Surprisingly, the smaller 2.5-litre inline 4-cylinder power plant delivers more wallop than the Ford-derived 3.7-litre V6 engine the previous model used.

By Rob Rothwell

The CX 9 is Mazda’s third-row equipped SUV flagship, and it has been completely re-engineered and restyled for 2016.

In British Columbia’s beautiful Okanagan Valley, renowned for its excellent wineries and spectacular back roads, this latest offering from Japan’s somewhat boutique automobile company was introduced.

Prior to dispatching the pens for a full day of seat-time, Mazda representatives explained the engineering achievements that extend the 2016 CX 9’s performance capabilities and fuel-efficiency over those of its predecessor.

Surprisingly, the smaller 2.5-litre inline 4-cylinder power plant delivers more wallop than the Ford-derived 3.7-litre V6 engine the previous model used.

Mazda engineers abandoned the former thirsty power plant in favour of the four-banger. That notion may have some readers wondering, as I did, what was in their water. As it turns out, it was something very special.

The engineers didn’t simply bolt a turbocharger onto an existing engine then sit back bathed in the glow of self-congratulation. Rather they conducted extensive research into throttle usage patterns among typical SUV owners and discovered something rather revealing. While these drivers like to hustle their vehicles, they seldom force their engines into the 4,000-plus RPM range.

What this told the engineers is that a smaller, more fuel-efficient engine could be highly functional in an SUV if it carried a wealth of torque in the lower RPM range rather than higher up the band. Lots of clever engineering followed, and voila…310 lb.-ft. of twist at just 2,000 RPM from a 2.5L inline four. It also promises 227 horsepower at 5,000 RPM with 87 octane fuel and 250 ponies when burning premium juice.

As an example of how effective this torque strategy is, Mazda claims that the new engine will deliver the same acceleration without gearing down that required the old V6 engine to notch down two full gears to muster.

In addition to a deep well of torque, the new mill also earns impressive fuel-economy numbers, cited as 10.5/8.3 L/100km (city/highway) when equipped with front-wheel-drive and 11.2/8.8 L/100km respectively when partnered with all-wheel-drive.

About the only mid-size SUV with third-row seating that can eclipse the new CX 9 when it comes to preserving fuel is Toyota’s Highlander Hybrid.

An over-arching goal of exterior design manager Ethan Song was that of finding a balance between functionality and emotion, which would allow the CX 9 to fulfill the practicality expectations of SUV owners while also satisfying the emotional side of driving: the “zoom zoom” factor.

The outcome is an SUV exhibiting distinctive design cues giving hint to its spirited soul. With technology and style in the bag, Mazda gave the CX 9 lessons in refinement, achieving premium levels of ride quality and quietness.

Climbing into the GT trimmed tester was a decidedly un-Mazda-like event. I’ve had the benefit of seat-time in plenty of fine Mazda products, but none had me as intrigued as the new CX 9. Had I mistakenly crawled into an Audi or Lexus product? It’s that good, maybe even better.

So fine, Mazda has built an outstanding cabin able to punch well above its underdog weight, but what about the drive you ask? Well here’s where that adage about eating crow applies.

Despite my petty disdain for 4-cylinder engines powering vehicles intended to haul humans and their gear through mountain passes, I came away from the day’s road trip a changed man, and it had nothing to do spiritual redemption.

The turbocharged engine is far more capable that I expected, both in the passing lane and up the hills of wine country. In fact, it delivers so much low-end grunt that it felt more like a turbo-diesel, minus the clatter.

Thanks to the effortless outpouring of torque beneath its hood, its premium cabin, and its delightful refined road manners, I would confidently recommend the new CX 9 to a prospective mid-size SUV buyer.

Yet, recommending a mid-size SUV propelled by a 4-cylinder engine is not something I ever expected to do. Call it redemption Mazda style.

SPECS:

Pricing GS FWD: $35,300

Pricing GS-L AWD: $41,500

Pricing GT AWD: $45,500

Pricing Signature AWD: $50,100

Engine: Turbocharged 2.5L I-4, 227-250 horsepower, 310 lb.-ft. torque

Fuel-economy FWD: 10.5L/100km city, 8.3L/100km highway

Fuel-economy AWD: 11.2L/100km city, 8.8L/100km highway

Seating capacity: 7

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