It wasn't that long ago that car makers would go to extraordinary lengths to hide their prototype and pre-release vehicles from the prying eyes of the world’s media.
These days, camouflaged cars are all part of a vehicle’s marketing program.
Carefully orchestrated sightings and calculated teases can build excitement and interest for a car that may still be months away from an official release.
That’s not to say these cars aren’t key to a vehicle’s development. Simulations can only go so far, so engineers need to understand how a new car will perform in real world conditions to ensure all facets of the vehicle are ready for mass production.
For the launch of the new second-generation Mazda CX-9, we were invited to Los Angeles, ahead of the car’s official unveiling at the 2015 Los Angeles auto show, to sample one of these camouflaged prototypes.
The CX-9 is the final updated link in Mazda’s eight-vehicle passenger line up in Australia. Replacing the V6-powered car that has been on sale since 2006, the 2016 CX-9 is proposed to be smarter, more premium, more responsive and more efficient than the model it replaces.
Covered in swirly grey, black and white camouflage, the pre-production CX-9 is for all intents and purposes a complete and near production-ready vehicle.
The engineers on hand were quick to note though that parts of the car weren’t quite ready or representative of their production counterparts. We found the second-row seats very heavy to move to get access to the rear, but this will be fixed (and properly damped) in the real car.
The 60/40 split seats were geared for the LHD North American market, which places the smaller ‘40’ seat on the curb side. That will be addressed for the RHD market and switched around say Mazda.
The layout of the camo is designed to break up the final lines of the car, and even trick the AI focus sensor on our digital camera (resulting in some blurrier-than-usual photos). The prominent Kodo grille however, even without the ‘winged-M’ logo, makes this unmistakably a Mazda.
It’s a big car, as it should be for a seven-seat SUV, but it seems more ‘solid’ than the outgoing model, despite actually being shorter. Mazda have put a lot of effort into defining the symmetrical stance so that the car sits wider. The trapezoid, they say.
Many elements are hidden in their true form by the wrap, but the new lighting design of the front, which includes an LED strip in the grille, is very visible and very cool. Lighting is the new playground of automotive design it seems.
All 2016 CX-9 models feature the new Skyactiv G2.5T four-cylinder turbo petrol engine with 186kW of power and 420Nm of torque. While official fuel figures aren’t yet available, Mazda state the new motor should yield around 20 per cent improvement in fuel economy from the old model’s 3.7-litre V6 (it used between 11.0 and 11.2 litres per 100km).
The cabin of the development cars is also camouflaged, but some specific elements are clearly discernable.
The new centre console, featuring real Japanese rosewood and aluminium trim elements, is a particular standout. The familiar MZD Connect controls are there, but it feels as though it belongs in a more upmarket car.
The Nappa leather seats too have a sensation of ‘premiumness’ that wouldn’t be out of place in a European SUV. The whole effect, even with lashings of black vinyl coverings, is very warm and inviting.
Even the instrument panel pulses softly prior to ignition, inviting you to press the piece of blue masking tape (pretty sure they’ll iron that out in the production version) and get on your way.
The first thing we noticed is just how quiet the CX-9 is. For a manufacturer constantly criticized for road noise in their cars, the new CX-9 was like a vacuum. There has been a whopping 24kg of sound deadening materials added to the base of the car which, in AWD form, is a staggering 130kg lighter than the old model.
The window glass is thicker and there is even an active noise cancelling system – whether or not it was working is unclear, but first impressions are good.
We pull out, in convoy onto Rodeo Drive.
Four super-secret, camouflaged development cars in a row – this was Hollywood, the paparazzi were sure to be primed on every corner wondering who these mystery people driving these mystery cars would be…
Except, no-one cared.
We took the CX-9 on a 30-odd kilometre trip around Los Angeles and the Hollywood Hills, in peak hour, and not one person looked twice at us. Unflappable Angelinos at their very best.
Higher specification models feature a colour heads-up display which, along with speed and navigation information, includes speed advisory signs as well as a repeat of the blind-spot warning display. This is a small feature, but really reinforces Mazda’s continual focus on ‘driver centric’ features in their cars.
The CX-9 includes all of Mazda’s other safety technology too, including autonomous emergency braking and lane departure warning – which when triggered offers the infamous ‘brown note’ tone that sounds like someone is playing around with the back of your amplifier. Strangely it is less annoying than the vibrating steering wheel or continual beeps of other systems.
Through traffic, the new 2.5-litre turbo performs well. Mazda have designed the new engine to deliver maximum torque from just 2000rpm so at urban speeds there is no real suggestion that you have anything smaller than a V6 under the bonnet. We saw around 14.8 litres per 100km on our mostly urban loop.
We exit the Freeway and head into the hills on the infamous Mulholland Drive. Again the CX-9 pulls well and seems relaxed on good surfaces. Hit some poorly maintained concrete and there is a decent thump from the back – something again the Mazda engineers have noted is not quite up to final specification.
Curiously we weren’t the only camo test vehicles up on the Hills that morning. We spotted (and snapped) a heavily camouflaged MPV and saw a large sedan, also clad in heavy camo. It was a game of spy vs spy – but still none of the regular LA commuters seemed to care about us.
Jumping into the second row, the seats are very comfortable and the centre armrest has USB points integrated into the storage cubby, something much more convenient than having cables snaking about the car. There is a stack of room too, so much so I can ninja my not-so-nimble frame into the third row without getting out.
Things are a bit tighter back here, and not somewhere you’d want to spend a long trip as an adult. There are cup holders but no vents, but overall access is good (I was able to easily get out).
Hitting traffic back on Hollywood Boulevard, we spot him… a photographer panning with the CX-9 as we turn a corner.
Was it just a car-fan tourist or had we hit the jackpot. Spied in a spy car?
A regular spy photographer out to capture the cars we had seen earlier nabbed the swirly CX-9 to check if anything had changed since his last spotting. It seemed we were low priority – Shannen Doherty now invisible in a world of Kardashians.
Our scooping and spying days done, the CX-9 contingent returned to the hardstand, to be poured over by engineers and readied for the next test.
While a fun and entertaining experience, it wasn’t really enough of a car or a drive to get a full understanding of the new CX-9.
What we saw, we liked. What we didn’t like is (mostly) being addressed.
It’s a big car for Mazda - in more ways than the obvious - and a real culmination of what the brand has been working towards over the past few years by integrating their Kodo ethos into all vehicles in the range.
The 2016 Mazda CX-9 is scheduled to arrive on local shores in the second half of 2016 and we are very much looking forward to driving the final vehicle on Australian roads.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by James Ward.