All the Mazda SUV hype is currently surrounding the upcoming Mazda CX-5 compact soft-roader, but if you want a high-riding seven-seater from the popular Japanese brand then you'll need the Mazda CX-9.
Australia became one of the few Mazda markets to adopt the CX-9 when the North American market-focused model landed locally in late 2007, but in June 2011 front-wheel-drive variants were offered to make the big Mazda cheaper to buy and run.
The front-wheel-drive version of Mazda CX-9 helps address one of the major downfalls of the AWD model - with official fuel consumption as high as 15.4 litres per 100km on the city cycle (11.2L/100km combined).
The Classic FWD we tested brings average (combined) fuel-use to 11.0L/100km and also gives you more petrol money by shaving about $4500 from the previous entry cost to the CX-9 ($49,990).
That saving doesn't translate into a cheapening of the drive experience, either.
The powerful V6 (204kW and 367Nm) remains, and that does mean it's possible to overcome the grip of the front wheels if you're aggressive off the line, but lack of drive to the rear wheels is less noticeable once rolling along the road.
In the wet, the traction control system is ever-alert, and is effective at preventing wheelspin without a delay in relinquishing control once grip has been re-established by the tyres.
Dynamically, the CX-9 FWD is quite satisfying, despite the fact that it's a two-tonne car that has a relatively high centre of gravity. Its handling is quite good, with no excessive body roll. The ride is quite firm but not uncomfortably so. The steering, hydraulic rather than electric, is also nicely weighted and consistent. The CX-9 also brakes well for its size.
The 3.7-litre V6 is a sweet-sounding unit that delivers its power in a very linear fashion and it teams well with the six-speed automatic, which gives smooth shifts and never hunts around for the right gear. While the engine’s peak torque is relatively high for a larger V6 (4250rpm) it never seems to be laboured at low rpm. In fact the auto holds onto the higher gears without downshifting unnecessarily and rides the torque curve to accelerate.
We recorded an average of 12.7L/100km, according to the trip computer, and longer country runs would comfortably knock a couple of litres off that figure as well. But the CX-9, even in front-drive form, is still not a vehicle you'd describe as economical.
The interior is familiar. The dash plastics may be hard to the touch, but the presentation is effective. The piano-black finish looks classy and contrasts nicely with the matte-grey console covers, while the cloth seats and matching trim on the doors add to the attractive aesthetics.
Features for the Classic model, which costs $44,425 before on-road costs are added, include three-zone climate control with an independent rear controller, plentry of cupholders, cruise control, leather steering wheel, a pollen filter, a six-disc MP3 with six speakers, and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls. Bluetooth, however, is a glaring omission.
The seats are comfortable in all three rows, with the middle row being able to slide forwards and backwards to vary legroom between the middle and rear-most seats. Getting in and out of the third row is easy enough if you’re agile, but if you’ve recently had a hip-replacement, it’s best to leave it to kids or young adults.
Even six-footers will fit in the back two seats, though, with excellent headroom for all. There’s also usable boot space with all three rows being occupied.
The CX-9 has yet to be independently crash-tested, but it comes with eight airbags (including front and rear curtain airbags), anti-lock brakes, emergency brake assist (which increases stopping force) and electronic stability control that also includes an anti-roll function.
Buyers in need of a seven-seater vehicle aren't exactly spoilt for choice in Australia, but the Mazda CX-9 Classic is worth putting on the shortlist - that would also include the Honda Odyssey - if AWD isn't a necessity (as is the case for the majority of SUV buyers) and you only have a budget up to about $45,000.