Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander v Kia Sorento Platinum v Mazda CX-9 Touring v Nissan Pathfinder ST-L comparison

Sales of large family crossover SUVs continue to boom, and buyers in the market are faced with a bewildering array of options.

Here we gather four of the better-selling offerings, headlined by the most recent arrival to the class — the new-generation Mazda CX-9 out of Japan. Since everything Mazda Australia does seems to turn to gold, we’re expecting big things and even bigger sales from this much improved entrant.

Standing in the Mazda’s way is our reigning champion, the Kia Sorento from Korea. What it lacks in badge cache it makes up for in almost every other area, and remains one of the most underestimated offerings money can buy.

Joining the fray are two older and less fancied but still hugely popular options – the recently updated Hyundai Santa Fe Series II from Korea, and Nissan Pathfinder from the US.

These offers have a few things in common, namely the fact that each has seven seats, and each sports car-like monocoque construction. None are heavy duty off-roaders like a Toyota Prado or Isuzu MU-X, being designed for the road, or gravel/snowfields at a pinch. We’ve opted for all-wheel-drive versions of each car tested.

The variants tested here are all priced similarly, starting with the second-from-base $52,890 (plus on-road costs) Mazda CX-9 Touring, climbing to the mid-range Nissan Pathfinder ST-L AWD ($55,490) through to the top-of-the-range Kia Sorento Platinum and Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander (both $55,990).

Incidentally, many observers are no doubt wondering where the Toyota Kluger is. The big Toyota is the top-selling car in this class, and we wanted to have one here. However, the right spec wasn’t available at the time of testing. Watch our for our imminent CX-9 versus Kluger test coming soon.


The Mazda CX-9 Touring gets heated leather seats with electric adjustment for both the driver and passenger, climate control, satellite-navigation, a reversing camera, USB/Bluetooth, rear parking sensors, push-button start, blind-spot monitoring, low-speed autonomous braking (AEB) and rear cross-traffic alert (RCTA).

To this list the Nissan Pathfinder ST-L adds electric steering column adjust, an above-view 360-degree camera, keyless entry and a panoramic glass roof, though it lacks AEB and RCTA.

Neither the Kia Sorento Platinum or Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander offer the Nissan’s electric steering column or bird’s-eye camera, but they both get extras such as a cooling function in the front seats, lane assist system, electric tailgate, auto-dipping and folding side mirrors, front sensors, radar-guided cruise control and a full-size spare wheel.

The Hyundai has an ace up its sleeve with auto parking software and AEB, while the Kia is the only car here with a very deluxe heated steering wheel. The lack of AEB is poor form, however, we understand it will be added as part of a model update later this year.

To the rear. The Mazda and Nissan are the only two with separate second-row temperature controls with front override. The Kia and Hyundai both have rear vents, but you can only change the temperature from the front seats. Maybe not such a bad thing if you're dealing with irritating kids…

The Mazda strikes again by offering two USB inputs for middle row passengers, ahead of the Kia’s single input. The Hyundai and Nissan have none. Both the Kia and Hyundai also have a 12V outlet for middle passengers, rear seat heating and pull-up sun blinds that are much better than suction-cupped aftermarket ones.

Whether the Mazda's lack of a few features is worth the $3100 price saving over the Koreans is borderline. Probably no. If you want the higher-spec CX-9 GT AWD with its superior Bose sound system, bigger wheels, electric tailgate, front sensors, memory seats, heads-up display and more, you need to spend $61,390. That's a bit of a stretch.

Of course, Mazda has much more brand cache, and we’re aware buyers are often willing to consider the premium.

All cars also have front and side-protecting airbags for occupants. The Kia and Hyundai press materials state that the side curtains only cover the first two rows, however the bags that deploy from the B-pillar stretch to cover the rear glass. It's not as comprehensive as the Mazda and Nissan systems, though.

All cars have the maximum five-star ANCAP rating, though the Kia and Mazda were tested more recently and passed with flying colours. At the time of testing, the Kia was the top-scoring SUV of all time.

Comfort and functionality

Points have to go to the Hyundai for its extensive list of standard features, but it’s beginning to show its age in terms of layout and space.

