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There's a lot to be said about how far SUVs have come over the past decade or more. The Mazda CX-9 is a prime example of a definitive move towards a premium offering without a premium price tag.
The 2018 Mazda CX-9 is a huge departure from the model it replaces, and leads with Mazda's mantra of a luxury offering at a mass consumer price bracket.
From the outside it's impossible to confuse the CX-9 for anything else with its defined nose that sits pointy and further forward at the top, with a gaping mouth that proudly wears the Mazda wings.
While the CX-9 kicks off from $43,890 (plus on-road costs), the top-specification CX-9 Azami all-wheel drive tested here caps off the range with a price tag of $64,790 (plus on-road costs).
At that price point it competes with cars like the Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited, Land Rover Discovery TD4 S, Mitsubishi Pajero Exceed, Nissan Pathfinder Ti and the Toyota Kluger Grande (two-wheel drive). So it's certainly sitting with some decent company.
Powering the entire CX-9 range is a 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine that produces 170kW of power and 420Nm of torque through a six-speed automatic gearbox. The official fuel consumption figure is 8.8 litres per 100km.
To put those figures into perspective, many manufacturers need to go down the path of turbocharged diesel engines to produce that kind of torque. Mazda achieves it with an efficient four-cylinder engine, which means you have the benefit of torque (the push in the back you get when you accelerate), plus fuel efficiency.
In real-world testing – that's a mix of highway and city driving – we were able to achieve around 9L/100km, which sits within cooee of the official fuel consumption claim.
Don't be deceived by the stylish angles – the Mazda CX-9 is a big car. It comes in at just over five metres long and almost two metres wide. And it needs to be that size to handle the seven passengers it caters for.
If the exterior design wasn't enough for you, just wait until you experience the interior.
The driver-centric cabin offers a commanding view over the road. While the car doesn't sit that much higher than a regular sedan, the seating position makes it feel like you're above traffic, which inspires confidence.
Sitting directly ahead of the driver is a head-up display that shows the current speed, any navigation commands, cruise control information and detected speed sign information.
Atop the dashboard is an 8.o-inch colour infotainment touchscreen that Mazda dubs MZD Connect. It's controlled using a central knob with shortcut buttons surrounding it.
It's an okay infotainment system, but doesn't blow us away. It can be a bit clumsy in terms of functionality, and it lacks key modern features such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – although Mazda says it's working on this technology.
But infotainment aside, the Azami is loaded with kit including:
- Bluetooth integration with internet radio streaming
- Satellite navigation
- Three-zone climate control
- Auto-dimming rear vision mirror
- Blind-spot monitoring
- Keyless start
- Rear-view camera with rear parking sensors and rear cross-traffic alert
- LED fog lamps (front)
- Automatic headlights
- Automatic windscreen wipers
- 8.0-inch MZD Connect touchscreen infotainment system
- Heated front seats with eight-way power adjustment for driver and six-way for front passenger
- Rear centre armrest storage with dual USB inputs
- Leather seats
- 20-inch alloy wheels
- Power tailgate
- Power sliding sunroof
- DAB+ digital radio integration
- Premium Bose 12-speaker sound system with 294W output
- Active driving display
- Two-position memory function for driver’s seat
- Advanced keyless entry
- Front parking sensors
- Radar cruise control with stop/go function
- Adaptive LED headlights
- Driver attention alert
- Lane departure warning
- Lane keeping assistant
- Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) low and high speed (up to 80km/h)
There's plenty of storage space within the front of the cabin and throughout the second and third rows. The second row even features a centre armrest with cup holders and USB connectivity.
Leg and head room in the first row is great with plenty of room to stretch out. It's the same story in the second row, which offers enough room even for adults to relax. The second row has its own climate zone and seat heating for the two outer seats.
Each of the seats in the second row can also be slid forwards or backwards to increase or decrease leg room for third-row occupants.
The third row is strictly a child zone – although adults can fit in there if the second-row seats are slid forward to allow extra room.
Cargo capacity measures in at 230 litres behind the third row when erect, and expands to 810 litres when the third row is stowed. Access to the cargo space is by virtue of a power tailgate.
You would be forgiven for thinking that a 2.5-litre engine may be a bit small for a large 1865kg SUV. Thankfully, the engine works incredibly well, even with a fully loaded car.
Everything from standing-start acceleration through to overtaking is done with ease thanks to the wide torque band on offer. Peak torque comes in from 2000rpm, with a steady band through to redline.
The gearbox is also excellent. The six-speed automatic uses a torque converter, which means there's no clumsy dual-clutch gearbox complicating smooth driving.
There's a $4000 price difference between the CX-9 Azami front-wheel drive and the same specification with all-wheel drive. Is it worth spending the extra money? While it depends on your particular application, the answer is likely to be no. With a braked towing capacity of 2000kg, the CX-9 is unlikely to be a main towing car.
The all-wheel-drive system is also on-demand, which means it only activates the rear axle when the front wheels slip. In 99 per cent of circumstances, you won't have the front wheels losing traction when you're driving in and around the city, and even when you do, the traction control will limit wheel slip.
By not ticking the all-wheel-drive box, you'll use around five per cent less fuel and the car will tip the scales at 67kg less.
On the road, the CX-9 is nimble enough to feel confident behind the wheel, while the steering offers plenty of feedback. The ride is also excellent, meaning that bumps are soaked up with ease and the urban grind is a carefree run.
Running the CX-9 is affordable thanks to capped-price servicing. While the warranty now lags behind a number of Mazda's competitors at just three years and unlimited kilometres, capped-price servicing comes in at $1032 for the first three services (at 10,000km or 12 monthly intervals).
The Mazda CX-9 takes the definition of an affordable luxury SUV to the next level. It's a refined, visually appealing proposition that won't cost the world. There's plenty of room inside, and it's a compelling proposition in terms of drivetrain and drivability.