Mazda's CX-9 and Mazda6: two ways to enjoy the company's great turbocharged engine
By Jim Bray
One's a big, three row SUV and the other's a midsize sedan. And they're both Mazdas, turbocharged for maximum "Zoom-Zoom" effect.
How can that be a bad thing?
Regular readers of my columns (you both know who you are!) know undoubtedly that I'm a big fan of all things Mazda. I love their typically Japanese build quality; I mostly love the way Mazdas look – and most of all I love how Mazdas drive. While it appears that they've put their "Zoom-Zoom" marketing strategy to rest in recent times, it still applies to the feeling you get when driving one of their vehicles, whether the smallest or the largest in their stable.
And because of that I'm going to keep using "Zoom-Zoom" until they send me a cyst and decease notice.
The company seems to be moving its emphasis quite a bit toward adding luxury touches now, though, elevating their mainstream models to a level of equipment you might not expect in these particular market niches. And all without harming the "Zoom-Zoom."
For example, you can get a fully loaded CX-9, the Signature trim level, for $51,850 (the 100th anniversary one adds a couple of grand, but the Signature edition is the one for which I'd opt) and, though it's a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, the Lexus RX 350 Black Line Edition I drove the week before the CX-9 listed for $65,000. And while the Lexus piles on the luxury and amenities, I'd gladly save the more than 10 grand and have a vehicle that is arguably nearly as luxurious, but which adds a third row of seats (you can get that in the RX, too, but prepare to pay at least 60 grand to start), much better driving dynamics, paddles shifters that actually work well, and more.
Even though the Lexus has a great V6 engine, I'd still opt for the Mazda.
I got to spend a week with both the 2021 CX-9, the Japanese company's largest SUV/Crossover thingy, and the 6 sedan, Mazda's version of the Passat, Camry, Maxima, Optima, Sonata etc. etc. etc.
And I loved them both. What a surprise!
I guess that means you can stop reading here…
The 6 was my favourite of the two, but that isn't because the CX-9 is lacking in any way. I just prefer cars, and the 6 is a lovely thing to behold and to be in. And for 2021, they've even upped the ante a bit over the previous years of this third generation 6 (I wonder why they don't call it the 18 by now…).
The biggest ante upper, if there is such a phrase, is the new Kuro edition (also available on the CX-9 and CX-5), which Mazda proclaims "furthers the Mazda6's individuality and helps reflects the owner's discerning tastes." The Kuro edition takes vehicles that are very nice already and ups the ante with such things as Polymetal Grey Metallic or Jet Black Mica exterior paint and interiors featuring Garnet Red leather seats, red stitching, and black interior trimming.
Kuro savants also get such stuff as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, automatic climate control, power-adjustable driver's seat with memory and "most of Mazda's i-Activsense safety features" including Blind Spot Monitoring with Rear Cross-Traffic Alert, Radar Cruise Control with stop and go and Smart Brake Support.
Yeah, so no power upgrade, no stiffer suspension, no "boy racer stuff." And you know what? I'm okay with that – and the main reason why is that Mazda's driving dynamics are terrific right out of the box, and the lovely 2.5 litre turbo four you can get with the Kuro editions (and some other trim levels) is responsive enough to make me keep thinking "Zoom-Zoom" happily for the entirely of my time behind the wheel, at least until the lawyers show up with that notice.
Now, don't confuse Mazda's 2.5 litre engines. You can get the "normally aspirated" version in most Mazdas, and it comes as standard equipment on the 6. It's a good engine, with cylinder deactivation, and it produces 186 horsepower and 186 lb-ft of torque. That's enough to motivate a Mazda3 (though I'd go for the turbo there, too – and I wish they'd find a way to shoehorn it into the Miata, er, MX-5). I don't think it's enough motivation for the larger 6, however.
Ah, but that lovely Skyactiv-G 2.5 turbo can generate 320 lb.-ft. of torque and 250 horsepower if you burn premium (93 octane) fuel. I didn't, because premium fuel is expensive enough that I wait to fill my premium-quaffing sport wagon at Costco when I fuel up, so I had to live with the reduced 310 lb-ft of torque and 227 horsepower you get with regular (87 octane) fuel.
And the 227/310 horses/torque is more than adequate in the 6. More than adequate. Indeed, it's a blast.
Heck, it's also more than adequate in the CX-9, which is a lot bigger and heavier. I remember when Mazda announced it was dumping the CX-9's V6 I mourned – until I drove the turbo four.
Imagine how potent it is in the lighter 3, or the CX-5! Yep, legitimate "Zoom-Zoom".
The base Mazda6 lists for $27,550, which is pretty decent (don't forget the "small" engine, though), and the price can climb right up to just shy of 40 grand for the top line "Signature" edition (the Kuro lists for a couple of thousand less – $37,950).
Driving the 6 is a joy, not surprisingly. The car handles great, has excellent get up and go, and the steering and braking feel are just right.
Mazda wisely stuck with a six-speed automatic transmission and I love that they haven't succumbed to the temptation to add gears to increase fuel economy. The six-speed is more likely to stay in the power band better, so when you pull out to pass, the car doesn't need to downshift through too many gears before it has any oomph behind it.
One thing to remember is that if you put the Mazda into Sport mode via the switch on the centre console, the vehicle expects that you're going to take it seriously. So, if you aren't driving in a reasonably spirited manner, you might find it holds a lower gear too long. To get around that, either take it out of Sport mode, shift it yourself, or get with the program and start carving some apices.
The paddle shifters work well, too. Oh, they're not dual clutch transmission quick, but they're better than many – if not most – of the mainstream paddles I've tried, in that they shift the tranny pretty well when you tell it to, not when it deigns to (the abovementioned RX is a good example of the other strategy).
The divine CX-9…
Take everything I've just said about the Mazda6 and stretch it and you get the CX-9. Same engine and transmission, same attention to detail in styling and construction and dynamics – just a bigger vehicle, one that's a bit less (though not as less as you might expect) of a "driver's car." And, of course, all-wheel drive, which isn't available on the 6 (not yet, anyway).
Mazda's sample Kuro trim level unit listed for $50,150 and it also upped the equipment ante with $1,950 worth of options above that, so you get stuff like:
Most of this is cosmetic, of course, though I love driver's seat power and memory and would probably love the Captain's chairs if anyone could pry me out of the driver's seat.
One thing I found a tad weird about the CX-9 is the fact that I couldn't operate the power tailgate from inside when the vehicle was running. It isn't a big deal, but it seems like a strange oversight.
Especially since you can open the non-powered trunk (and it's a big trunk!) of the 6 from the driver's seat.
Both the 6 and the CX-9's under review here also bring such niceties as LED headlights, heated and ventilated front seats, four-wheel disc brakes, Mazda's G-Vectoring Control Plus (helps you keep the "Zoom-Zoom" when carving curves) and Mazda's centre console-focused multimedia interface - which works okay but which takes forever to load and really needs an update. That said, it's still better than some of the competition, including that of a 2022 luxury SUV I'll be opining about in an upcoming rant.
You operate the system via a control knob down between the front seats (there's a volume control there, too) and the centre stack-topping LCD can also work as a touch screen. Alas, I found the screen too far away for my easy reach, and it only works as a touch screen when the vehicle is stopped anyway.
Both the 6 and the CX-9 also included Mazda's version of a head's up display, and it's a very good one. It not only gives you a nice colour view, and your current speed, but it also displays the speed limit where you're travelling (it shows stop signs, too) and even the information from the blind spot sensors. And it doesn't disappear if you're wearing polarized sun glasses.
I really don't understand why Mazda isn't a bigger car company. Perhaps they don't want to be, but in my never humble opinion there are few car companies that aren't German and Expensive that offer as much fun and as much stuff, for such a competitive price.
I know where I'd be looking first were I shopping for a new mainstream vehicle today.
On the other hand, I've read that the next Mazda6, due in a year or so perhaps, will be rear wheel drive and powered by an inline six.
My mouth is watering already.
Copyright 2021 Jim Bray