Bay watching the 2016 Mazda CX-9

By Russ Heaps
Clanging Bell

(July 12, 2016) SAN FRANCISCO — I'm not the kind of guy who looks a gift horse in the mouth. (For you children out there, the term “looking a gift horse in the mouth” came from a time when horse buying and trading was as common among the public as the commerce in used cars is today. One element of the process for the potential horse buyer was to attempt to gauge the steed's health by inspecting its teeth and gums. Back then, it was considered bad form, when given a horse as a gift, to check its mouth.)

In any event, when Mazda invited me — well, not to put too fine a point on it, but Mazda didn't invite me; it invited Autotrader, and Autotrader sent me — to the media launch of its redesigned 2016 CX-9 three-row crossover, I refrained from bellyaching about my general dislike of San Francisco, where Mazda staged the event.

I simply wasn't going to turn down the assignment because it was in a city I don't much like. In other words, I wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Nope, I dawned my game face, researched craft breweries near the Hotel Vitale — the host accommodation for the event — on the Embarcadero, packed a bag, gritted my teeth and headed to the left coast.

Located on Mission Street, basically overlooking the Bay, the Hotel Vitale is well situated for tourists and sightseers. My craft-brewery search netted nearly a dozen beer makers or brew pubs within three miles of the hotel. Several didn't open until mid or late afternoon; I crossed those off my list. I settled on the 21st Amendment Brewery that Mapquest pegged as just one mile — give or take a couple of blocks — from our lodging.

Uber is my go-to rental transportation when away from home. I'm a fan and have never been disappointed with its service. Using my trusty smartphone app, I checked on the estimated pick-up time and rate for my one-mile brewery excursion. I wasn't so put off by the estimated 10-minute arrival of a car — abnormally long for Uber — as I was by the $12 estimated fare. Are you kidding me? Really, $12 to be taken one mile! I could have probably talked one of the hotel's bellmen into piggybacking me there for $20.

I have a good buddy living in Northern California who complained to me of being similarly scammed by Uber one night in San Francisco, dinged by a comparatively outrageous rate, which he neglected to check before summoning the car. I just filed my experience away in the simply-another-reason-to-avoid-San Francisco folder in my head. Using my smartphone GPS, I set out walking to my destination. After spending nearly five hours scrunched into a plane seat, I needed to stretch my legs anyway.

Parched from my mile-long stroll to the 21st Amendment Brewery, I heaved myself onto a bar stool and ordered a refreshing Enjoy Porter. On my hike back, I took a small detour to grab a pint of Nitro Porter at the Thirsty Bear Brewery on Howard Street. Hmmm, this whole San Francisco thing isn't so bad after all, I thought. Two or three more beers and I would have penned a sloppy love note to the Chamber of Commerce.

Our immersion into all things CX-9 commenced at 8 a.m the next morning, when we departed the hotel to the product presentation and jump-off spot for the ride and drive. Mazda gave us our first exposure to its largest crossover with our airport pick up on day one. As I stretched out in the comfortable second-row seat during the 25-minute trip to our hotel, I was able to not only appreciate the excellent legroom, but also take in the upscale look and feel of the cabin in general.

Mazda shoved the latest iteration of the CX-9 up market. Its top-of-the-heap Signature grade actually elbows its way into the near-luxury segment. There is an abundance of quality materials and craftsmanship throughout.

To sit through a Mazda new-product presentation, one must be prepared to digest and keep up with a variety of Japanese terms, like Kodo and and Jinba Ittai, describing Mazda's approach to designing and engineering its cars and crossovers. I won't clog up the works here with definitions and examples of these philosophies, needless to say, though, they seem quite central to what makes Mazda tick.

Beyond the CX-9's well-designed and well-crafted cabin, here are three things you need to know: Mazda not only didn't replace the previous crossover's V6 with a newer V6, it abandoned the V6 entirely. With the CX-9 being the final product in its lineup to receive the full SKYACTIV treatment, Mazda went with a high-torque 2.5-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine. You won't hear much from Mazda about the engine's 250 horsepower, but its engineers are quick to bring up its 310 lb-ft of torque. Torque is what turns the wheels. Mazda wanted drivers to have a big reserve of power on call regardless of the engine's rpms.

Second, opting for the i-Activ all-wheel drive system delivers, what CX-9 product folks describe as, almost intuitive performance. Using 27 different data channels already in play, the AWD anticipates front wheel spin — instead of waiting for it to happen — and transfers some power to the rear wheels before actually encountering any front-wheel slippage. Everything from the steering system to the windshield wipers are constantly mined for information indicating conditions are ripe for front-wheel slippage.

Third, the EPA recently recognized Mazda as the most fuel-efficient carmaker, and it doesn't even have a hybrid in its lineup. Again, this has much to do with its SKYACTIV technologies. In the CX-9, this translates into a government-estimated 22 mpg city, 28 mpg highway and 25 mpg in combined driving.

Pricing begins at $31,520 and creeps up through the trim levels to $44,015 for the top-of-the-line Signature trim.

I guess if you are going to spend three days in San Francisco, gliding around in the totally redesigned Mazda CX-9 isn't a bad way to do it. And, the beer was pretty good, too.