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If you’re looking for a seven-seat SUV there’s a fair chance the Toyota Kluger would have been on your shopping list at some point – and with good reason. It’s stylish, well packaged, competitively priced and has dominated sales in its segment for ages.

But what if you want something newer – maybe a bit more stylish – with more modern features and a more technologically advanced engine? You could consider the new-generation Mazda CX-9. And while the Kluger is decently priced, the Mazda is quite a bit cheaper.

Not that either of these models are the budget-friendly variants of their respective ranges. No, we assembled the two top-spec versions of these seven-seat, petrol-only family haulers – the Mazda CX-9 Azami AWD and Toyota Kluger Grande AWD, respectively – to see whether you should go with the one that has become a go-to option for families around the country, or if you should roll the dice with the new kid on the block.

Pricing and specifications

If value for money is your biggest decision driver it could be hard to talk you into either of these high-spec seven-seat models – mainly because there’s quite a bit more value to be had lower in the model ranges of each of these SUVs.

But if you want lots of fruit as well as grape-dangling plushness, then the top-end versions of the Mazda and Toyota large SUVs will likely appeal. But at what cost?

Well, the all-wheel-drive Mazda CX-9 Azami you see here costs from $63,390 plus on-road costs, but if you don’t think you need AWD you can get a front-drive version for $59,390.

The Toyota Kluger Grande is available in front- or all-wheel-drive, too, and we went for the AWD version on this test. It kicks off at $68,046 plus on-road costs, and its FWD counterpart is priced from $64,075.

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No matter how you configure them, then, the Toyota is dearer by a considerable margin. And compared with the Mazda, it’s actually missing some equipment – most of it safety related.

The CX-9, for instance, has a head-up display with digital speedometer (the Toyota only has a digital speed readout when you use the cruise control), adaptive LED headlights with active shadowing (to stop blinding oncoming traffic) and front parking sensors.

The CX-9 also has lane-keeping assistance that is designed to help you stay in your lane, and it will even lightly steer the car if thinks you’re straying, and it is fitted with a rear cross-traffic alert system so you don’t back out into the path of oncoming traffic, and while both have autonomous emergency braking when you’re going forwards, the Mazda has an automated braking system for when you’re reversing, too – an extremely handy item, given the number of driveway accidents that occur involving vehicles like these.

Still, Toyota will update the Kluger early in 2017, and a few of those safety omissions may be addressed as part of that.

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Further, the current Kluger has a couple of items that the Mazda misses out on, including a centrally-mounted roof-hinged 9.0-inch Blu-Ray player with screen with three wireless headsets, and a full-sized spare wheel (which is positioned under the car, rather than in the boot as is the case with the Mazda’s space-saver spare).

Both have alloy wheels (the Toyota on 19-inch alloys and the Mazda on 20s), LED headlights with automatic high-beam control and auto on/off lighting, automatic wipers, heated side mirrors, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, and a rear-view camera with rear sensors – remember, the Mazda gets front sensors, but the Toyota hits back with steering guidance lines that move as you spin the wheel.

Safety is accounted for with six airbags for the Mazda (dual front, front-side and full-length curtain airbags), while the Toyota adds driver’s knee airbag coverage. Both cars have blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning, forward collision warning with autonomous emergency braking, radar cruise control (the Toyota with 1km/h increments and the Mazda with 5km/h jumps).

Both cruise control systems have the adaptive function (that mirrors the speed of the car ahead) or a regular function where the driver sets the pace and the speed of the vehicle ahead isn’t mimicked.

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Both have leather seat trim, second-row sunblinds, power tailgates (the Toyota’s is rainy-day slow), three-zone climate control including dual-zone front and a separate zone for the rear occupants with temperature, air direction and fan speed controls. More on that in the next section…

Where the Mazda only has front seat heating, the Toyota has ventilated (cooled) front seats (though neither have heated second-row seats as you’ll find in the high-spec Hyundai Santa Fe and Kia Sorento SUVs in this class, both of which top out in the mid-$50K range), and while the Mazda has clear side glass at the back, the Toyota’s dark tinted privacy glass could be handy for keeping the cabin cool on hot Aussie days.

Further, the Kluger is more focused at offering buyers some off-road cred, with the Toyota using a permanent four-wheel-drive system whereas the Mazda has an on-demand system. And the Toyota has a centre diff-lock, a Snow Mode button to help with traction on slippery surfaces, and hill descent control. The Mazda doesn’t get any of those rough-road goodies.

As for towing, the pair has 2000-kilogram braked towing capacity, while the Toyota has a slightly lower un-braked capacity of 700kg, where the Mazda is rated at 750kg.

Cabin space and comfort

Seven seaters need to be clever in their cabin layouts: that’s a given. But they also need to be practical, roomy, comfortable, easy to see out of, easy to get into and out of, and simple to operate.

How does each of these SUVs stack up, then? Pretty well, to be frank.

Let’s start at the front of the cabin – and the presentation differences between these two couldn’t be more marked.

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The Mazda appears to have a more luxurious cockpit, with the centre console finished in shiny piano black and chrome, and the dashtop tablet-like MZD Connect screen giving it a bit of a European appearance.

The Toyota’s dash, on the other hand, doesn’t look that plush, with its inset media screen and fake wood trim on the console. But what it loses in presentation it makes up for in practicality, with a large shelf (for want of a better term) allowing for much better storage than the Mazda.

Indeed, the Toyota nails the brief for stowage, with a massive centre console easily big enough for a handbag, or tablets and magazines, or toys and lollies for those lengthy road trips. The Mazda, by comparison, lacks useful proximity storage: it has a small cubby in front of the gear selector, and a tiny covered centre bin with a split lid, which, while pleasant to operate, is a pain for your front passenger as it hits their elbow when you open it.

Both have big cup holders up front, and if you’re the sort of person who likes to keep the necessities in the door pockets of the car, the Mazda’s deeper cavities could appeal. Both it and the Toyota have bottle holders in the doors, too.

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As for those media systems, the MZD Connect unit is considerably easier to use, with its rotary dial controller making simple work of switching between stations or media, and while it can be slow to load when you start the car up, the display is crisper than that of Toyota’s unit.

The Kluger’s touchscreen unit disables some functions at speed, which is annoying, and while it is generally easy enough to understand where things are placed in the menus, some buttons just aren’t where they should be.

Neither of these vehicles has Apple CarPlay and/or Android Auto, meaning you’re left to connect using Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, or via USB. The Toyota has a single USB port and a 12-volt outlet under the aforementioned shelf, which has a little pop-out plug that allows you to run a cable up through the dash, saving you the mess of tangled cables.

The Mazda has two USB inputs, both located fore of the shifter in that section that’s only just big enough for the latest smartphones to fit. It has a 12V outlet, too, but it’s located in the passenger’s foot-well, which could see further cable clutter.

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Both cars have small sunroofs – much smaller than the panoramic glass roofs in the Kia and Hyundai models that add an element of airiness to the cabins of those competitors.

But adding to the luxuriousness of the Mazda’s cabin is an electric park brake button, where the Toyota has a foot-operated park brake. And further to that, the Mazda can be had with the choice of Natural Stone (cream) leather you see here or black cowhide trim, where the Toyota has the choice of black only.

The leather trim in the Mazda was suppler to the touch, but the needlework on the seats of our test car was poor – there was some terrible bunching at the tops of the seatbacks, and parts of the rear seats appeared lumpy and loose – it’s something that once you’ve seen it, cannot be un-seen.

The Toyota’s leather trimming wasn’t as luscious to touch, but the stitching and finishing was markedly better.

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Both have sliding second-row seats to allow for better third-row comfort. And both SUVs have 60:40 split seats with the larger portion offering the flexibility of tilting forward and sliding in one movement. Oddly, though, both have the larger portion on the driver’s side of the car – questionable, because you’d think you’d want your kids clambering out of the third row on the kerbside of the car, right?

The Toyota’s third-row access system is simpler to use and not as heavy to operate. And further, the Kluger’s boxier body makes ingress and egress slightly easier than the Mazda, not to mention the fact the Toyota has a ridged plastic step area that is designed to stop the kids from ruining the car’s carpet as they get in and out. The Mazda doesn’t have that, and its seats are heavier to slide and they don’t reset as well as the Toyota’s.

Access, then, is won by the Toyota. But space, surprisingly given the shape of the car, is the Mazda’s domain of excellence.

The third-row of the Mazda is just a touch tighter than the Toyota in terms of shoulder space, but it has better headroom and considerably better toe-room when the second-row seating is slid all the way back. Knee-room in the third-row of the Toyota is almost non-existent for adults when the second-row is slid back, meaning you’ll need to ask those in the middle space to shuffle forward a couple of notches.

In the Mazda, however, adults can feasibly sit with a finger-width of space between their knees and the seat backs, even when the second-row is slid all the way aft.

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I set the second-row seating behind my driving position in both vehicles, at a position that I would be comfortable enduring for a two-hour stint (that is, about three fingers’ width behind the driver’s seat). In that position, my third-row tester Tegan again had considerably more space in the Mazda than in the Toyota (an extra three fingers’ width between her knees and the second-row seatbacks). So if your kids have long legs, maybe keep that in mind.

Consider this, too: if you are going to have three across the second-row regularly, the Toyota’s flat floor offers superior foot room to the Mazda’s floor, which has a slight transmission tunnel intrusion. But with the seats slid forward, taller second-row occupants might find the headspace of the Toyota impinged by that drop-down screen and sunroof recess.

That said, if you’re a parent who plans to use all seven seats regularly, you should bear in mind that the third-row of the Mazda has no air-vents, where the Toyota has roof-mounted vents for the back-row occupants (again, falling short of the Hyundai and Kia competitors which have separate fan controls for the third row).

Even sitting in a shady car park, Tegan felt the air growing thicker and warmer in the Mazda than in the Toyota. Further, the Toyota has a better rear-zone climate control system including a permanent display up front that shows what that zone temperature is at all times – you need to push a button to see and set the rear zone control in the Mazda.

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The vision from the rear seats is better in the Toyota, with its larger third-row windows offering more to see than the smaller glass in the Mazda’s third row. That, combined with a lack of ventilation, could be bad for car-sickness-prone kiddies.

Both vehicles have good storage options in their third rows, including bottle holders and small item caddies, while in the second row there are decent door pockets and flip-down armrests with cup holders.

The Mazda’s armrest, though, hides a pair of USB charge points – such a plus with the device-mad youngsters of today, and a more modern answer to the question of back seat entertainment than a Blu-Ray screen – and the CX-9’s clever dual-pocket storage sections on the front seatbacks are ingenious.

The boot space of the Mazda is bigger than the Toyota. It has 230 litres of cargo capacity with all seven seats up (which, surprisingly, is less than the old Mazda CX-9, which had 267L), where the Kluger has 195L of space in seven-seat mode. With five seats in play, the Kluger has 529L of cargo space, where the Mazda claims a huge 810L of capacity with the third-row folded down.

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Lower the seats and there’s a sizeable gap between the second and third rows of the Mazda, which could prove a snag point. The Toyota’s seats offer a flat space when folded down, making it easier for loading flat-pack furniture and the like.

Those third-row seats are easy enough to pull up and fold down in both cars, but the Mazda’s handles offer better grip than the pull-tabs of the Toyota. But the Toyota has reclining third-row seating that the Mazda misses out on, and the Kluger’s separate glass porthole allows for quick and easy access that the Mazda can’t match. (That glass section being operable also means you won’t have to waste precious seconds of your life waiting for that painfully slow electric boot-lid to open!)

Further, the Mazda misses out on a cargo blind, where the Toyota gets one that is storable under the boot floor when you need those rear seats in play. Both SUVs have clever shopping bag hooks at the back.

As for child-seat attachment options, both vehicles have ISOFIX anchor points fitted to the outer seats of the second-row. The second-row of both vehicles have three top-tether attachments, where the Mazda betters the Toyota with an additional (single) third-row top-tether point.

Drivetrain

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There are a couple of differences between these two vehicles when it comes to what’s under the bonnet. Like, literally – the Toyota has two extra cylinders on the Mazda.

That’s because a 3.5-litre petrol V6 engine powers the Toyota where the Mazda has a 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine.

Unsurprisingly, the Toyota out-powers the Mazda with 201kW of power (at 6200rpm) compared to the CX-9’s 170kW of power (at 5000rpm), but the turbocharger attached to the Mazda’s smaller engine means it offers up more torque, 420Nm at 2000rpm compared with the Kluger’s 337Nm at a much higher 4700rpm.

As you may be able to tell from those figures, you need to push the Kluger’s engine more to get the most out of it, where the Mazda offers better low-rev push.

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That could mean the difference between you wringing the neck of the Kluger to run from point A to point B, where the progress offered up by the CX-9 is smoother and less stressful on the engine.

The CX-9 will cruise along comfortably at 60km/h and if you need to stab the throttle you’ll get strong response either in the gear you’re in, or the six-speeder in the CX-9 will downshift rapidly to the correct gear, and you’ll be in the sweet spot of the torque band to get the best out of the engine.

The Kluger’s drivetrain simply doesn’t offer the same level of refinement as the CX-9: it needs to rev hard, and the six-speed automatic isn’t as clever in keeping the engine in its best band. That’s mainly because it requires lots of throttle to get the best out of it, and revving up near 5000rpm isn’t the best for fuel use.

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As a means of compensation, the gearbox will choose the highest gear possible, but that means it’s constantly hunting for the right gear over undulating terrain. The Mazda’s gearbox won’t do that.

And while the Toyota’s engine revs cleanly and doesn’t have any lag down low in the rev range where the Mazda has a slight hesitation from a standstill, the big V6 sounds good under hard throttle, but you can’t help but notice the fuel use figure climb higher than the Mazda as a result. More on that in the ownership section below.

Further, if you’re driving either of these vehicles hard, you’ll notice that the gearbox of the CX-9 is much more amenable and reactive to pushing on – not that that’s what these sorts of cars are really about. Still, with its Sport mode (the Toyota doesn’t have one of those), the gearbox holds gears brilliantly and even throttle-blips on the downshift as you brake into corners.

Road manners

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So, with the superior drivetrain, does the Mazda also have the driving chops to topple the Toyota? Yep, it does.

The main thing that makes the Mazda better to drive is the steering, which is both lighter and more direct than the Toyota. The CX-9’s responsiveness made for better predictability both on the open road and at city speeds, where the Toyota’s overly heavy, dull steering meant there was an element of guesswork, both when you’re attempting to plough through a 75km/h bend and when you’re negotiating slow speed roundabouts or performing parking manoeuvres. The Toyota’s steering can actually be annoying at times, it’s that heavy.

It must be said, though, that both vehicles exhibited disappointing levels of kickback through the steering wheel. Over the same stretch of road at the same speeds, the steering wheels of both cars jostled in the driver’s hands when mid-corner bumps were encountered. In fact, the Mazda’s steering kickback was worse than the Toyota’s, which could come down to its larger contact patch with the road.

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The Toyota sits atop 19-inch wheels with Toyo A20 Open Country tyres with a 245mm width and 65 series profile, where the 20s of the Mazda are coated with more performance-oriented Falken Ziex CT50 tyres that are slightly wider (255mm) and a 50 series sidewall.

You could expect, then, that the Mazda’s rubber would be better in corners, and you would be correct, and that the CX-9 would ride a little harder over sharp bumps… but surprisingly it was the Toyota that seemed clumsier when dealing with those sorts of situations.

