Mazda gave the CX-9 bolder styling, a new engine and superb handling for 2016, making it a seven-passenger SUV that separates itself from the crowd.
The gas-hungry V-6 of the previous CX-9 is gone. The new turbocharged four-cylinder engine helps account for the exemplary fuel economy ratings that the federal government pegs as high as 22 mpg in city driving and 28 mpg on highways for a two-wheel drive 2016 CX-9. A four-wheel drive CX-9 loses one mpg, for 21/27-mpg ratings.
These ratings rival those of smaller SUVs and make the CX-9 the most fuel-efficient 2016 SUV with three rows of seats.
Best of all, even with the turbo, drivers don't have to use premium gasoline. Lower-priced regular unleaded gas does fine to produce 227 horsepower and as much as 310 foot-pounds of torque starting at 2,000 rpm.
Consumer Reports projects that its reliability will be "good."
Competitors such as the 2016 Honda Pilot earned four out of five stars and the 2016 Ford Explorer has five out of five stars for occupant protection in frontal crashes. Both have large V-6 engines under the hood.
The CX-9 is Mazda's most expensive vehicle. But the starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $32,420 for a front-wheel drive, 2016 CX-9 Sport is in line with other sizable SUVs with three rows of seats.
The lowest starting retail price, including destination charge, for a 2016 CX-9 with all-wheel drive is $34,220.
It didn't take long to get comfortable test-driving the CX-9. The nearly 17-foot-long SUV handled nimbly and felt smaller than it is, maneuvering into and out of parking spots more like a compact SUV, not a longer one with three rows of seats.
The electric power-assisted steering gave a connected-to-the-road feel and, responding promptly and precisely to driver inputs, gave the impression of being behind the wheel of a sporty car.
The test-driven version, which had all-wheel drive and 20-inch wheels, gave a firm and controlled ride. The nice balance fit well with the SUV's sporty steering, which makes swerving a breeze.
The 2.5-liter turbocharged SkyActiv-G four-cylinder engine is up for the challenge of moving a 4,330-pound SUV. The test-driven model showed commendable power, particularly in the under-4,500 rpm range where drivers spend much of their time.
Turbo lag — the slight delay of power coming on as the turbo spools up — wasn't noticeable, and the CX-9 powered up and moved along with verve.
In fact, the turbo four delivers more torque and at a lower engine rpm — for a responsive driving experience — than the old, 3.7-liter V-6 did.
And buyers don't lose any towing capability from last year's CX-9. It's still 3,500 pounds maximum.
But based on the test drive, it may be difficult to reach the government fuel mileage numbers. The test-driven model averaged just 17 mpg in driving that was on city streets and country roads the majority of the time. That translated to a driving range of 331 miles on a 19.5-gallon tank.
The new styling, inside and out, on the CX-9 is richer than what was on the previous model. The plastics inside on the test vehicle are noteworthy for their fine grain appearance and soft-to-the-touch tactile feel.
But cargo space of 14.4 cubic feet behind the third row is less than what's in many competitors and less than some sedan trunks.
This story has been corrected to delete a reference to the government's crash test ratings for the 2016 CX-9, which haven't been released yet. That deleted ratings pertained to the 2015 model.