I’m on the country roads of northern Virginia horse farm country chasing an Audi S7. Through the twisties. Over fox-hunt hills. In a three-row GMC Acadia SUV.
Payne, have you gone mad?
Some background: I lived in northern Virginia for a good chunk of my young adult life. Its Blue Ridge Mountains and leafy forests sprawling west of the nation’s capital make for some of the East’s most beautiful vistas. I would take my first sports car — a little red Porsche 924S — to these roads to play like an unleashed pet liberated from Metro DC’s streets. There were two kinds of cars in the Virginia countryside: galloping sports cars and trucks that got in the way.
Not anymore. These days it is fashionable to write that we’re in the midst of an electrified auto revolution. Maybe. The Tesla Model S is a glorious car though challenged by the same physical realities that doomed EVs a century ago: cost and range anxiety. Meanwhile, a quieter revolution is transforming the light-truck world.
Twenty-five years ago SUVs were built on the same simple, body-on-frame platforms as pickups. Ford Explorers and Chevy Blazers offered utility but were moving roadblocks on back roads. As utes have displaced sedans as Americans’ chariots of choice, however, demand has grown for car-like handling. The 2003 Honda Pilot sparked a stampede to unibody, midsize construction.
Now comes the next generation of chassis. Behold the 2017 GMC Acadia and 2016 Mazda CX-9: They are wolves in sheep’s clothing, sporty midsize SUVs (that is not an oxymoron) on stiffened spines.
I came up fast on the Audi S7 near Hume, Virginia, the big GMC Denali grille filling his mirrors. When traffic cleared, the Audi took my bait. He leaped forward to shake my shadow. But this isn’t your average, hulking SUV. Or even the first-generation, hulking Acadia.
For its Gen-Two Extreme Makeover, Acadia shed an eye-popping 700 pounds through downsizing and chassis light-weighting. At about 4,250 pounds, a three-row, AWD, unibody Acadia is actually lighter than an all-wheel drive, 4,500-pound S7 cruise missile. Over rainy hill and dale, Audi and GMC danced an unlikely duet.
Did I stay with him? Are you kidding?
The $85,000 Audi has 500-gazillion horsepower, tires as wide as the Potomac River and a driver who knew these roads like the back of his hand. He gradually pulled away. But not without a fight. When he turned into the driveway of his multi-million-dollar horse ranch — its house bigger than the Pentagon — I tooted at him. He’d remember this $40K SUV.
That’s because his Audi and my Acadia share more than he knows. Sure, the GMC’s high saddle makes it look like a camel next to the S7 cheetah, but underneath the GMC is built on the same bones as the athletic Cadillac XT5, a midsize ute to rival Audi’s Q5. You’ll recall I flogged the featherweight XT5 — itself 650 pounds lighter than a comparable Mercedes GLE — across California’s curves earlier this year chasing Porsche Cayennes.
The GMC also shares the Caddy’s 310-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6. I like these sibling hand-me-downs. Maybe Corvette will share its 6.2-liter V-8 (as it does with GMC’s hot-rod Sierra pickup) with the Acadia and the next time I’ll put tire tracks over that Audi’s hood. This chariot is a long way from the ox carts I used to see on Virginia roads.
Mazda’s impressive CX-9 is all the more remarkable because it has no luxury jock bro’ with which to share hand-me-downs.
Mazda bakes its ZOOM ZOOM DNA into everything it makes — even its biggest vehicle. The midsize ute goes through the same bonkers performance training as the wee MX-5 Miata sports car.
“Our suppliers look at us kind of funny,” says Dave Coleman, Mazda engineering manager and chief car flogger. “Other companies don’t put their crossovers through the things we do.”
At Mazda’s media demo in San Francisco — where the big ute tamed the challenging Pacific Coast Highway — Coleman showed off pictures of his CX-9 trailering his MX-5 race car. It’s the loveliest tow vehicle (again, no oxymoron) you’ll see. Though the turbo 4-powered Mazda’s tow rating is 3,500 pounds — compared to the V-6 Acadia’s 4,000 pounds — that’s enough for small racers and watercraft.
And when you unhook the trailer, you have a sexy ute to play with — not a big fridge like every other appliance on the road. I regret to say that includes the GMC Acadia, once one of the most distinctive-looking utes at the prom.
While CX-9 and Acadia are trim haulers (the front-wheel drive GMC edges Mazda for class lightweight at just 3,956 pounds), only the CX-9 looks the part.
In downsizing to a more class-competitive size Acadia understandably ditched its pickup-like exterior styling — keg grille, muscular wheel wells, slab sides. But designers also softened the hard edges that make a GMC a GMC. The lack of flair (what, no muscle shirt?) does no justice to the toned bod beneath. Sigh.
The sleek Mazda, meanwhile, is the sultriest three-row ute this side of a Volvo XC90 or Audi Q7. Long hood, shark-like nose, narrow, wrap-around headlamps. Are utes supposed to stir the loins? Its supple curves makes a BMW X5 look like a Bavarian housewife.
Not that mid-size ute customers will cross-shop a CX-9 and X5 — but at nearly half the price, the Mazda gives off a decided European vibe (including best-in-class fuel economy via that turbo-4). It continues inside the cabin where the CX-9 sports an Audi-like, horizontal dash with lush materials and the artful attention to detail of a Japanese artisan (the center console’s interplay of wood and aluminum is pure eye candy).
Nice, yes. But Euro-style has its drawbacks compared to Acadia’s familiar, superior GM interior ergonomics. Acadia’s intuitive touch screen is the tip of an iceberg of useful details: Apple Car Play and Android auto capability, rear-seat alert (if you left a laptop or — ahem — child), second-row captain’s chairs, and a full moon-roof so that third-row passengers don’t feel like they’ve been shoved into an airless basement.
Mazda decided against a full, “dual” sun roof because its top-heavy weight would have thrown off the car’s performance balance. Seriously. That’s how obsessive Mazda is in its commitment to ZOOM ZOOM. It’s not an obsession everyone will share. In which case there is the more livable, luxurious, plenty-athletic Acadia.
When you valet at the horse ranch, however, don’t expect her to turn heads like sweet CX-9’s 10.
Henry Payne is The News’ auto critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @HenryEPayne
2017 GMC Acadia
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- or all-wheel drive, seven-passenger SUV
Price: $29,995 base ($35,375 SLE 4-cyl AWD and $47,845 Denali AWD as tested)
Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline-4 cylinder; 3.5-liter V-6
Power: 194 horsepower, 190 pound-feet of torque (4-cyl.): 310 horsepower, 271 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Performance: Zero-60: 6.8 seconds (V-6, Car & Driver est.); 4,000-pound towing (manufacturer)
Weight: 3,956 pounds (base, FWD 4-cyl.)
Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/25 mpg highway/23 combined (AWD 4-cyl); EPA 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway/20 combined (AWD V-6)
Highs: Lightweight chassis; loaded interior
Lows: Muted styling compared to bold Acadia of old
2016 Mazda CX-9
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front or all-wheel drive, seven-passenger SUV
Price: $32,420 base ($41,370 GT and $45,215 Signature AWD as tested)
Powerplant: 2.5-liter, turbocharged inline-4
Power: 227-250 horsepower (87 or 93 octane gas), 310 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Performance: Zero-60: 7.5 seconds (Car & Driver est.); 3,500-pound towing
Weight: 4,054 pounds (base FWD)
Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/27 mpg highway/23 combined (AWD)
Highs: Easy on the eyes; nimble handling
Lows: No second-row captain’s chairs; glitchy infotainment usability
Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★