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For many family buyers, a conventional people-mover like the Kia Carnival or Honda Odyssey is the ultimate manifestation of apathy. A sure path to social death. The end of dreams and youth, alike.
Whether this is a furphy or not, seven-seat crossover SUVs such as the popular Mazda CX-9 and just-launched Skoda Kodiaq are widely seen as a more respectable path (usually tarmac-coated) to take.
The Mazda is one of our favourite large, urban crossovers alongside the Kia Sorento, and among the most popular cars in class among private buyers. Mazda has injected its semi-premium DNA into its range flagship, luring many away from the more familiar Toyota Kluger.
Skoda, on the other hand, is a little-known Volkswagen subsidiary from the Czech Republic, steadily making waves around the world. It's huge in western Europe but still a minnow here in Australia. The Kodiaq will put it on the consideration lists of people who've never considered its wares before.
Worth noting is the fact the Skoda is an appreciably more compact car than the huuuuge Mazda, but the company claims its familiar clever packaging makes it almost as roomy.
By no means are we saying these two are the top family SUVs, but they're certainly up there, and represent a diverse segment by going about the same job in slightly different ways.
Price and equipment
Here we test the CX-9 variant that sits one rung above base level. It's called the CX-9 Touring, and comes with either front-wheel drive for $48,890 plus on-road costs or $52,890 with on-demand all-wheel drive (AWD) suitable for snow trips or gravel tracks. It's this latter model we're driving here.
The Skoda Kodiaq comes in only one variation for now, with AWD standard, priced at $42,990. However our car had the optional Launch Pack that adds $5900 to the sticker price in exchange for more equipment. This closes the price gap to a more reasonable $4000.
There's a lot of equipment commonality between the pair, including an eight-inch touchscreen, satellite navigation, USB point, Bluetooth phone and streaming, rear-view camera, autonomous emergency braking (AEB) and LED headlights.
Pictured: Mazda CX-9
The CX-9 Touring has distinct features including three additional USB points over the Kodiaq, separate temperature controls for middle-row occupants, full leather seats with heating and electric adjustment for front occupants, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert – which helps you back out of car parks without being T-boned.
The Kodiaq, without the options pack, counters with standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Alcantara (suede) seat inserts, LED interior lighting, proximity sensor in the key fob, electric tailgate, adaptive headlights, 19-inch wheels (the Mazda has 18s) and radar-guided cruise control that mirrors the speed of the car ahead automatically.
The Launch pack adds adjustable dampers (to alter the ride from firm to soft-ish), lane assist, blind-spot monitoring, a 10-speaker audio system by Canton, a 360-degree overhead camera, auto park assist, foot-operated tailgate, an off-road driving mode, traffic jam assist, emergency call-out assist, rear cross-traffic alert, and auto-folding side mirrors.
Pictured: Skoda Kodiaq
This massive pack is a limited-time offer, however it partially combines the permanent Tech and Luxury packs that cost $2500 and $4900 respectively.
On a pure price-for-equipment basis, the fact you can option a Kodiaq up to the hilt and still come out under $50k before on-roads is pretty lucrative. Do keep in mind though, the Mazda can be had in base Sport guise (without cool stuff like the leather seats) for $46,490 with AWD.
We would have liked testing this version too, but sometimes the stars don't quite align. No matter.
Both of these cars have truly excellent cabin designs up front, worth every penny paid and nudging against the cabins from proper luxury brands.
Up front the Skoda has all the hallmarks of Volkswagen Group fare, from the clean and elegant layout, ultra-modern touchscreen that's shiny black and swipes like an iPhone, tactile materials on most contact points, generally solid build quality and the classic felt-lined door pockets front and rear.
Other highlights include the lovely steering wheel, steel kick-plates, clear instruments with a digital speedo (unlike the analogue Mazda), signature bright green lighting, and various digital off-road and environment-focused sub-menus for the tech-fans among us.
Pictured: Skoda (above) and Mazda (below) screens
Big props to the optional 360-degree overhead camera in the Skoda that dramatically eases parking too, though the Mazda's standard blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert counter this.
Downsides up front are few and far between, though if we were picky, we'd point to the lack of electric seat adjustment, the strange glossy fake wood finish on the top-tier glove box, and the hard plastics on the door handles and flanking the ventilation controls. Very minor.
