Mazda's three-row CUV goes premium.

For years, Mazda has enjoyed the reputation of producing practical cars that make the joy of driving accessible to enthusiasts on just about any budget.

That's not to say the small Japanese automaker's formula has always been flawless. For a long time, Mazda's fuel economy ratings in particular were among the worst in its cars' respective segments, putting them at a significant disadvantage as the recession set in and gas prices skyrocketed.

The timing couldn't really have been worse. Mazda's corporate benefactor, Ford, saw the writing on the wall and unloaded all but a tiny sliver of its stake (allowing for some lingering joint development projects), taking the cash and running while it could.

Just like that, the company that was once the darling of the Ford family was cut adrift and staring down an urgent (and much-needed) overhaul of its entire product portfolio.

Started from the bottom

Mazda's rebirth as a fuel economy brand was haphazard. The SkyActiv-G series of engines and transmissions was introduced to the last-generation Mazda3--a quick fix that didn't fully realize the new technology's potential. Then came the overhaul of the midsize 6, followed by the introduction of the CX-5 and the redesign of the 3.

Slow-selling models were either eliminated (Mazda5) or shifted out of the brand via joint venture projects (Mazda2) and an all-new product (CX-3) was introduced to the fast-growing subcompact CUV segment.

Last year saw the introduction of a new MX-5; just recently, we saw the fruits of another JV project in the introduction of Fiat's new 124 Spider--a project that started as an Alfa Romeo and was nearly doomed by FCA's domestic labor policies. Nevertheless, it represented another revenue stream for Mazda, whose go-it-alone strategy requires taking advantage of any opportunity that might present itself.

Now we're here

Seemingly overlooked in this painstaking brand realignment was the three-row CX-9, which was becoming an increasingly anachronistic product in Mazda's revitalized lineup.

The CX-9 rode on the Ford-Mazda CD3 platform--a chassis that first saw the light of day with the introduction of the first-generation Mazda6 nearly 15 years ago. Under the hood sat a V6 which, while assembled in Japan, was actually a Ford design being produced under license. With this powertrain, the old CX-9 struggled to crack 20 mpg on anything but a flat highway.

So it was that despite the CX-9's surprisingly consistent late-in-life sales, it was time for Mazda to put this relic of its corporate past behind it.

What is it?

Underpinned by a brand-new platform and sporting an in-house powertrain, the new CX-9 is not necessarily meaner, but it is much leaner. It's 300lbs lighter trim-for-trim than its predecessor and slightly shorter, but sports a longer wheelbase.

Why not meaner? Well, the new engine makes less power than the old V6. It maxes out at 250 horsepower with 93-octane fuel (227 if you cheap out) and makes 310lb-ft of torque. What's the story there? Simple. Like many other manufacturers, Mazda has gone turbo.

This actually isn't the first time Mazda has offered a turbo-four in a crossover, but this new 2.5L SkyActiv engine shares nothing with the old DISI (Direct Injection Spark Ignition) unit found in the old CX-7 (And Mazdaspeed3/Speed6). That's probably for the best, if you're familiar with that engine's somewhat fickle reliability reputation.

So, yes, there's more torque (the 3.7L offered 270lb-ft to go with its 273 horsepower) but less top-end. Combine it with the lighter weight, and the new CX-9 doesn't feel any slower. In fact, it may even be a hair quicker to 60 and through the quarter mile if our butt dynos aren't deceiving us.

What's it up against?

The CX-9 competes directly with the Toyota Highlander, Nissan Pathfinder, Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer, Chevrolet Traverse and other three-row crossovers and midsize SUVs.

What does it look like?

The new CX-9 finally brings Mazda's three-row into the company's modern design era. While several "Kodo" design elements were grafted on to the outgoing model with its most recent facelift, it was in somewhat desperate need of an exterior redesign to bring it in line with the rest of Mazda's lineup.

The CX-9 wears the same upright nose as the CX-3 and CX-5 (fittingly) and features upscale, chiseled styling that is quite refreshing in a segment full of somewhat unremarkable offerings. We especially like the intricate detail of the rear lamps and brightwork. It's elegant and well-fitted, giving the CX-9 a more upscale look.

And the inside?

This is where Mazda really pulled out the stops in the design department. The old CX-9 wasn't awful to sit in, but its overly upright dashboard and awkwardly tall center stack were relics of a design that was long since past its prime.

The new cabin is much more cockpit-like and the materials have been upgraded substantially. Mazda paid attention to every inch of the interior, and the result is fairly spectacular, especially when you consider how far its interiors once trailed the likes of Volkswagen and even Honda in terms of material quality. There's not much else to say. The photographs speak for themselves.

There are some things which photos can't convey, however, and it's here that we have our first few quibbles. We'll start by pointing out that our loaner was a heavily-trafficked car that has seen show, review and rally duty up and down the east coast. It has clearly seen some hard miles, and given its very early production status, is likely not entirely representative of the cars customers will find on lots.

That said, our first major complaint was with the center console cubby. Rather than having a single, back-folding (or sliding) lid, it has a two-piece lid that opens along the longitudinal axis. This is a "hey, neat" kind of thing that looks pretty, but in practice we found that it had started to creak and moan from many a journalist's elbow putting pressure where the lids latch together in the center of the armrest area.

Our other big gripe was with the CX-9's infotainment system, which really means it's a knock against Mazda in general rather than specifically against this car. Mazda has not yet moved on Apple CarPlay or Android Auto compatibility, which means you're stuck with Mazda's own communications, audio and navigation interface. The first is lacking; the second, fair; the third, decent. Hopefully these will be addressed with the company's next-generation hardware, though when that will arrive is anybody's guess.

But does it go?

We touched before on the fact that the new CX-9 seems a hair quicker in everyday driving than the old one, likely due to its slimmed-down chassis, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Sure, the CX-9 is punchy enough, but the engine is a bit noisy and the sounds it makes are not particularly inspiring.

In a way this makes sense. Mazda's engines--rotaries excluded--have rarely been heralded for their inherent characteristics. Rather, it's how that engine does (or doesn't) flatter the chassis that typically makes or breaks the company's offerings.

Fortunately for Mazda in this case, the somewhat unlovable SkyActiv turbo does right by the rest of the CX-9. It pulls nicely out of corners and offers more than adequate passing power on the highway.

The twistier the road gets, the more satisfying the CX-9 is. Unlike some Mazdas, however, the suspension is not overly harsh. We found the steering to be a bit slow, but adequately weighted and sufficiently communicative for a big, seven-passenger family car.

Our only complaint in the go-fast department was related to our seating position. Sitting low in the cockpit-like front cabin forced us to elevate our elbows for larger wheel movements (which brings us back to the comment about steering speed) lest we run out of arm travel upon encountering the center console. Whether this would be an issue for the average consumer is something to be determined on a test drive.

Leftlane's bottom line

The 2016 Mazda CX-9 is a fantastic successor to an already-excellent family vehicle. It seems to have a smattering of teething issues, but we can't find any deal-breaking faults. Kudos to Mazda for keeping its legacy of building accessible, fun-to-drive family cars alive.

2016 Mazda CX-9 Signature AWD base price, $44,015; as-tested, $45,215

Destination, $980; Machine Gray paint finish, $300

Photos by Byron Hurd.