So, you need a seven-seat SUV, but you don’t care if it’s FWD rather than AWD, and you don’t have access to a bottomless pit of money?
Don't worry about the budget though, you're in the same boat as nearly every family buyer in 2017. We’ve assembled perhaps the two most obvious – and most budget conscious – choices here for your perusal then: the 2017 Mazda CX-9 2.5 Sport and the 2017 Toyota Kluger 3.5 GX with pricing well below that key 50-grand mark.
I’m not a fan of 2WD SUVs as I’ve stated in various reviews before, but there is indeed a market for those who desire SUV sizing, styling and driving dynamics as well as copious boot space and occasional third-row seating and these two are what that particular niche is all about.
The fact both can be had for comparative bargain money (think about what just over 40 grand actually buys you in other segments these days) only strengthens their appeal for family buyers.
Neither vehicle will appeal to the fussier ‘style enthusiast’ given their basic, entry level pretensions, but when you’re on a budget and you actually need three rows, styling is less important than simply not driving something that looks like a people mover.
Pricing and Equipment
Both these SUVs are keenly-priced and despite being entry level models, outside the chubbier tyres and lesser wheel diameters, there’s little about them externally that screams 'base model'. Neither is especially packed with features though, befitting the sharp pricing structure.
The CX-9 Sport starts from $43,550, which is a $1360 price hike over the previous model before you factor in on-road costs. Compared to some pricing revisions year on year, we can live with that small jump.
Standard equipment highlights for the Mazda are: 18-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, 7.0-inch MZD connect touchscreen infotainment system, six-speaker sound system, Bluetooth integration with internet radio streaming, satellite navigation, tri-zone climate control, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, cloth seat trim, blind-spot monitoring, keyless start, rear-view camera with rear parking sensors, rear cross-traffic alert and Smart City Brake Support.
Noteworthy inclusions here – especially given the price – are the excellent 7.0-inch screen, satellite navigation, rear cross-traffic alert and blind-spot monitoring, which all make the driving experience safer and more comfortable, something you might not expect to get when you’re shopping on a budget.
The Mazda CX-9 is covered by a three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty, and a capped-price servicing scheme. Services are required every 10,000km/12 months. That scheme covers the first five services, which cost: $357, $399, $357, $399, and $357 respectively.
The Kluger GX starts from $43,550 before on-road costs are factored in, and like the Mazda, it’s crept up from the old model – rising by $1360 in this specification. Again, more than reasonable, all things considered.
Standard equipment highlights for the Kluger are: seven airbags, 7.0-inch non touchscreen, rear-view camera, rear parking sensors, hill-start assist, basic air conditioning (as opposed to climate control), cruise control, six-speaker audio system, Toyota Link app compatibility, front fog-lights and privacy glass.
All Klugers are covered by Toyota’s capped-price servicing program, running for the first three years or 60,000km (six services) with each service costing just $180. So, while the Kluger gets more basic equipment than the CX-9, it is cheaper to service, which evens the playing field a little and toughens the choice for buyers somewhat, too.
The biggest change for the all-new Mazda CX-9 is arguably under the bonnet, where a 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine replaces the previous model’s V6.
The direct injection mill makes 170kW and 420Nm with stop/start standard. You can use 91RON or E10, but as we usually do, we filled the CX-9 with a minimum of 95RON unleaded. There is no diesel engine and all CX-9s get a six-speed automatic transmission.
The FWD model tested here is slightly more fuel-efficient than the AWD model and the ADR fuel claim is 8.4L/100km on the combined cycle. Around town, the Mazda chewed through 13.2L/100km, while our first blat along the highway saw that figure drop to 10.2L/100km and finally a highway-only drive after a full reset saw the figure settle at 8.8L/100km.
While the Toyota Kluger only copped a facelift for 2017, the engine was revised, with direct injection lifting the output of the 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine to 218kW and 350Nm. A new eight-speed automatic transmission is purported to aid fuel efficiency and you might also think that the larger Kluger engine won’t have to work quite as hard as the smaller Mazda unit.
That actually plays out in the real world, despite the Kluger’s ADR claim of 9.1L/100km on the combined cycle being slightly higher than that of the Mazda. The two combatants were within 0.1L/100km across all measurements in the end, so it’s as close as we thought it would be.
Around town, the Kluger used 13.1L/100km, while a short highway run netted a drop to 10.1L/100km. Following a full reset and another 100km on the freeway only, that figure dropped to 8.7L/100km.
There are a couple of factors to note here. Firstly, these two engines will probably get even more efficient once they are both run in after 10,000km.