The Toyota’s front end crashed down noisily following a series of sharp-edged speed-humps, where the Mazda’s nose settled in a much more civilised manner. As for the overall comfort, though, the pair are equally as good as each other: hitting the same speed hump at the same speed with the same load on board (just a driver) saw, you guessed it, the same reaction from the suspension – good initial bump absorption, and good body control on the rebound.

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With a load on board – six adults, to be precise – we tackled a few urban obstacles and found that the Toyota was better at dealing with the sharper bumps on the road surface: its suspension soaked up the bumps comfortably, where the Mazda’s front-end felt quite sharp, clunking over some bumps that the Toyota glided over.

The rear occupants were happier with the vision offered in the Kluger, and the ventilation offered. The Mazda was praised for its third-row seat comfort, and its additional space. Both were found to offer good access, but the Toyota’s bigger door aperture and simpler sliding mechanism came up trumps from our non-expert testers.

We didn’t subject those peeps to a set of speedy corners, but even so there was criticism of the rolly nature of the Kluger on our drive, with the second-row testers finding the flatness of the bench seat exacerbated it. The Mazda’s more sculpted second-row seats were found to be more comfortable, and through corners the CX-9 felt less rolly than the Toyota, according to all on board.

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With just a driver and a set of tight corners ahead, the Mazda’s Falken tyres certainly offer better front-end grip than the Toyota’s Toyos, which were prone to squelching and squealing in sharper bends.

Still, the Mazda is a little noisier on the road despite it being probably the quietest vehicle the brand has ever produced, and this is particularly evident on coarse-chip roads.

Ownership

Both of these SUVs come with three-year warranties, but the Mazda’s is not limited by distance, where the Toyota is hitched at 100,000km.

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The Toyota requires more regular servicing, with maintenance due every six months or 10,000km, whichever occurs first. The Mazda requires visits to the workshop every 12 months or 10,000km, so if you do a lot of distance, you might not be any worse off with the Toyota.

You definitely won’t be worse off in terms of servicing costs, because the Toyota costs just $180 per visit for the first three years/60,000km of maintenance.

The Mazda has a much longer service plan – it runs out to 160,000km or 16 years – and it’ll set you back an average of $370 every 10,000km. But, converse to the Toyota’s distance-driver argument, if you don’t do that many miles there’s virtually nothing in it for annual visit costs ($360 for Toyota, $370 for Mazda).

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Another cost of ownership to be considered here is the fuel use of these two vehicles. You could save money by purchasing something like the impressive Kia Sorento Platinum diesel, and it would also offer cheaper running costs due to lower fuel consumption – you can expect to see about 8.0 litres per 100 kilometres for that vehicle.

As we found on test, both of these petrol SUVs are a bit thirstier than that. The Mazda used an average of 11.1L/100km, well above its 8.8L/100km claim. The Toyota chugged 13.0L/100km, which is well over its claimed use of 10.6L/100km. And let’s just say that we didn’t have seven people in them at all times while rushing to soccer and netball, either…

Verdict

With an updated version of the Toyota Kluger on its way early in 2017, we look forward to seeing what will change between the facelifted model and the one tested here, because even after a few years on sale, the Toyota took the fight to the Mazda pretty convincingly.

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It is the more practical choice if you need lots of loose item storage, or if you plan to use those third-row seats all the time because of its third-row vents and easier seat-slide mechanism. It’s easy to understand why it has become the go-to model.

But it isn’t as spacious, nor is it quite as clever or as good to drive as the new-generation Mazda CX-9, which feels more luxurious inside, and has a few smarts up its sleeve that the Kluger lacks.

So, the new kid on the block takes the win here, but not by much. And while it is impressive in its own right, we’d still suggest you take a look at the Kia Sorento Platinum if you’re in the market for either of these high-spec family trucks.

Click the Photos tab above for more images by Brett Sullivan and Glen Sullivan.

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