TALIHINA, Okla. -- Oklahoma Highway 1, a serpentine route over the Ouachita Mountains mixing dips and rises and whoop-de-do pavement heaves, serves as our test track to sample the athletic spirit and flex new turbo muscle of the 2016 CX-9, Mazda's souped-up and sporty-driving mid-size crossover utility vehicle.
The all-new 2016 iterations of CX-9 represent a second generation for Mazda's 3-row crossover. The designers devised a lighter yet more rigid chassis for the vehicle, wrapped the unibody structure in a stunning sheetmetal package, fitted the spacious passenger compartment with fine materials like satin and polished aluminum, Japanese rosewood and supple Nappa leather, then developed a new turbo-charged and direct-injected SKYACTIV-G engine that delivers virtually instantaneous throttle response, head-of-class torque yet also class-leading fuel economy figures.
Mazda's new engine -- a 2.5-liter 4-in-line dual-valve Dynamic Pressure Turbo -- produces 250 hp at 5000 rpm plus 310 lb-ft of torque at only 2000 rpm using 93-octane gasoline. (With 87-octane fuel it delivers 227 hp.)
Translating all of that energy is a smooth SKYACTIV-Drive 6-speed electronic automatic transaxle with standard front-wheel-drive or optional all-wheel-drive traction.
EPA fuel economy figures for the CX-9 in front-wheel-drive configuration climb to 22 miles per gallon for city driving and up to 28 mpg on the highway. Add optional all-wheel-drive traction and the EPA numbers come to 21/27 mpg (city/highway).
With the electronically controlled AWD system, various sensors at the wheels direct control modules to automatically distribute the engine's torque between front and rear wheels as warranted by pavement traction situations. All power flows to the front wheels when driving on dry pavement, but when traction degrades on wet or icy surfaces the intelligent system can divert up to 50 percent of the power to turn rear wheels and stabilize the vehicle.
The 2016 CX-9 measures up at the large end of the mid-size class of crossover utility vehicles.
It appears long and broad but planted snuggly on wheels that run up to 20 inches. Its overall length clicks over 199 inches and the wheelbase stretches for 2.2 inches longer than first-generation versions.
Styling of the 2016 CX-9 appears lean and aggressive with swoopy exterior lines spread across a broad structure and bulbous arched fenders that protrude beyond a curt roll of the front hood to articulate the large low-profile tires mounted on aluminum alloy wheels. A raked windshield flows over the roofline that tapers toward a curt hatchback tail, seeming like a sporty coupe due to the muted outline of rear cabin doors.
The face focuses on a prominent 5-fin wing grille set between narrow streaking corner headlight clusters with LED tube lines linking lamps and grill.
Mazda's stylists list a signature color as Machine Gray. The monochrome scheme makes the CX-9 appear as if "carved from a single ingot of steel."
Layout of the CX-9 cabin shows three rows of seats and an aft bay for cargo. On the first row two bolstered bucket seats redesigned with thinner seatbacks flank a floor console. On the second row a bench-style seat for three moves easily for access to the third row split-bench for two more riders.
Mazda's trim designations for the CX-9 consist of Sport, Touring, Grand Touring and new deluxe Signature.
CX-9 Sport edition comes with LED headlights and taillights, 18-inch alloy wheels, an electronic parking brake, rear backup camera, trailer stability assist and the Mazda Connect infotainment kit with Commander control and a 7-inch color display.
CX-9 Touring model piles on more gear like an auto-dimming rearview mirror, Blind Spot Monitoring with Rear Cross-Traffic Alert, leather seats, power front seats, power liftgate, and Mazda Connect 8-inch touchscreen display.
CX-9 Grand Touring adds 20-inch wheels and adaptive front-lighting system, aluminum cabin trim, Active Driving Display, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, Mazda Radar Cruise Control with Smart Brake Support, roof rails and memory settings on the driver's seat.
CX-9 Signature caps the line with Mazda's predictive i-ACTIV all-wheel drive and the cabin filled with Nappa leather, Japanese rosewood and LED accent lighting.
Mazda's MSRP figures for the 2016 CX-9 stretch from $31,520 (Sport/FWD) to $44,015 (Signature/AWD).