Mazda’s bet-hedging large-SUV policy sees it park two distinct family truckers alongside each other in showrooms, with the CX-8 appealing to diesel fans for whom the petrol CX-9 just won’t do.
There’s a risk the seven-seat Mazda CX-8 could be a little confusing to customers. On the one hand, Mazda already has the well-established CX-9 to look after family buyers seeking extra seats and space, and on the other, the slightly smaller CX-5 caters to buyers who don’t need the same amount of passenger capacity.
That’s easy enough, but the CX-8 straddles the dimensions of both. The width is closer to that of the CX-5, the wheelbase imitates the CX-9, and the length falls in between both. That’s the first quirk.
The second is the engine. In a CX-5, you can have petrol or diesel power, but the CX-9 is powered by a turbo-petrol only. Rather than adapt its existing diesel engine to suit the CX-9, Mazda developed the CX-8 as a diesel model.
Muddying the waters further, the CX-9 is primarily intended for the US, but the narrower CX-8 has been devised for Japan. Australia’s thirst for Mazda models – anomalous amongst global markets – means the local arm has been granted access to both.
The CX-8 comes to Australia in Sport trim with a choice of front- or all-wheel drive, or more plush Asaki trim paired solely with all-wheel drive. The price-leading CX-8 Sport 2WD pictured here kicks off from $42,490 plus on-road costs.
For that you’ll get Mazda’s 2.2-litre twin-turbo diesel engine (as seen in the CX-5 and Mazda 6) producing 140kW at 4500rpm and 450Nm at 2000rpm, and an official fuel-consumption rating of 5.7L/100km. Power is sent to the front wheels via a six-speed automatic – if you opt for the all-wheel-drive version, you can add a further $4000.
While the Asaki pumps up the premium touches, even the Sport comes loaded with equipment including proximity key and push-button start, electric park brake, reverse camera and rear park sensors, leather-trimmed steering wheel, three-zone climate control, and colour head-up display.
Although the cabin is trimmed with cloth seats, they still carry a reasonably premium look and feel, with a sturdiness that should see them pass the test of time under family conditions. LED headlights and 17-inch alloy wheels also feature.
Mazda’s usually strong safety standing sees six airbags, stability control, forward and reverse autonomous emergency braking (which Mazda calls Smart City Brake Support), lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist, driver-attention monitoring, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, plus traffic sign recognition linked to the speed limiter and distance-keeping radar cruise control.
Under the ANCAP safety rating system, the CX-8 carries a five-star rating as per 2018 test criteria.
Despite having recently rolled out Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility in the CX-9 range, at the time of testing the CX-8 was yet to get this update, which means you have to add Mazda’s $495 retrofit kit to go with the 7.0-inch touchscreen, AM/FM/DAB+ radio, satellite navigation, and six-speaker audio.
Our tip would be to strike a deal with your selling dealer to get this installed for free. It’s ridiculous that it should still be off the standard features list by now.
Screen size is right on the edge of acceptable as some competitors upsize to 8.0 inches and beyond. Mazda seems to be dragging the chain updating the system too. It feels laggy and can get bogged down loading navigation or swapping between functions at times.
Otherwise, the dash design and its layout make good ergonomic sense, it is easy to use, and has all the nice soft-touch and faux-metal surfaces to pass itself off as premium.
Despite being narrower than the CX-9, the CX-8 hardly feels more compact in the first two seating rows. There’s real big-SUV space in either row, although with child seats in the rear every millimetre counts, and it's here that the narrower CX-8 (overall 129mm less than a CX-9) could reveal itself.
The middle-row seats, arranged in a stadium style, are higher than those in the front and provide excellent outward visibility. The centre seat itself feels higher again, though, making it feel awkwardly lofty.
Row three is also more compact. Naturally, in a package that’s 175mm shorter, something’s got to give. There’s still useful space in the third row, but my 168cm frame is starting to push the limits of who the rear seat is designed to carry.
