The all-new Mazda CX-9 SUV is akin to a patriarch being reborn. As the biggest and priciest vehicle in the automaker's lineup, the outgoing CX-9 was feeling like odd-man out. While the other models in the Mazda lineup boasted Mazda's latest innovations like the groundbreaking SkyActiv suite of powertrain technology that does wonders for both efficiency and power output, the former CX-9 was still using a power plant from 2008. And while last year's CX-9 still injected the fun driving dynamics that go hand in hand with Mazdas, it lagged fresher rivals like the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander and Nissan Pathfinder in terms of technology, efficiency and amenities.

That all changes with the fully revamped 2016 Mazda CX-9. This 3-row crossover SUV is the last in Mazda's lineup to receive the full SkyActiv powertrain technology as well as its sleek and curvy "Kodo" design influence, bringing completion to the automaker's lineup transformation. The new CX-9 is also the most premium yet, with higher-end trims like the new CX-9 Signature model being able to pass for a luxury SUV. The wait was long, but after driving this new midsize family hauler over hill and dale, we can say it was worth it.

Our particular hill-and-dale fling was in the San Francisco area, where Mazda invited us to try out their newest and largest SUV. As before, the CX-9 retains its 3-row, 7-passenger layout. But just about everything else inside and out is new.

Potent and efficient heart

One of the biggest changes to the CX-9 is a heart transplant that swapped out the V6 engine that has powered the vehicle since its debut for an all-new 2.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder. With a maximum pony count of 250, it's down 23 horsepower from the outgoing 3.7-liter naturally aspirated V6. But it's up significantly in the torque department, rising from 270 lb-ft to an impressive 310 lb-ft. In a world where many buyers still think more horsepower equals more driving satisfaction -- and in a segment where most competitors still employ V6 engines -- Mazda's engineers knew the strategy for downsizing could be risky. Their philosophy, according to development engineer Dave Coleman: "Ignore the specs, make it the best in the real world."

After a full day and hundreds of miles in the all-new Mazda CX-9, we think this gamble should pay off. Like the rest of Mazda's new generation of vehicles with the SkyActiv touch, the CX-9 combines frisky and fun driving manners with efficient operation.

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Efficiency expert

Regarding the latter, the move to the smaller engine is immediately evident in fuel economy. The 2016 Mazda CX-9 is rated at 22 mpg city/28 highway for front-wheel-drive models, and 21/27 mpg for all-wheel-drive versions. That compares to figures of 17/24 and 16/22 for the outgoing model. Depending how you cut the EPA-rated numbers, the new CX-9 is best-in-class or near-best among 3-row SUVs.

If good fuel economy is difficult to nail in a larger family SUV, fun driving dynamics are even harder. After all, such a crossover's primary mission is shuffling kids to soccer practice, not bombing down twisty roads. But Mazda has managed to not just retain the CX-9's zippy and road-clinging ways, but improve them. With the new CX-9, Mazda has put the "fun" in "functional."

What turbo lag?

Let's start with the turbo engine. It's very responsive, and Mazda has done an admirable job quelling the dreaded turbo lag. The CX-9 is quick off the line thanks to its hefty torque rating at a low 2,000 rpm, and it still showed enough guts for high-speed passes on winding two-lane roads on Highway 1 north of San Francisco's famed Golden Gate bridge.

Like its little brothers the CX-5 and CX-3, the CX-9 offers a Sport mode, which holds gears longer and makes the engine more responsive. Unlike those smaller crossover SUVs, it's not really needed in the CX-9. Sure it's nice to have, but this engine is so responsive in normal mode that we found it perfectly sweet even on challenging uphill roads. The times we did put the vehicle in Sport mode, it changed personalities almost too much, holding gears longer. Good if you're channeling your inner Mario Andretti, but maybe too aggressive for soccer moms and dads.

Ride quality and overall serenity has also been improved. The suspension ably soaks up imperfections, and the interior is quieter than ever. The 50 extra pounds of sound-deadening material paid off.

We also like the 6-speed automatic transmission. First, because it's a 6-speed. While more rivals are switching to 9-speed autos, many of them don't feel quite fully baked, which leads to hesitancy and hunting/pecking of gears. Not so in the CX-9. This automatic is very well matched to the engine, and gear shifts are uneventful in the best way.

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When the roads curve

While the outgoing CX-9 was among the oldest midsize SUVs on the market, it was still one of the segment's most fun-to-drive entries. The new one feels even lighter, nimbler and more spry, making it more than a worthy successor. It's actually quite fun in corners, something that's unexpected in a family SUV. But it is expected in a Mazda, and this one meets the automaker's zoom-zoom commitment.

Thankfully it does so without compromise to utility. The CX-9 has improved in that respect, too. When not ferrying passengers in the rear two rows, they now fold in a flatter fashion that makes it easier to load longer items.

Beauty and safety on the inside, too

The cabin itself has undergone its own revamp. The two higher trims -- Grand Touring and the new, top-line Signature -- could pass for luxury cars. This is most true of the Signature, which boasts Mazda's first use of plush Nappa leather and genuine rosewood. In presenting this new Mazda, the word "premium" was oft repeated by executives, and backed up by the CX-9.

The CX-9 also receives a makeover on the safety side, with Mazda's new flagship available with the automaker's suite of active and passive features and driver's aids. On the roster are the now-expected blind-spot monitoring, along with lane-keep assist, radar cruise control and Smart Brake Support, which can automatically stop the vehicle if it senses an imminent collision. Sorry, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto fans, the 2016 model isn't currently available with either, but we're told implementation is a matter of when, not if.

For fans of practicality and driving, however, the 2016 CX-9 is here now. Prices range from $32,420 for a base Sport model to over $45,000 for a Signature edition. While fully revamped, this second-generation model retains the spirit of the original. It brings style, safety and fun manners to the mainstream 3-row SUV segment, with a good helping of efficiency as well. The SkyActiv family should be proud.


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