Skoda being Skoda, there are also a plethora of incredibly clever and cool features such as umbrellas fitted inside both front doors, sliding drawers under the front seats, two glove boxes, a removable console insert and – the coolest bit – little rubbery plastic bits that deploy when you open the doors and protect you from dinging other cars in car parks (picture in the gallery).
Pictured: Skoda door umbrella (above) and Mazda rotary infotainment dial (below)
If anything, the Mazda's cabin is even nicer than the Skoda's, with even more plush and tasteful materials used throughout, and a sleeker and cleaner look. Mazda defines its brand as being akin to Japanese luxury, and the CX-9 embodies this.
Though its floating tablet screen is less modern than the Skoda's, the user experience is dramatically heightened by the BMW i-Drive-aping rotary dial that is easier to use on the move than a touchscreen.
The seats are supple leather and beautifully bolstered, and this combined with the high transmission tunnel and large, yet soft, door armrests make you feel like the car is hugging you. It's very warm and inviting. The seats are also heated and move electrically.
Pictured: Skoda door protector (above) and Mazda analogue instruments (below)
While there aren't the plethora of nifty little touches found in the Skoda, cabin storage comprises a deep cubby below the fascia, decent door pockets, a split-top console and a relatively modest glove box.
Downsides include the lack of a digital speedo – annoying in our strictly-policed land – and the low-rent halogen cabin lighting compared to the Kodiaq's crisp LEDs. Again, small things.
To the all-important second row of seats, which in both cars are flexible and spacious, as you'd expect.
Pictured: Skoda (above) and Mazda (below)
The Skoda's middle row slides by up to 18cm on rails, and reclines a few degrees via a fiddly fabric loop situated by your thigh. Rear occupants sit high, yet have tons of legroom, headroom and toe-room, and good outward visibility through rectangular windows.
There are a number of cool amenities that go beyond just the rear vents, including auto-up/down windows, a 12V socket, tablet-holders, pull-up sun blinds, LED reading lights, jacket hooks on the b-pillars and a flip-down armrest with cupholders.
There are also ISOFIX points on the outboard seats and three child-seat anchorages behind the middle row (ditto the CX-9). The middle row seats fold on a 40:20:40 basis. The only real downside is the cheap-looking exposed ISOFIX anchors with easy-to-fray fabric edges that look oddly unfinished.
Pictured: Skoda sub blind (above) and Mazda rear temperature adjustment (below)
The Mazda uses its longer wheelbase to advantage by maximising cabin space, though it's less evident in the middle row than the third. In fact, despite being lower, the Skoda actually offers 37mm more middle-row headroom.
Like the Skoda, the Mazda's middle seats slide and recline (via a proper plastic pull-lever), and the leather seats may be quite flat, but they're also super cushy and cosseting.
And while you don't get the Skoda's cool sun blinds, you do get two-tiered map pockets and a pair of USB points in a flip-down centre armrest. You also get temperature adjustment with the rear vents, meaning the kids can have their way with the middle-row climate control.
Pictured: Skoda (above) and Mazda (below)
The third row is where the Mazda best uses its extra length. The Kodiaq is the definition of a so-called '5+2 seater', with space back there most suitable for kids, or at the least just occasional use. This is unless you slide the middle-row well forward to liberate legroom, but inconveniencing whoever's in this second row.
The Mazda offers less third-row space than a Pathfinder, however it beats out the Skoda, and also has better seat design and headrests. You can also have the middle row slid back and still fit at least two grumbly teenagers back there. There's also a single child-seat attachment on the left-hand side.
There's less in it for cargo space. With all three rows in use each offers enough for a few bags or two travelling cases (230 litres for the Mazda and 270L for the brilliantly packaged Skoda).
Pictured: Skoda (above) and Mazda (below) storage behind the second-row seats
The Skoda also offers an automatic tailgate that raises very high, to spare your arms a chore, clever levers in the rear cargo area to de-couple and scrunch the middle seat row, an under-floor storage area for the removable sliding cargo blind and even a LED torch stashed in the side of the storage area. Genius.
