The base model isn't usually the best car in the range, but that may not be true of this, the 2017 Mazda CX-9 Sport AWD.
Why would you spend more? It might sound like a tag-line for a discount shoe shop, but the same is true for the 2017 Mazda CX-9 range.
We have here the most affordable all-wheel-drive version of the 2017 Mazda CX-9 line-up, the CX-9 Sport AWD, which starts at $46,490 plus on-road costs. If you don’t want to spend even that much, there’s a front-drive version for four grand less.
But considering how much kit you get for your cash, there’s a strong argument to suggest you needn’t spend any more to get into the Touring model, which we’ve tested previously, and which attracts a $6400 premium over this “base model”.
That’s the thing – this doesn’t feel basic at all. If you’d never sat in a new-generation Mazda CX-9, or seen what equipment you get higher up the range, you might well think you’re sitting in a car with a price tag closer to $60,000 – not below $47,000.
Some of the spec highlights include 18-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, keyless start with push-button ignition, and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror. There’s no leather on the seats – you get cloth instead – but there is a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear selector.
Read the full pricing and specifications details for the 2016 Mazda CX-9, which is expected to go unchanged until some time in 2017, going by Mazda’s rolling range updates of its most popular models. So we’re calling this a 2017 model.
This variant has a 7.0-inch MZD Connect infotainment system with a touchscreen and the brand’s impressive rotary dial system.
The screen is smaller than the rest of the CX-9 models in the range (they get an 8.0-inch display), and while it doesn't have the latest smartphone mirroring technology of Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, there’s Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, and Pandora/aha integration. There are two USB points in this version, which is two fewer than the higher-spec models which get a pair in the second-row centre armrest.
The sound system is a six-speaker unit, and the quality of the sound is pretty good. We had no issues with connecting and re-connecting via Bluetooth, but the screen can be a touch slow to load, particularly when you’re jumping between radio menus. The sat-nav can initially be a little confusing when it comes to the controls, but once you’re used to it, it’s simple enough.
Then there’s the safety kit: a rear-view camera, rear parking sensors, rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot monitoring and autonomous emergency braking – which works when you’re going forwards or in reverse – is all fitted as standard. It has six airbags (dual front, front side and full-length curtain protection) and a five-star ANCAP crash test rating.
As we’ve found in our four-way SUV comparison with the CX-9 Touring model, the space on offer inside the new-generation seven-seater is quite good, but accessing the back row could be better.
Once you’re back there, there’s good knee- and toe-room for adults, even with the second row seats slid to their rearmost position. Shoulder room could be better, but it is among the best in class if you plan to haul long-legged adults or children often. The vision could be better, too, because the rear glass is small – so shorter kiddies might not love it back there.
Our biggest disappointment remains the fact that the third-row seating has no vents, meaning hot days could lead to unhappy kids in the third row. There is, however, a tri-zone climate control system with dual-zone up front and a third temperature setting for the vents in the second row.
There are bottle holders and small item caddies in the third row, while in the second row there are good sized door pockets and a flip-down armrest with cupholders. The CX-9’s dual-pocket storage sections on the front seatbacks are nifty, too.
The boot space of the Mazda is 230 litres with all seven seats up (the old one had 267L), while with five seats in play Mazda claims a huge 810L of space. There’s no cargo blind fitted or available for the CX-9, but there’s a shopping bag hook in the boot.
When you lower the seats there is a gap between the second and third rows, which could prove a snag point when loading long items, but the third-row seats are simple to pull up and fold down. We prefer the handles that you get in the higher-spec CX-9s to the pull-tabs in this version.
There are ISOFIX child-seat attachment points in the outer seats of the second row, along with three top-tether points. The third row also has a top-tether point for one of the seats.
To haul around seven adults, if that’s what you choose to do, you need some grunt. And the Mazda CX-9 doesn’t disappoint in that regard, with its 2.5-litre petrol turbocharged four-cylinder engine producing 170kW of power (at 5000rpm) and 420Nm of torque (at 2000rpm).
It’s teamed to a six-speed automatic – without paddle-shifters – and while we’ve got the AWD version, there aren’t any of the clever off-road elements you might expect: there’s no hill descent control, off-road mode or diff lock, here.
It’s a strong engine, one that probably won’t leave you wishing for more grunt. There’s good mid-range power, and the engine revs willingly. There’s not a lot of lag down low in the rev range, but the stop-start system can be a little bit slow to respond. On the open road we recommend you keep your eye on the speedo, as it is easy to allow the car to get away from you, such is its effortlessness powering along the highway.
The automatic gearbox has a lot to do with how swift the progress is, particularly in urban driving, as it’s excellent. The shifts are smooth, and there’s a Sport mode for the transmission (yeah, Mazda – you’re probably right, people will likely drive their CX-9 hard on the tarmac than ever take it off-road) that makes it hold gears longer, and it will even throttle-blip as you brake into corners. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – you can have more fun in this car than really ought to be possible for a family-friendly SUV.
As we’ve said before, a diesel engine would likely enhance the appeal of the CX-9 for some buyers. But as a daily conveyance the petrol engine is peppy enough, if a little thirsty. Mazda claims combined fuel use of 8.8 litres per 100 kilometres, but we saw 12.2L/100km over a mix of highway and city driving.
It isn’t just the grunt. The way the Mazda CX-9 drives is very engaging, with its steering offering good precision and response, which makes for great involvement. There's a little bit of torque steer under hard acceleration, and if you’re pushing it hard and hit a mid-corner bump, the steering wheel can squirrel in your hands – but never to an unnerving degree.
It rides quite flat through corners, and while it may be a little firmer in terms of its suspension setup than some rivals – like the excellent Kia Sorento, for example – it deals with bumps decently at most speeds. Low-speed, sharp-edged bumps can upset the front end a tad.
The Yokohama Geolandar H/T tyres, wrapped around 18-inch rims, aren’t made for corners, and the CX-9 can understeer a little in tighter bends, while the tread isn’t great in the wet.
As for ownership, Mazda has a capped-price service plan that runs to 160,000km or 16 years – and, you guessed it, visits to the dealer are due every 12 months or 10,000km, whichever occurs first. Based on prices provided by Mazda, it’ll set you back an average of $370 every 10,000km before consumables. There’s a three-year, unlimited kilometre warranty, but unlike most competitors, the brand charges for its roadside assistance program ($68 per year for the standard cover or $83.50 for premium cover).
On the whole, the 2017 Mazda CX-9 Sport AWD is a highly impressive family SUV. In fact, in this spec it is probably the best petrol seven-seater on the market, given its price point, power and practicality. You needn’t spend more, because you get so much here that it could just be a waste of money.