Secondly, it wasn’t that long ago, we were seeing figures like this out of diesel engines and were happy with the return.
And thirdly, a petrol engine is generally cheaper to service than a diesel, so these two are both real-world budget alternatives to the usual oiler brigade.
It’s here, inside the confines of the base model cabins, where things are particularly interesting. Both are comfortable and spacious, both feel premium enough that you won’t be hating your ‘shopping on a budget’ mandate, and both offer flexibility for different reasons. The vehicle you choose therefore, will depend on what you value most inside the cabin as a driver and/or passenger.
I enlisted fellow road testers Matt Campbell and Curt Dupriez for some feedback on the space and comfort of the second and third rows respectively. Matt was enthusiastic about doing some yoga moves to get into the third row – initially…
The Mazda offers excellent visibility from both front seats, the seats themselves are comfortable and after a 600km (each way) run into the country and back, they remained so. The gauges/infotainment are clear and have that signature premium look Mazda has been executing so well, but the console looks and feels busier than the Kluger’s with more buttons and switchgear.
The caveat to that criticism though is the infotainment system, which is markedly better, easier to use and more effective. It belies the price tag more than anything else inside the cabin. The rear-view camera is not as broad or clear as the Kluger’s but the standard satellite navigation is excellent.
The steering wheel controls are much better than the Toyota’s, but there is nowhere near as much storage – specifically the clever storage on offer in the Kluger. The Mazda’s console is tiny but it does house twin USB inputs. Strangely, the 12V input is set on the passenger side of the under dash area – you don’t even notice it unless you go looking for it.
Moving into the second row, the Mazda has vents for passengers, fan and temperature controls for the rear of the cabin, the second row seats slide fore and aft and the third row even gets twin bottle holders on each side. The second row door pockets are small but do have bottle holders.
Curt reports there’s genuinely commodious leg- and knee-room in the second row as well as plenty of headroom – good visibility for occupants back there as well. It’s worth noting for drivers that sighting your children in either the second or third row using the rear-view mirror is near perfect.
The third row on the other hand, has no air vents, but does have good seat comfort and almost enough headroom for six-footers. Matt’s knees where pressed into the second-row back rests but he reports that there is foot-room under the second row and it would be suitable for an adult for an hour or two.
The primary ride is decent back in the third row, but the CX-9 does bounce a little on secondary bump absorption and rebound over sharp-edged traffic islands. Matt also said visibility was good and you feel like you’re in stadium seating.
The floor is flat when the third row is folded away, but not quite as flat as the Kluger’s and there is still decent storage behind the third row when it is in use. The seats are easy to raise and lower but there’s a gap between the two rows when they are all folded down, which could be annoying in some circumstances.
The general luggage space isn’t as large or easy to access as the Kluger's, which materialises itself in instances like the hatch being too low when open so it’s easy to whack your melon on it – as I did more than once. There’s also a 12V outlet in the third row.
The Kluger also offers an exceptional driving position and visibility and plenty of legroom across the first two rows. The third row folds flat easily, the seat material is basic but looks to be hard wearing and the seats themselves, like the Mazda's, are excellent.
The enormous centre console, with sliding shelf will house a medium-sized handbag not to mention all manner of odds and ends, and there are two massive bottle holders ahead of it with two-stage sizing. There’s another 12V outlet inside the centre console bin too.
There’s a 12V outlet and USB input along with an auxiliary input as well. I love the shelf that sits under the dash and is the perfect place for wallets and mobile phones. It has a clever cable-through point which means you can feed the cable up to that shelf and sit the phone safely in there on charge. The shelf itself is broad enough and deep enough to be useful for items other than smartphones, if need be.
The front doors don’t have capacious storage but do have useful bottle holders, while the infotainment system is basic, but clear. It’s typical Toyota fare in that it does what it needs to do, but isn’t especially smart or premium to look at. The Bluetooth phone connection is excellent, the rear-view camera is clear and there are rear sensors only, just like the Mazda.
The Kluger’s passenger seat suffers from the design of the lower dash section, which encroaches on knee-room and means you can’t sit as close to the dash as you otherwise might, which therefore cuts into second row legroom as well.
The seats are softer than those in the Mazda in both the front and second row, but the seat back isn’t as supportive and you sit lower in the second row than you do in the Mazda. General room in the second row is comparable to the Mazda, according to Curt.
Matt said there is less toe-room in the third row, and with the second row all the way back, he couldn’t fit into the third row at all. The seat backs recline however while the Mazda’s don’t.
Vision is almost as good as the Mazda in the third row, and there’s still stadium-style seating. Matt reckons the Mazda has better general seat comfort, bigger door apertures in the second row to get in and out, and the seat mechanisms are less fiddly.
There’s slightly less storage behind the third row in the Kluger and no 12V outlet, but there is a handy hidden cargo blind beneath the floor – the Mazda misses out on that. There is a gap similar to the Mazda when both rows are folded down as well as a full size spare that sits underneath the back of the Kluger. The hatch lifts up much higher than the Mazda meaning you won’t clock your head on it.
The second and third rows both get air vents, the second row bases slide fore and aft and there is enormous legroom in the second row, and useful legroom in the third. The second row gets temperature and fan controls for the basic AC system, as well as a 12V input. The second row gets a drop down armrest with cupholders, while the third row gets cup and bottle holders each side.
A little surprisingly, the Mazda will torque steer if you work the throttle, but not as much as the Toyota wants to. You don't expect it from the Mazda, given the smaller engine, but you can induce it under the right circumstances.
Passengers report the Mazda’s bump absorption is least impressive of the two in terms of primary ride over pockmarked surfaces and the general feeling is that the chubby tyres should make it softer than it is in real terms.
While you can always argue the case for more power, the Mazda’s four-cylinder seems, to me at least, to offer the perfect amount for this segment and as such, the general experience behind the wheel is excellent.
As is the case with almost every Mazda SUV of late, the CX-9 feels more car-like than truck-like and is therefore properly enjoyable to drive. It loses nothing heading out of the city either, and a 600km run into the Riverina in NSW indicated the Mazda was just as comfortable working away out of the city. City-focused sure, but capable out in the country too.
Long stretches in the cabin are no issue, and the Mazda doesn’t mind being pushed hard on a winding road either. Like the Kluger it will let you know when it has had enough (in the form of reduced front end grip), and it isn’t designed to work hard in the twisty stuff either, but it’s more than capable of a fun drive.
The Kluger’s steering is immediately enjoyable, amazingly light around town despite being direct enough not to feel lifeless. The Kluger rides calmly over bumps, soaks up the worst roads with ease and the engine is willing but does need to be worked hard to get cranking.
The whopping external rear-view mirrors encroach on three-quarter visibility a bit from the driver’s seat. While the steering is enojoyable for day-to-day stuff, it’s worth mentioning that it isn’t as connected as the Mazda, and in fact feels lighter in general.
Add the ever-present threat of torque steer and the throttle pedal has more impact on the steering than we’d like. You get used to the sensitivity of the power delivery, but we'd like to see it dialled right out altogether.
The eight-speed gearbox, which no doubt assists overall economy, is smooth at any speed and driving is generally pleasant when you’re a Kluger pilot. As you’d expect though, with a fairly punchy petrol V6 engine under the bonnet, the Kluger will torque steer if you’re heavy with the throttle pedal at inopportune times.
There’s no stop/start and no digital speedo, which hurts economy and general driving enjoyment in comparison to the Mazda.
The Kluger’s ride for both driver and passengers was a little confounding. Its primary bump absorption is nowhere near as composed as the Mazda’s, it’s much sharper, more jiggly across the chassis and bounces over repetitive small stuff.
Despite that however, it settles much faster than the Mazda, doesn’t pogo a second or third time, and feels faster to return to normal again. There's little to separate the two overall, despite both going about the same task in mildly different ways.
As I alluded to from the outset, the first few minutes with these SUVs hinted this would be a very close tussle, and that’s exactly how it panned out on the road. We found it impossible to split them and to be completely honest, your choice will depend on what you most value as a buyer.
The Mazda is unquestionably the more enjoyable driver’s car. It’s more engaging, more adept and more inclined toward a mildly spirited drive with the driver/car connection it delivers. No this segment isn’t about that, and that’s fine, but the Mazda is absolutely more enjoyable to drive. Further, its infotainment system is markedly better than that offered by Toyota, and the cabin feels slightly more premium than the Kluger’s.
The Toyota on the other hand has better all round ride, vastly more useful interior storage that is also efficient, and is the more family friendly, passenger-focused seven-seater. Extra air vents, better storage, more room, and easier entry and egress make for more practical family commuting.
The good news is you won’t go wrong whichever way you go here. I went into this test prepared not to like either vehicle and came away feeling the opposite.
I respect both for their strong points and their tangible value for money. I’d still spring the extra cabbage for an AWD model though.
Listen to the CarAdvice team discuss this comparison below, and catch more like this at caradvice.com/podcast.