Both cars have storage tubs, bag hooks, and a 12V socket which is good, and can be accessorised with various washable cargo area protectors. What's bad is that neither gets a full-size spare wheel, each making do with temporary units (the Mazda's is bigger, and therefore better).
Pictured: Skoda (above) and Mazda (below)
It's the Mazda that offers more storage behind the second row seats – aka the most commonly used layout – despite the fact both cars have third row seats that fold flat. Here the CX-9 just capitalises on its size, because the Skoda's boot is a more useable, square shape.
As you can see in our gallery, both cars become practical carry vans with five seats folded flat, though the Mazda's length and width is superior.
It also wins the battle for cabin supremacy overall, much as we love the Skoda's cleverness and packaging.
Large SUVs are perhaps most commonly associated with six-cylinder petrol engines, or smaller but punchier diesels. However, this pair both use 'downsized' turbocharged four-cylinder petrol-fired engines to cut fuel use. Note: a 140TDI diesel Kodiaq will go on sale later in the year.
The Kodiaq has the same 132TSI 2.0-litre engine as the Volkswagen Passat, making 132kW of power from 3900rpm and 320Nm of torque between 1400 and 4000rpm. By comparison the CX-9 has Mazda's only turbo-petrol engine, a 2.5-litre force-fed unit making a noticeably stronger 170kW at 5000rpm and 420Nm at 2000rpm.
Countering this, the 38cm shorter Skoda is almost 200kg lighter than the Mazda, narrowing the gap in power-to-weight ratios. A good run will still see the Mazda just undercut the Kodiaq's claimed 0-100km/h time of 8.2sec.
The Skoda also uses less fuel than the Mazda, though both are relative misers for petrol SUVs of this size. The factory claims are respectively 7.6L/100km and 8.8L/100km, though on our testing we returned more representative figures of 8.4L/100km for the Skoda and 10.1L/100km for the Mazda. However, the Skoda needs 95 RON premium fuel, whereas the Mazda runs on cheaper 91 RON.
Both come standard with automatic transmissions, a six-speed 'regular' unit (with torque-converter) for the Mazda and a seven-speed DSG dual-clutch auto for the Skoda (the brand's first car with this particular DSG 'box). Each also has stop-start that turns the car off in gridlock and restarts when you lift-off the brake or touch the throttle (the Skoda has an anti-creeping button).
The Skoda also has a nifty feature that works when you put the car into its Eco mode. As soon as the driver takes their foot off the accelerator at a speed above 20 km/h, drive is disengaged, meaning the Kodiaq is coasting, ergo not drinking fuel.
Both cars are also fitted with on-demand AWD systems that send torque to the rear axles when sensors detect the front tyres scrabbling for traction on loose surfaces. This also helps with fast getaways on tarmac, particularly when it's wet. Both gripped well, and neither car axle-tramped or torque-steered offensively under full throttle inputs.
The Mazda's i-ACTIV AWD system and Skoda's system both predominately send torque to the front wheels until the sensors tell the control unit otherwise. Torque is shuffled rearward at a constantly recalculated ratio via an output shaft, electronically controlled clutch and rear differential.
Both cars feel lively enough, with excellent rolling response thanks to their strong mid-range outputs. The Skoda is lighter yet needs more careful throttle modulation around town due to the innate characteristics of its DSG, which is great at fast-shifting but suits a more measured driving style around town. Neither has much noticeable turbo lag.
We wish Mazda would hurry up and put the turbo 2.5 in its CX-5 and Mazda 6, because it combines good aural feedback with strong surging power delivery and controllable fuel consumption – if you drive sensibly. It'll haul up a hill with a full load and have guts to spare.
The Kodiaq's engine has a few things going for it that help the car belie its outputs, mostly its super-wide peak-torque band meaning it responds willingly across many engine speeds to improve rolling response. It's stronger down low than the average non-turbo V6, helping fuel use and making it a more relaxing drive.
We'd still give the nod to the Mazda though. However, if you never leave the road, the $4000 cheaper FWD version may have some appeal.
Ride and handling
Neither of these feels like a barge, which you'd be forgiven for expecting in something this size.
It's no doubt been hard for Mazda to dial in some 'Zoom Zoom', and the CX-9 feels every bit the bigger car from behind the wheel – which it is (see the table below for a full breakdown).
