Just because someone wants a practical 3-row crossover doesn't mean it has to be boring. A fine example of this is the all-new 2016 Mazda CX-9. While this SUV, set to compete with such heavy hitters as the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander and Nissan Pathfinder, doesn't go on sale until spring of 2016, Mazda gave us the opportunity to drive a very early pre-production unit, and we came away impressed.

New Style, Same Function

Mazda gave us the chance to drive the CX-9 so early that it was before the CX-9 was unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show. As a result, the crossover SUV was in disguise during our drive. Swirling black and white graphics covered every piece of exterior metal, while the dashboard and doors were draped in black vinyl. Yet Mazda showed us what the undisguised CX-9 looks like, and it is more elegant making it stand out to a greater degree. In front, the CX-9 proudly wears a larger version of the family grille, plus a choice of 18- or 20-inch wheels, and the Mazda's sleek lines and classy shaping draw the eye along the sides. It now looks like a premium model than ever before. 

The premium styling continues inside. The vehicle we drove had a classy brown and black interior (from what we could see), with supportive Nappa leather seats and the company's excellent Mazda Connect system. A rotary knob allows you to choose among navigation, audio and phone controls. The cabin uses real aluminum and Japanese rosewood, plus a features list that includes a head-up display with helpful information for the driver and a premium Bose audio system. But there is plenty of practicality too, as safety features such as advanced blind-spot monitoring, radar cruise control, lane keep assist and smart city brake support are available.

While the CX-9 is about an inch shorter than the outgoing model, the wheelbase is more than two inches longer, a move that improves passenger legroom. The front and middle rows offer plenty of legroom; however, the third row should be reserved for shorter passengers or kids. The cargo area looks large enough, but Mazda didn't provide the dimensions. We expect it's similar to last year's 17.2 cubic feet behind the third row and 48.3 cubic feet with the second row folded. Mazda added more than 50 pounds of sound-deadening material to the interior, and that move paid off, as it was easy to have low-volume conversations while at freeway speed. 

Also: See the New and Redesigned Cars of 2016

Fewer Cylinders, More Usable Power

Mazda research revealed that most people don't tend to use power beyond 3,000 rpm. This affected how the company designed the CX-9's new engine. It replaced last year's 3.7-liter V6 with an all-new 2.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, which puts out 227 horsepower (or 250 if you use 93-octane gas), and best-in-segment 310 lb-ft of torque. The new engine uses a 6-speed automatic transmission. Even though there's less horsepower, the new drivetrain is easier to use because most of the horsepower and torque are available at lower rpm. The CX-9 has lost as much as 300 pounds compared to the previous generation, which made it realistic to have the 4-cylinder as the only engine choice. The weight loss and smaller displacement engine should offer better fuel economy, which Mazda expects will be about 20 percent greater than the 2015 CX-9, which gets 17 mpg city and 24 highway (2WD) and 16/22 (4WD).

You wouldn't be able to tell from the way the CX-9 accelerates that it's being powered by a 4-cylinder engine. After we pushed the button to start the engine -- a blue dot on the vinyl sheet in our pre-pre-production CX-9 -- the Mazda came to life and, with little effort got to speed. There's no turbo lag, and aside from an enthusiastic but subdued whoosh from the turbocharger, the only indicator that there was a forced induction engine was the linear burst of power. Adding to the perky engine's performance is the transmission setup, with perfectly timed shifts. We even got onto the freeway at the base of a grade and had no difficulty reaching the speed of the cars around us as we climbed uphill.

Also: Kelley Blue Book Best Buy Awards of 2016 

Top-notch handling

But a Mazda isn't a Mazda without excellent handling, and the CX-9 is no exception. Steering is pleasantly direct, making this SUV feel more like a sporty sedan than a large people-mover. The handling is fantastic; the CX-9 has to have the best dynamics in its segment. It feels spry and agile, words you wouldn't expect to use when describing a large crossover SUV.

The CX-9 proves that you can have fun while driving a practical vehicle. That's something that will resonate with Mazda buyers and enthusiastic drivers alike. As we get closer to the 2016 Mazda CX-9's on-sale date, Mazda will announce pricing as well as fuel-economy numbers. Those two factors are extremely important to anyone who is shopping for a new vehicle. Getting those right are also key to Mazda, whose goal is to sell 50,000 CX-9s a year in North America. 

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