Forget the small cars and convertibles that Mazda has come to be known for: the 2016 Mazda CX-9 is the most anticipated model in the local arm's history.
How much interest is there in this second-generation seven-seat SUV? The company ran a competition to win one, and 244,000 people entered. Of those, 83,000 requested more information, and more than 23,000 asked to be called by a dealer. And as we all know, asking for a phone call from a car dealer is sort of like asking for a burger without a bun: it’s just not the done thing.
With that in mind, the Japanese brand’s local operatives knew that getting it right with the pricing and specifications of the all-new CX-9 was crucial. After all, it competes with the likes of the segment-leading, petrol-only Toyota Kluger (and its diesel off-roader sibling the Fortuner), not to mention the Holden Captiva, Hyundai Santa Fe and Kia Sorento, among others.
Based on our experiences of both the base-spec Sport front-wheel-drive version (priced at $42,490 plus on-road costs) and the second-from-top-spec GT version with all-wheel drive ($61,390 plus costs) at the car’s local launch outside Melbourne this week, the company has seemingly hit the nail on the head.
We kicked off in the entry-level version that, it must be said, doesn’t feel much like a cut-price shitter (for want of a better term).
As soon as you slide in to the driver’s seat you’re met with luxury items that belie the CX-9’s attractive price tag.
There’s a lovely leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio and cruise control buttons, a nicely textured soft-touch dash finish, supple materials on the doors, a beautifully contoured centre console with piano black and chrome trimming, black cloth seat trim that looks the part, and a dash-top media screen.
That screen is the intuitive MZD Connect system (it's a 7.0-inch unit in the base model and an 8.0-inch version in all models above), which works as a touchscreen system when you’re parked but can also be controlled by the rotary dial positioned between the seats. It’s simple to use, has Bluetooth phone and connectivity, and there are plenty of USB points for charging devices (two up front and two in the middle seat rest in the back in the top three models – handy for kids). But, disappointingly, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring tech isn’t available yet.
There’s also no digital speed readout, and the automatic windows are auto-up and down for the driver only. Higher-spec models get both of those (the former by way of a new head-up display). The Sport also misses out on auto lights and wipers.
But it does have a plethora of standard safety kit, including a rear-view camera, rear parking sensors, rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot monitoring, autonomous emergency braking (up to 60km/h, which also works in reverse!) and six airbags (dual front, front side, full-length curtain). Push-button start and keyless entry is standard on all models as well.
It’s not just nice up front, though – the second and third rows are pretty good, too.
The second-row features a 60:40 seat layout, with the middle seat featuring a drop-down armrest with those USB points (if equipped), and the second-row can be slid fore and aft to allow access to the back seats.
With this six-foot-tall correspondent’s driving position set, there was easily enough second-row space to get comfortable when it was in its rearmost position, and even with it slid halfway forward it was fine. Head, leg and toe room isn’t an issue – it used to be, because the old CX-9 had a flat floor in the second row.
The third row is a million times better than it used to be. You can get in and out easily due to the tilting and sliding second-row chairs, and this time around there’s actually toe room under those middle seats. Head room is still a little bit cramped for adults, but younger occupants or shorties should be fine.
Still, there are no third-row air-vents in any model (Kia and Hyundai among others offer these). There are second-row vents, and that row also gets its own heating and fan controls, too.
For those who plan to haul their brood around, the third-row seats have top-tether points, and all three second-row positions have top-tether, too. The outboard second-row seats have ISOFIX points.
There is good storage for the little ones to hide their half-eaten apples or chocolates, too, with seatback pockets, a centre armrest cubby, good sized door pockets with bottle holders, and third-row arm rests with storage bins, too.
But – and it could be a big but, for some – the boot is actually smaller than it used to be.
Previously, the space behind the third-row seats was rated at 267 litres – now, it’s 230L, or barely big enough for two adults’ suitcases. With those rear seats folded down, the space expands to 810L, but previously it was 928L. There’s a power tailgate on the two top-spec models.
Mazda, though, claims the new design sees improvements to the space for occupants, and the boot floor is flat now, too (it used to have a gap, causing bag snags). Remember, this car is actually a bit shorter than the model it replaces, measuring 5075 millimetres long (previous model: 5106mm). It is taller, though (1747mm v 1728mm) and wider, too (1969mm v 1936mm).