It has more steering resistance (code for 'feels heavier') from its electric-assisted system, though it's still relatively simple to drive despite its 11.8m turning circle and long bonnet, thanks in part to the commanding seat position.
The Mazda also sits on smaller wheels and larger tyres, providing extra ride cushioning. While the dampers and springs are tuned for softness and bump absorption, the big CX-9 also displays acceptable body control/handling if you throw it about.
It's also the quietest Mazda on the road on account of extra noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) suppression, meaning little tyre roar or wind rushing invades the cabin. All told, it's a lovely, relaxing and cossessting vehicle to drive.
By comparison the Kodiaq feels lighter, more nimble and pointer, with direct steering, tied-down body control and an excellent chassis. The various driving modes can adjust the steering weight and throttle response, as well as the damper settings.
However, even in the car's softest and most complete mode, the standard 19-inch wheels on slim tyres – which, we accept, look sensational – mean the Skoda feels a little more unsettled over sharp hits than the Mazda, and let a little more road noise into the cabin. We're grading things on a curve here...
The Off Road mode on our car takes the standard 4x4 system will hill-descent control and further adjusts the throttle response and shift points to suit slippery surfaces. We recently easily negotiated a rutted downhill track in a Kodiaq, despite its 35mm ground clearance inferiority to the Mazda.
This is a tough one to decide on. The Skoda feels more manageable for nervous drivers, and more nimble for fun-seekers. The Mazda can feel unwieldy at time, though it's good for a 5.1m-long car, though its superior bump absorption and relaxed feel suit the brief well.
Cost of ownership
The Kodiaq gets a five-year and unlimited kilometre warranty (second only to Kia) and three years or 45,000km of servicing coverage (that's three visits at the recommended intervals) costing a total of $1399 across the term, which is cheaper than some Japanese brands. Brands potentially including Mazda.
Along with the three-year/unlimited km warranty, Mazda's lifetime advertised servicing price scheme covers inferior 12-month or 10,000km intervals, with the first three visits priced at $357, $399 and $357 – a total cost of $1113. Meaning if you do more than 10,000km a year the Skoda may be cheaper to service.
That fact, plus Skoda's great warranty – designed to help resale values and and permission-to-buy – give the Kodiaq a narrow win here, even when you factor in Mazda's superb reputation for dealer care and servicing based on survey results.
Yet it's the Mazda that wins this battle. We're big advocates for Skoda here. It's a relentlessly clever brand that punches above its weight, and trounces product from a number of higher-profile brands that outsell it twenty-fold.
Furthermore, the Kodiaq may well be a better fit for people who rarely carry six passengers. It's left-of-centre, premium in feel and design, brimming with tech and competitively positioned, instantly promoting it to a lofty position in the class.
Yet the Mazda is a more convincing package, from its sumptuous, spacious and sophisticated cabin, refined driving dynamics and – in this Touring guise – relatively palatable value. If you think you'll use the third row regularly it's the car for you.
Otherwise, cross-shop this pair alongside the Kia Sorento and you're laughing.
Mazda CX-9 Touring
Price (before on-road costs)
Price as tested (before ORC)
2.5-litre turbocharged petrol
2.0-litre turbocharged petrol
170kW at 5000rpm
132kW at 3900 to 6000rpm
420Nm at 2000rpm
320Nm at 1400 to 3940rpm
Fuel economy (claimed)
8.8L/100km 91 RON
7.6L/100km 95 RON
Fuel economy (CA figure)
Seven-speed dual-clutch (DSG)
On-demand all-wheel drive
On-demand all-wheel drive
Suspension type front/rear
Cargo space behind 3rd row
Cargo space behind 2nd row
Cargo space behind 1st row
Tyres and wheels
Braked towing capacity
Tow ball download max
Mazda CX-9 Touring
8.0-inch touchscreen with rotary dial
8.0-inch touchscreen with swiping
Apple CarPlay/Android Auto
Bluetooth, USB (x4) and AUX-in
Bluetooth, voice control, USB (x1), AUX-in and SD slots (x2)
Alcantara and leather
Front seating heating
Key proximity sensor
Full adaptive LED
Autonomous Emergency Braking
Yes (forward and reverse)
Rear cross-traffic alert
$5900 Launch Pack:
Click the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser