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Mazda CX-9: New AWD system and great tires take winter’s measure

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

Mazda CX-9 interior

Since we lasted tested the three-row CX-9, two things happened; winter arrived and Car and Driver magazine named it the country’s best midsize crossover.

Bad weather in the mountains forced a schedule change, bringing us a Mazda CX-9 for review and not the Genesis G90 we’d expected.

The Seattle vendor that delivers our test vehicles thought better of driving a 420-horsepower, rear-wheel-drive luxury sedan over snow-hammered Snoqualmie Pass.

It was a fortuitous swap. Since we lasted tested the three-row CX-9, two things happened; winter arrived and Car and Driver magazine named it the country’s best midsize crossover.

“Mazda has created a trailblazing alternative to the status quo,” wrote C&D’s Annie White.

C&D praised the CX-9’s exterior design, its well-sorted cabin, its fuel efficiency and its $32,450 price tag. But, in the end, it was the drive that won over the C&D staff.

“Highway on-ramps and winding back roads aren’t just easily dealt with,” White wrote, “but become opportunities that can be reveled in.”

To he honest, with our roads buried beneath sheets of ice and frozen mounds of snow, I was more interested in traction than performance. Here, we were in good stead.

For the 2016 model year, Mazda completely redesigned the CX-9, which grew lighter, roomier and more efficient. Virtually no element was left untouched — including the i-ACTIV all-wheel-drive system.

Redesigned to harvest data originally intended for other purposes, i-ACTIV anticipates — and instantly responds to — imminent traction loss. Two hundred times per second, i-ACTIV samples 27 distinct data streams — including ambient temperature, wheel speed, engine dynamics, G-forces, driver inputs to the steering and braking systems, windshield-wiper activity,— and feeds it into the algorithms responsible for allocating power to the front and rear axles.

The electromagnetic clutch that controls rear-wheel engagement is preloaded with a small amount of torque, allowing instantaneous responses.

The clutch also reduces friction losses and improves fuel efficiency. The CX-9’s EPA-estimated 23 mpg combined/21 city/27 highway leads the midsize crossover segment.

My tester had another edge in the battle for traction; it was equipped with a set of Bridgestone Blizzaks winter tires. Quality winter tires (as opposed to the all-season and the studded varieties) provide superior grip in snow and on firmly packed and icy surfaces. Our steep and winding dirt road has resembled a luge run this winter, but the Blizzaks and i-ACTIV system made ascents and (especially) descents trauma-free.

All CX-9s are powered by a turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 250 horsepower on 93 octane gas and 227 hp on 87 octane. In Washington, our 91-octane fuel registers somewhere between and motivates the CX-9 from zero to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds.

Cabin comfort is first-rate. Soft-touch surfaces abound and layout and design are ergonomic and attractive. With its rotary controller, Mazda’s Connect system is among the most user-friendly of all infotainment systems. Its Head Up display minimizes distraction by placing key information in the driver’s line of sight.

Finally, though, like Car and Driver, there’s a good chance you’ll decide there’s no better reason to own a CX-9 than for the pure pleasure of driving it.

Errata: Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel Drive debuted on the MDX crossover in 2006, not 2001, as we stated Jan. 21.

2016 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring AWD
Vehicle base price: $31,520
Trim level base price: $41,970
As tested: $43,170
Options: Cargo mat; Snowflake White Mica paint
Tow rating: 3,500 pounds
EPA rating: 29 combined/27 city/32 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

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