Up front, you get an excellent 8.0-inch touchscreen with simple functionality that contrasts with the fairly old-hat graphic interface. The 550W Infinity sound system has plenty of clarity and good bass, while the Bluetooth phone sound quality is superior to the Tucson’s.

Flanking the slab-like centre stack and filling the cabin are dark plastics that are well put together, but austere and hard to the touch. It lacks the style of the Kia and Mazda, which feel European and upmarket by comparison. There’s plenty of storage, including a deep console and numerous open padded cubbies.

As mentioned, second row passengers get a welcoming array of amenities, with rear vents on the B-pillars, pull-up sun blinds, door pockets, a flip-down arm rest with cupholders, individual map lights and grab handles. There’s also a rear 12V input for USB adaptors and heated rear outboard seats.

Pictured: Hyundai Santa Fe

The rear seats offer great headroom and toe room, though only moderate knee room behind the hard plastic-backed front seats compared to the others (still plenty for two 180cm-plus adults, though). The huge panoramic roof adds to the ambience. The seats recline backwards and slide to and fro, and the outboard units have ISOFIX anchors (all four cars here do, as you would expect).

The middle row folds 60:40, with the smaller portion on the kerb-side sliding forwards with one touch to allow third row access. Entry and egress to the third row is the worst here, with a small aperture. Headroom is poor for the class, as is outward visibility through the small window, though knee room is again decent. Third row occupants get vents with fan control and cupholders.

Pictured: Hyundai Santa Fe

This comparatively limited rear row space is no surprise given the Hyundai is the shortest car here, at 4700mm long on a 2700mm wheelbase. The Kia is 4780mm/2780mm, while the Nissan and Mazda are bigger again at 5008mm/2900mm and 5075mm/2930mm respectively.

The Hyundai’s cargo area is 516L with the back seats folded, which is 300L less than the much longer Mazda. It’s also the most limited with all three rows in place. However, under the body is a welcome full-size spare (the Kia is the only other car here with one). The third-row seats fold quite flush into the floor and the middle row flips via levers in the cargo area, which is clever.

Pictured: Hyundai Santa Fe

There’s also a nifty under-floor area to store the pull-out cargo cover — something neither the Mazda or Nissan offer.

The Nissan Pathfinder is about a foot longer than the Hyundai, and the vast acres of room in the first two rows attests to this. But like the Hyundai, it’s all feeling a little dated up front compared to the box-fresh Mazda and Kia. Lucky, then, that an update is about nine-months away.

Pictured: Nissan Pathfinder

The fascia is littered with buttons in a way that stands in contrast to the others, and it takes some adjustment working out what does what. The touchscreen interface also feels a generation old, though the Bose audio system is good. As is that foot-operated park brake compared to the others’ electric buttons.

It’s all really well-made at least, and the nicely grained plastic and leather used throughout has a premium feel. There’s also a massive glovebox and good centre console, and plenty of little open and closing cubbies scattered about.

Pictured: Nissan Pathfinder

The big leather arm chairs are among the comfiest here, though they’re not overly supportive, while the dual-pane sunroof is almost on a par with the Koreans’. It also has the only 360-degree above-view camera here, which is a necessity for such a big car. Even though it’s grainy, it still gets a tick.

Second-row occupants get vents with separate climate controls (one of only two cars here with this joining the Mazda, whereas the Koreans both make you adjust these vents from the front), map lights, a flip-down arm rest, big door pockets, and huge windows that help outward visibility. There are no USB or 12V sockets though. There are, however, a ridiculous 12 bottle holders.

Pictured: Nissan Pathfinder

There is plentiful legroom and the best shoulder room for three adults across, benefitted by the flat floor bereft of a bump where the driveshaft goes through. Toe room is limited under the seats, though, and the high positioning is great for kids but hurts headroom for taller folk.

As colleague — and father to a toddler — Rob noted, the view out of windscreen from the back seat is great too, “and if you've ever had a two year old in the back you'll understand why this is a good thing”.

