“Our goal was clear from day one—we wanted to create a premium, sophisticated seven-passenger SUV with an emotional attraction, a car that would really inspire people when they looked at it,” explains Julien Montousse, design director at Mazda North American Operations. “And crucially, we wanted to move away from that typical boxy look that’s associated with seven-passenger vehicles.”
Montousse is talking about CX-9, Mazda’s beautiful flagship and a crossover SUV that brings with it an unprecedented level of technical and design sophistication. It is also the car that signals Mazda’s intention to offer its customers a more premium experience, now and in the future.
Ethan Song, exterior design manager at Mazda North American Operations, explains: “Our main goal was to elevate the Mazda brand to the premium level. We didn’t want to deliver just a lot of bling-bling chrome trims. It’s much more than that—when you look at the CX-9’s very upright, confident grille, the long hood that suggests power, the short overhangs front and rear, and above all, the stance and proportions of the car, all of that says ‘premium.’”
That neatly explains CX-9’s powerful and elegantly poised looks—the A-pillars have been moved back about four inches to give an athletic stance with visual strength projected by that long hood. To preserve interior space, the wheelbase has been stretched by 2.2 inches, but front and rear overhangs have been significantly reduced, giving a more stable stance. The new car is also shorter than before, and with a cabin that tapers to the rear, CX-9 looks sporting and exciting.
Montousse says that the headlights and grille together are also a major element of the CX-9’s impactful design: “Our signature lighting merges the five-point grille and the LED lights together as one unified illumination, whereas when you look at some German marques, for example, the signature is concentrated only on the lights.”
And the warm, welcoming cabin of the CX-9 perfectly complements the exterior. Montousse points to the generous proportions of the seat cushions, meant to put people in mind of leather wingback chairs at a private club, and to the elements of detailed craftsmanship such as the piping and French seams on the leather upholstery.
“We wanted to create a sense of sophistication and space,” says Montousse. “The lower part of the interior is meant to make you feel connected with the car, so the position of the shifter and the console is higher. That makes you feel very nested and cocooned within the vehicle, while the upper part of the cabin is all about spaciousness.”
And crucially, it is the interior materials that really make a statement about the CX-9’s premium status. “They are just of a much higher quality, but you also notice the craftsmanship,” says Teresa Spafford Murduff, design manager CMF and Advanced Design Planning. “We decided that if we wanted it to look like brushed aluminum, it would be real aluminum, and when it looks like wood, we wanted real wood.”
Likewise, Mazda also opted for very high-quality Nappa leather for the first time. Spafford Murduff explains: “I wanted to raise the quality of our leather to a true premium level, and Nappa is pretty much the gold standard. It’s super soft and supple, and it also allowed us much more flexibility with the range of colors we could use.”
The CX-9 project, says Spafford Murduff, was also a chance for Mazda North America to take a real lead. “It was a unique opportunity given that the CX-9 is so focused on the North American market. So Japan just said, ‘Let’s let you guys take the lead and see how it goes,’ and we just embraced that opportunity wholeheartedly.”
That sort of passionate inspiration was just as evident in the development of the CX-9’s powertrain. The 250-horsepower, Skyactiv-G 2.5T turbo four-cylinder engine, for example, is a brilliant piece of lateral thinking. Mazda’s own research concluded that the average driver rarely uses more than 3,000 rpm—city driving primarily—so low-down torque rather than outright power represented the best solution for real-world drivability. So the Skyactiv-G develops an impressive 310 lb-ft of torque at just 2,000 rpm.
And there’s virtually no turbo lag—that hesitation as the turbo spools up—because exhaust gas is initially sent through three smaller ports, which quickly creates boost. Mazda likens it to putting your thumb on a running garden hose to increase the force of the stream. The result is a great driving experience, better fuel economy and lower emissions. There’s also a not inconsiderable weight saving, as the four-cylinder engine is a lot lighter than the previous V6.
CX-9’s i-Activ all-wheel drive system is equally clever. It uses no less than 27 factors through the vehicle’s onboard sensors to work out what’s going on at the road’s surface, and which wheels need power at any given moment, making slippery conditions a far less alarming proposition.
CX-9 is a unique combination of beautifully judged design, traditional Japanese craftsmanship, truly authentic materials and advanced, forward-thinking engineering. Montousse reckons it’s also a milestone in Mazda’s journey: “This is definitely a big step for us. The car looks premium, it feels premium and the driving dynamics have been carefully engineered to give a premium experience. This is where we are going.”