know it works. The entire Mazda lineup has great handling, performance and fuel economy and although unassociated with Skyactiv, great styling.
In essence, the Skyactiv technology produces a homogenous “let’s all work together” cooperation between the drive and operating systems to produce a vehicle that maximizes fuel economy and performance.
Mazda has eliminated all six-cylinder engines and only one of the four-cylinder vehicles uses a turbocharger, the new CX-9. And that makes sense, because it’s a two-ton, three-row crossover/SUV so it needs more power than most naturally aspirated four-cylinder engines can offer. Of course, part of the auto journalist credo is to always want more power, so we’re hoping the turbocharging (and/or a diesel) will eventually appear under the hood of one of Mazda’s Skyactiv vehicles. And rumor is, that might happen…soon.
By looks alone, the Mazda CX-9 is a head turner with its sleek lines and distinctive Mazda grille. Mazda calls the look, KODO – Soul in Motion, and that’s another one of the difficult to define Mazda expressions. All we know is we think this one will turn heads for years,
The interior of our seven-passenger test vehicle, a top-of-the-line Signature All-Wheel Drive CX-9 was luscious and looked much richer than the price would indicate. We were especially impressed by the Auburn-colored Nappa Leather seating that is available only on this Signature model.
Every manufacturer has a signature control system for the infotainment system and Mazda’s is one of the easiest to use. It’s mounted to the rear of the console mounted shifter and has function-specific buttons to start the system where the driver wants to go (audio, navigation, etc.) and then there is a large control knob that makes selections from the menu on the screen that sticks out of the dash above the center console. Controls throughout the cockpit are well marked and have a quality feel.
The new CX-9 engine is not just a four-cylinder engine with a turbocharger bolted on, it is the latest variation of the Mazda Skyactiv engine series. Mazda engineers have designed a new turbocharger which they call the Dynamic Pressure Turbo. It’s the world’s first turbocharger with ability to vary the degree of exhaust pulsation depending on the engine speed. Mazda explains it like this, “The system routes engine exhaust to the turbocharger’s turbine through smaller ports at low rpm. It works similarly to when one might place his or her thumb on a garden hose, creating a strong amount of pressure through a smaller outlet. This allows the turbocharger to spool up quickly, creating instant boost—up to 1.2 bar (17.4 psi) of pressure.”
We won’t pretend to totally understand the technology, but we do know it works. It doesn’t feel like a typical four-cylinder engine, instead it has a smooth powerful sophistication about the way it responds to driver input.
The 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is rated at 250-hp and 310-lb.ft. of torque and drives the front wheels, or the optional i-Activ all-wheel drive through the six-speed Skyactiv-Drive automatic transmission. The CX-9 has a lot of fancy names for its systems, but they all work beautifully. The engine feels as strong as most V-6 engines in similar vehicles. Zero to 60 mph acceleration takes 7.2 seconds and the EPA rates fuel economy at 21 mpg city, 27 mpg highway and 23 mpg combined. We averaged 22.2 mpg during our driving time.
The Mazda CX-9 drives more like a sporty sedan than a crossover/SUV when running it through the winding mountain roads near our home in Southern Washington State. The CX-9 is the largest of the lineup, but it acts more like the smaller Mazdas almost encouraging the driver to step up the pace and be ‘one’ with the corners, meaning it’s fun to drive!
The 2016 Mazda CX-9 is available in four trim levels: Sport, Touring, Grand Touring and Signature each with the same Skyactiv drivetrain. Pricing ranges from $32,420, including the destination charge, for the Sport with front-wheel drive up to $44,915 for the all-wheel drive Signature model. All-wheel drive adds $1,800 to the three lower models and is standard on the Signature. The Signature version has no options available other than color and some accessories.
To answer our initial question, “Is the Mazda CX-9 better than the Audi Q7?” No, it’s not better, but in most areas it is as good. The Audi has features, attributes we like a little better and it has significantly better performance, but with a fuel economy penalty. The Audi price can run from $10,000 to $42,000 more than the CX-9, which makes the CX-9 a big winner in value.