That said, whereas many seven-seat SUVs offer firm, thinly padded pews, the CX-8 provides a cushier bench. The flipside is a lack of ventilation outlets for the rearmost passengers. Loading is at least easy enough with long rear doors and simple forward-sliding second row seats.
In the boot, the CX-8 claims 209L of cargo space behind the third row to the window line, and an extra 33L under the boot floor. Fold the third row into the floor and the claim rises to 742L to the roof. The space is long, wide and easy to load, but frustratingly there’s no cargo blind to hide things away.
Storage in the door pockets is generous, and there are plenty of cupholders to pick from throughout the cabin, but innovative storage solutions aren’t tucked about the cabin the way you might find in something like a Toyota Kluger. That makes the CX-8 less space-efficient than it ought to be for small carry-on odds and ends.
Dynamically, the CX-8 delivers more than the average SUV probably needs to. You won’t confuse it for a sports car at all, but on the road the CX-8 does a decent job of hiding its SUV heft and driving more like a typical station wagon.
A comfortable ride blots out most of the sharp imperfections that litter Aussie road surfaces, body control is well resolved, and the steering is agile without being darty or nervous. It’s obviously more road-focussed than adventure-ready, but the compromise will suit a majority of buyers.
It seems that Mazda’s past road-noise disgraces are now behind it, with a hushed interior over most road surfaces and little in the way of engine noise. Push it higher into the rev range and the 2.2-litre diesel engine even manages to sound a touch more evocative than your average gruff and rattly diesel engine.
Official consumption claims see Mazda rate the 2WD CX-8 at 5.7L/100km, but on test – skewed a little more towards around-town runs – the CX-8 Sport used a higher 7.8L/100km. Not terrible given the size of the CX-8, but a decent way north of the claims.
Low-down torque is plentiful, giving the CX-8 brisk initial acceleration, but it's better not to stray beyond the strong mid-range, as the top end doesn’t feel as robust or resolute as lower-RPM running.
Add rain-slicked tarmac or gravel roads to the mix and the absence of all-wheel-drive traction is rarely an issue. The CX-8’s chassis and front-end geometry help keep things in order, but give it too much throttle off the line and it's possible to elicit some tug through the steering.
If you’re not aiming for weekend campsites or extended country use, the CX-8 2WD is certainly up to the task, but the all-paw option is helpful for less urban-focussed buyers.
The six-speed auto does a decent job of simply fading into the background with smooth disruption-free gear changes. It can feel a little docile if you like to drive with verve (maybe you’ve dropped the kids off for a day with their grandparents and found yourself on a nearby mountain road?), but Sport mode helps sharpen responses without being overly aggressive.
Changes made earlier this year see Mazda’s range covered by a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty. Capped-price servicing is available at 12-month/10,000km intervals tallying $1737 for the first five visits; however, Mazda also sets brake fluid and cabin filter replacement as separate additional charges that add an extra $233 to the maintenance bill in the first five years.
Although Mazda’s two-car, seven-seat SUV approach may not be the clearest way to spread buyer appeal (surely a diesel CX-9 would do the trick?), the CX-8 not only appeals to diesel buyers, but also adds a segment-splitting in-betweener.
More spacious and versatile than the CX-5, less bulky and easier to handle than a CX-9, the CX-8 could be the right-sized step for buyers who don’t fit with either of Mazda’s other family-car options.
Although it’s still only early in the CX-8’s life cycle, sales of the diesel SUV are tracking around half those of the CX-9. Combined, the two Mazdas outsold cars like the diversely different Hyundai Santa Fe, Isuzu MU-X and Subaru Outback in the large-SUV segment for the month of October, though still didn’t trouble the individual results for either the Toyota Kluger or Prado at the top of the segment.
Perhaps the positioning as a sub-CX-9 seems a little strange, but that doesn’t make the CX-8 a lesser SUV in any significant way. Impressively presented inside, with decent diesel performance and more than enough room to fill the role of a family hauler, the CX-8 simply doesn’t come off second best.
As an alternative, both in terms of external dimensions and fuel type, the CX-8 serves as a complementary addition to the Mazda range that – although probably not strictly necessary – looks to have found its own comfortable groove.