Pictured: Nissan Pathfinder

Unlike the other cars here, it’s the larger portion of the 60:40 bench that flips and slides on the kerb-side to allow third-row entry. At least it’s not too heavy, and the way it scrunches up and yields a huge aperture for entry and egress is almost poetic. Nissan calls this trademarked system EZ Flex, and it’s the best here.

Third-row space includes excellent headroom and great outward visibility, but somewhat limited knee-room. It’s still more of a proper seven-seater than the 5+2 Santa Fe. Rearmost occupants also gets vents and cupholders.

Pictured: Nissan Pathfinder

The loading space doesn’t get those cool flipping levers to lower the middle seats, nor any kind of cargo blind, and unlike the Hyundai and Kia there’s no electric tailgate.The loading floor also slopes slightly, but it’s still gargantuan.

There are also cool shopping bag hooks scattered about. The space-saver spare wheel is not ideal.

Pictured: Mazda CX-9

The Mazda CX-9 has all the signature Mazda hallmarks, with the stylish interface crisp and modern, the glossy black plastic and soft-touch materials pseudo-premium, and the rotary dial-operated MZD connect infotainment with floating 8.0-inch flatscreen and apps is the best setup here, and the sound system excellent.

The Mazda also has the nicest steering wheel here, and the raciest dials, though they lack a digital speedo. It all feels very upmarket, though the lack of a sunroof undoes much of this. The very particular Matt Campbell also bemoaned the mismatched fonts.

Pictured: Mazda CX-9

The second-row seats lack the Koreans’ heating, glass roof and sun-blinds, but you get lots of storage, high-mounted stadium seating like the Nissan, the best overall spaciousness here, cool double-layered seat-back pockets and a flip-down armrest with two USB points. You also get detailed rear climate controls and face/feet airflow options. “Top work,” says Curt.

Access to the third row is good, via one-touch tilt and slide 60:40 rear seats that are probably the most flexible here, with a large aperture and the equal-best rear space. However, the lack of third-row air vents rankles.

Pictured: Mazda CX-9

The cargo area is long and fairly flat, but there’s no electric tailgate, cargo blind or full-size spare wheel. There’s also no flipping levers to drop the middle seats easily, which is incongruous since the CX-5 has them. The CX-5’s 40:40:20 second row is also superior to its bigger brother.

Pictured: Mazda CX-9

To the Kia Sorento. Aside from the small 7.0-inch touchscreen and the cheap red-lit buttons, it’s hard to find any real weakness. The material quality is outstanding, the design contemporary, the seats the most comfortable here, and the features list long.

The way the dash plastic swoops into the doors is Jaguar-like, the heated steering wheel is properly premium, the two-tone seats, silver switchgear and soft materials all make it a great place to spend hours upon hours. The doors thunk shut with Germanic surety, too.

Middle-row occupants get heated outboard seats, vents, LED reading lights, sun-blinds, a USB point and 12V input, big cupholders and the most supportive seats that tilt and slide. The huge sunroof is also equal-best with the Hyundai, and it’s the only car here with all-round one-touch up and down windows.

Pictured: Kia Sorento

Middle headroom and legroom is sufficient, and in tandem with the plethora of creature comforts was voted the best overall rear setup here, though kids might find it harder to see out of than the higher-seated Mazda and Nissan. The 10-speaker Infinity sound system is excellent too.

Access to the third row is a similar system to the Hyundai, with a kerb-side sliding middle seat, but the aperture is superior, as is the space. Knee-room and headroom were fine for our 180cm tester, for short trips at least. It’s up there with the much longer Mazda and Nissan for comfort, which shows how good the packaging is. However, don't disregard the incomplete airbag situation mentioned earlier.

Pictured: Kia Sorento

The cargo space is good with the third row folded flush into the floor and the middle row ditto via Hyundai-matching flipping levers (about 200L less than the longer Nissan, which is epic). There’s also that signature place to store the cargo blind under the floor, and a full-size spare, plus an electric tailgate.

The design may not be quite as contemporary as the uber-modern and sleek Mazda, but it’s plentiful standard equipment and similarly good packaging gives it the edge at this spec level.

Pictured: Kia Sorento


Two cars here use diesel engines, and two use petrol. Given the size and weight of these behemoths (1860kg for the Hyundai, 1910kg for the Mazda and almost 2000kg for the Kia and Nissan), the torque-rich and efficient diesel option seems the better pick, and worth getting dirty hands at the bowser for. However, is this the case?

Under the bonnet of the Pathfinder is a 3.5-litre V6 — the only six-cylinder engine here — producing 190kW at 6400rpm and 325Nm at 4400rpm, matched to a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). Claimed combined cycle fuel consumption is 10.3L/100km.

In general urban duties it’s perfectly fine, with good response and a hushed demeanour, while it ticks over happily at freeway speeds with barely a whimper. However, it is made to labour hard under more aggressive driving and up hills, and the way the CVT keeps engine speeds higher than the other cars here shows the ultimate lack of low-down torque compared to the others.

We returned 91 RON fuel use of 13L/100km on our combined-cycle testing, which is 30 per cent higher than the factory claim.

To its credit, the Pathfinder has the highest tow rating here, with a braked-trailer maximum of 2700kg compared to a conservative 2000kg for the other three, though there is no doubt that the diesel options would perform such a task much more effortlessly and efficiently than the raspy Nissan. The Koreans and the Mazda also have 100kg download weights in standard form, which is meagre.

We’d also note that for an extra $3000 you can buy the Pathfinder ST-L supercharged petrol-electric hybrid, with 188kW/330Nm and claimed economy of 8.5L/100km. Worth it? Hmmm.

The other petrol option here is the Mazda. Much has been made of the company’s omission of a diesel option for the CX-9, which seems incongruous given the excellent 2.2 unit it offers in the CX-5. However, the vast majority of CX-9 sales are in North America, where diesel is a dirty word.

The 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine is a new development, with the CX-9 its first application. Its 170kW of power at 5000rpm is nothing special, but the torque output of 420Nm from just 2000rpm is positively diesel-like, and shows the merits of forced induction.

It’s a really gutsy and aurally satisfying engine that performed well across all our performance tests, helped by the six-speed automatic gearbox that is the best-calibrated here, especially in its dynamic Sport mode. As tester Curt exclaimed, “more turbo engines please, Mazda!”.

There is, however, a penalty at the bowser compared to the diesel options. Mazda claims fuel economy of just 8.8L/100km (91 RON), but what we actually got was fuel use closer to the Pathfinder than the Koreans, though much of this was with very hard driving, which we were able to do on account of the CX-9’s outstanding dynamics (more on that later).

The Hyundai and Kia use the family 2.2-litre common rail direct-injected turbo-diesel engine. In the Hyundai it produces 147kW at 3800rpm and 440Nm between 1750 and 2750rpm, matched to a six-speed automatic. Combined-cycle factory claimed consumption is 7.7L/100km.

It remains a strong, tractable engine with ample low-down grunt that makes it ideal for hauling a car-load of people and gear, while noise and vibrations are kept relatively well at bay. We returned fuel consumption of around 8.5L/100km on test, which was slightly better than the heavier Kia.

Kia’s take on the 2.2 engine makes 147kW/441Nm at the same engine speeds as the Hyundai, and displays similar characteristics, though it seems that Kia has added sound-deadening because it’s more hushed inside the cabin.

The transmission is generally well-matched, though it was a little ‘busier’ than the Hyundai’s, occasionally shifting back and forth despite the healthy torque on tap.

Overall, it’s a matter of personal taste. We could well understand why opting for petrol might appeal: it’s cheaper, the engines run quieter, and yields no dirty hands at the bowser. Clearly, the Mazda’s turbo unit is fantastic, because it’s sharp and responsive off the mark and has ample low-down grunt to boot. Plus, if you aren’t doing huge kilometres, the economy impost isn’t major.

We prefer the effortless tractability and economy of diesel, though, and you should too if you do lots of highway driving and ever tow a van or trailer. And here, it’s the Kia’s superior noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) that gives it the edge.

Ride and handling

The obvious remit for each of these cars, despite being all-wheel drive, is urban and freeway driving. Most will spend their lives running around town during the week, and embarking on long, loping family getaways on weekends and holidays.