So, the interior is a big step up in terms of presentation and passenger-friendliness, and it’s fair to say that the driver gets a better deal, too.
The new 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine offers up a handy 170kW of power at 5000rpm and 420Nm of torque at 2000rpm, and swapping the cogs is a six-speed automatic transmission. Intriguingly, there are no paddleshifters on any model.
The engine develops its power nicely, revving smoothly from down low in the rev range all the way to the higher reaches if you so desire. It does it’s best work down low, though, and this is where the most efficient motoring will be done.
On that topic, it uses a claimed 8.4 litres per 100km in the front-wheel drive model, or 8.8L/100km for the AWD. We saw 10.0L/100km in the FWD version on a mostly-highway drive, so it’s not quite at the level of a turbo diesel in terms of open road efficiency.
The 18-inch alloy wheels fitted to the two entry-model cars don’t look too small, and they offer a bit better occupant comfort – the Yokohama Geolandar 255/60 tyres don’t bellow as much through the cabin, and the wheels don't pinch the bumps in the road quite as much, either.
The big SUV performed quite well in the conditions we put it through, with damp roads and a couple of surface changes never unsettling the suspension of the CX-9. It rode nicely, with a nice level of comfort for occupants, and the steering was decently accurate, too.
We noted, though, that the steering could kickback over mid-corner bumps, and it also has a tendency to constantly return to centre – meaning you might take a while to get the feel of how it wants to be positioned on the road.
It isn’t the easiest car to see out of when you’re parking, and while the rear-view camera aids that endeavour, there’s no surround-view camera option, and front sensors are fitted standard only on the top two models. The guidelines don't move as you twirl the wheel on the camera display, either.
In the all-wheel-drive GT model, the ambience wasn’t that much of a step up considering the financial jump is sizeable.
You get a few niceties like leather trim, black head-lining, a reddish coloured plastic on the dash, different pull levers on third-row seats, auto-up windows for all four, a sunroof, a higher-resolution digital instrument screen, that head-up display we mentioned earlier, and the slightly bigger screen. Those in the back get side-window sunblinds and those second-row USB points, too.
There’s more traction, and you’ll feel it holding the road a little better around corners particularly in the wet. That’s partly the addition of the on-demand AWD system, and also due to the fact the larger 20-inch wheels are fitted with higher-spec Falken Ziex tyres (255/50). As mentioned, those tyres still offer a bit of road noise, but this is probably the quietest Mazda ever sold. We look forward to seeing if it’s quiet for the brand, or quiet for the class…
The AWD model saw mildly higher fuel use figures on the open road at about 11.3L/100km. We also drove it at lower speeds (mainly 80km/h zones), and it seemed to appreciate that somewhat, with consumption dropping to an average of 9.0L/100km.
We again found the steering constantly pulling back to centre, and the AWD model we tested felt like it had a stiffer brake pedal that wasn’t quite as responsive as the lighter FWD model. It was good enough to stop us ploughing through a family of kangaroos, though.
It has to be said that the Mazda ownership program can’t quite match some of the offerings against which it will compete. A Toyota Kluger, for instance, costs just $180 to service, with maintenance due every six months or 10,000km (whichever occurs first). And while a Kia Sorento and Hyundai Santa Fe may be slightly dearer than the Toyota to maintain, the pair has excellent long-term ownership credentials (Kia: seven-year warranty and capped-price servicing; Hyundai: five-year warranty and lifetime capped-price servicing).
The Mazda? It has a three-year unlimited kilometre warranty (the Toyota is limited to 100,000km) and it has a capped-price service plan, which isn’t finalised just yet – but estimates from the company suggest it will be a little expensive to service ($1600 over a three-year period - the Kia diesel works out at $1339; the Hyundai diesel is lower, at $1137; the Toyota is just $1080), and visits are due every 12 months or 10,000km, whichever occurs first.
Based on our first impressions, city-based family buyers may not even need to consider stretching any further than the base model Sport variant, which is a bargain buy. But those who desire a few creature comforts will also be well catered for.
We can’t wait to see how it stacks up against some of its key rivals soon. We bet potential buyers are anticipating that almost as eagerly as we are.