So the things we most value are ride comfort and compliance, surefooted-ness, ease of steering, overall refinement and a commanding view of the road from the high-riding driver’s seat. All are pretty good at this criteria, but not all are created equal.

The Pathfinder’s natural habitat is the highway, which is not surprising considering it’s a car made for the open expanses of North America. There, it displays a loping and cushy ride on 18-inch wheels with fat tyres and remains commendably hushed, creating good cabin ambience, both front and rear.

The ride compliance and body control around town is also fairly good, over patchwork roads, corrugations and speed humps, though the slow and heavy electric-assisted steering is a little ponderous compared to the others, as is the handling on more challenging, twisting bits of tarmac, where it feels about as comfortable as a hippo on roller skates. It’s such a big thing, too.

Over our gravel test road, it was middle of the pack for noise and cabin-entering vibrations. Like the other cars here, the Nissan has a 4WD system. The on-demand system change from front- to all-wheel drive on demand depending on surface. Think of it as helping out on slippery roads, such as those on the way to a snowfield.

The Hyundai’s suspension and steering calibration is interesting. It rides a little firmer than the Kia (both have 19-inch wheels), and its handling and the sharpness of its steering from centre gives it good performance on twisting roads. Around town, its compliance is generally good, though body control over big hits is less disciplined than the others.

It was the noisiest car here over our challenging gravel test road, and felt the firmest, meaning more vibrations through the seats. The on-demand AWD system has the availability of a 50/50 front/rear lock mode up to 30km/h for slippery terrain, though its ground clearance is limiting.

Befitting Mazda’s brand image, the CX-9 doesn’t drive like the big lumbering SUV that it is. In Curt’s words, it’s “satisfying to drive in a holistic sense”. It belies its vast dimensions by shrinking around the driver.

Matching the gutsy engine is a balanced chassis, accurate and well-weighted steering, and relatively disciplined body control. Only the modest tyres (shod to 18-inch wheels) and slightly flat seats let the team down, and even then only when you push it hard.

Around town, the Mazda felt fairly good, with suspension that absorbed initial impact well, and rounded off smaller corrugations, though it felt a little less controlled over speed bumps in the back than the cushy Kia. It’s a nice compromise between the sharp Hyundai and plush Nissan and Kia.

On our unsurfaced test route, the Mazda was middle of the pack of NVH. The AWD system is once again an on-demand system, with 27 sensors constantly monitoring the road surface 200 times per second.

A traditional Mazda bugbear is road noise, but the company claims to have rectified this with the CX-9, and it’s certainly the quietist Mazda you can buy. Over our smooth test surface, the Mazda was equal quietest here according to our decibel reader, while on a coarser chip surface, it was third behind the Kia and Nissan.

The Kia once again impressed all of our testers across various disciplines. Around town it was easy to drive, with light steering, cushy ride and outstanding NVH levels. In corners, it displayed surefooted body control, though its steering is a little wooly and Curt noted the occasional “fidgetiness” at highway speeds, where it was the quietest car on test.

On our gravel loop it excelled, with the most compliant ride and the best noise insulation here by a fair margin. It felt a generation ahead of the Santa Fe, which it is, thanks to underpinnings shared with the Carnival instead. It uses the familiar on-demand AWD setup.

If refinement, comfort and plushness are the bywords of the class, the Kia edges to first again. If excitement behind the wheel is your bag, go the Mazda.


The Nissan Pathfinder comes with a three-year/100,000km warranty and free roadside assist over the term. Servicing intervals are every 12-months or 10,000km. Nissan has published the cost of each visit out to 120,000km (at current rates, which can change with inflation and other costs). The first six visits are: $264, $361, $264, $441, $264, $361, making a total of $1955, plus incidentals.

The Mazda CX-9 gets a three-year and unlimited kilometre warranty, but you have to pay $68.10 yearly for the entry roadside assist plan. Servicing intervals are the same as the Pathfinder, and the first six visits are current rates are $353, $395, $353, $395, $353 and $495, making a total of $2244 plus incidentals.

The Hyundai Santa Fe comes with a superior five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty with up to 10 years of roadside assist if you service your car with Hyundai. Service intervals are 12-months and 15,000km — superior to the Mazda and Nissan — and the first six cost $379, $379, $379, $499, $379 and $460. That’s $2475, but unlike the others this covers up to 90,000km.

This Kia Sorento comes with the industry leading seven-year/unlimited kilometre warranty with roadside assist. Service intervals match the Hyundai, but each visit isn’t cheap — $3027 over the first six visits. However, Kia covers the cost of fluids, filters and other incidentals that the others don’t, so the figure isn’t actually that discrepant.


The verdict here became more and more clear as testing went on. The Nissan Pathfinder ST-L is a practical and quiet consummate family hauler that’s just feeling its age a little bit. But if freeways and urban rounds are your bag, and you don’t do big kilometres, it’s worth a look.

The Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander is a victim of being a few years older than the Kia and Mazda, and its slightly downmarket cabin design, and its packaging by way of its small dimensions, fail to overcome its impressive equipment list and sharp road manners.

The Mazda CX-9 Touring impressed us here, though it lacks some key equipment at this price point. However, at other specification levels it has the hallmarks of a class leader. Stylish outside and in, fun yet comfortable to drive and well-packaged, it’s an enticing option that deserves success. Additionally, if you're regularly carrying seven passengers, the superior third-row airbag setup gives it the edge.

On the other hand, the Kia Sorento Platinum is just such a well-rounded package for the price. Refined, stylish, practical, good to drive and cheap to own, it’s one of the most all-round impressive family cars on the market. We prefer its engine, spec list, warranty and ride to the Mazda. It remains remarkably good, more than a year since its launch.

Click on the Photos tab for more images by Sam Venn.

Breakdown: features and specifications

Santa Fe Highlander AWDSorento Platinum AWDCX-9 Touring AWDPathfinder ST-L AWD
Leather seatsYesYesYesYes
Memory/dual front electricYesYesNo/YesNo/Yes
Heated steering wheelNoYesNoNo
Electric wheel adjustNoNoNoYes
Climate controlYesYesYesYes
Starter button and keyless entryYesYesYes/noNo/yes
Electric tailgateYesYesNoNo
Electric dipping mirrors with auto foldYesYesNoNo
Front/rear sensorsYesYesNo/YesNo/yes
Full-size spareYesYesNoNo
Panoramic roofYesYesNoYes
Digital speedoYesYesNoNo
Above-view cameraNoNoNoYes
Auto Hold anti-creeping functionYesYesNoNo
Self parkingYesNoNoNo
Lane assistYesYesNoNo
Autonomous emergency brakingYesNoYesNo
Heated rear seatsYesYesNoNo
Rear temperature control dialsNoNoYesYes
Rear USB pointsNo



Rear 12VYesYesNoNo
Flat middle floorNot quiteYesNoYes
Santa Fe Highlander AWDSorento Platinum AWDCX-9 Touring AWDPathfinder ST-L AWD
Engine 2.2 turbo-diesel 2.2 turbo-diesel 2.5 turbo-petrol 3.5 V6 petrol
Power147kW at 3800rpm 147kW at 3800rpm 170kW at 5000rpm 190kW at 6400rpm
Torque440Nm at 1750-2750rpm 441Nm at 1750-2750rpm 420Nm at 2000rpm 325Nm at 400rpm
Transmission Six-speed auto Six-speed auto Six-speed auto CVT
Fuel economy claim7.7L/100km diesel 7.8L/100km diesel 8.8L/100km 91 RON 10.3L/100km 91 RON
Length / width / height / wheelbase mm 4700/1880/1690/2700 4780/1890/1690/2780 5075/1969/1747/2930 5008/1960/1768/2900
Suspension front/rear MacPherson/Multi-link MacPherson/Multi-link MacPherson/Multi-link MacPherson/Multi-link
Towing capacity braked / unbraked / download 2000kg/750kg/100kg 2000kg/750kg/100kg 2000kg/750kg/100kg 2700kg/750kg/-
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