Seven-seat SUVs are fast becoming Australia’s must-have family utility tool. Station wagons are passé, and the flexibility to add two extra passengers at a moment’s notice is a lure too strong to ignore.
To put some of the more urban-friendly family haulers to the test, we’ve assembled the Toyota Kluger and Mazda CX-9 and aimed them directly at the face of the recently introduced Holden Acadia – Holden's new family hero arriving via American subsidiary, GMC.
With petrol engines in each, a choice of front- or all-wheel-drive drivetrains, and of course three rows of seating as standard, these three large SUVs are the new stand-ins where big sedans once used to dominate.
We’ve put diesel family cars through their paces previously, but until now these three were forced to sit on the sidelines. Now their time has come to take to the field.
Price and spec
In mainstream market segments, it’s unusual to find mould-breaking variances in price or specification. After all, no brand wants to find itself positioned at a disadvantage relative to its competition.
Holden obviously had this in mind when it put the Acadia range together, with a three-variant range positioned like-for-like to match the three Kluger variants available. Mazda, however, beats a slightly different drum, with five versions of the CX-9 to pick from.
For this test we’ve assembled the mid-grade models: Kluger GXL, Acadia LTZ and CX-9 Touring, with just over $3500 separating the list price of the three.
At the cheaper end of the scale, the CX-9 Touring starts from $51,390 before on-road costs. That buy-in price nets features like: LED headlights, 18-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry and start, distance-keeping cruise control with stop-and-go functionality, front and rear park sensors, lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, forward and reverse autonomous emergency braking, six airbags, and traffic sign recognition.
The next step up takes you to the Acadia LTZ from $53,490 plus on-road costs (although $53,990 drive-away pricing is available as an open-ended offer) with inclusions like: 18-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry with remote start, cruise control with auto speed limiter, front and rear park sensors, self-parking assist, lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, forward AEB with pedestrian and cyclist detection, seven airbags and traffic sign recognition.
The most expensive of the trio, the Kluger GXL asks for $54,950 plus ORCs and includes rear privacy glass, 18-inch alloys, keyless entry and start, distance-keeping cruise control (without stop-and-go), rear park sensors, lane-departure warning with steering assist, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, forward autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection and seven airbags.
Each model comes standard in front-wheel-drive form at those list prices, but each can also be upgraded with all-wheel drive for an extra $4000 apiece.
|Model||Toyota Kluger||Mazda CX-9||Holden Acadia|
|Apple CarPlay / Android Auto||No/No||Yes/Yes||Yes/Yes|
|Power front seats||Driver||Driver/Pass||Driver/Pass|
|Climate control||3 zone||3 zone||3 zone|
|Rear air vents||3 rows||2 rows||3 rows|
Yes, w/ remote start
|Model||Toyota Kluger||Mazda CX-9||Holden Acadia|
|Adaptive cruise||Yes||Yes, w/stop and go||No|
Despite following a very similar form factor, with a closely matched set of interior specs, a deep dive into each of these SUVs reveals some important differences. Some could be make-or-break in your decision, but others might just take some time to adjust to.
All three come with leather trim, for a touch of luxury, but also potentially easier to clean for family life.
Starting at the all-important third row, the Kluger has an ace up its sleeve with the widest bench of the three. Overseas versions of the Kluger are configured to squeeze three passengers into the rearmost row, but for Australia there are only two seatbelts.
That means less need for back-back passengers to rub elbows, although they don’t quite get to centre themselves with headrests and seatbelts remaining offset for the original three-passenger layout.
Holden stakes its own claim to third-row superiority with a decently spacious seat that’s not short on head room amongst its peers, provides a slightly higher seating position for a more natural seated stance, and gives impressive outward visibility through large square-cut windows.
Both the Kluger and Acadia provide third-row ventilation outlets, with Holden also providing a USB point to keep devices topped up on the go, but isn’t as well-furnished with third-row cup holders as the other two.
Mazda draws the short straw for accommodation. It’s not compact by any means, but is a little more snug than the other two, with a lower rear roof line. That’s countered by the most softly padded and luxurious seat – but it’s limited to use by shorter-statured travellers.
The CX-9 also excludes proper three-row ventilation. There are under-seat outlets in the second row to provide air to the rear, but nothing at face level.
Access to the rear is via 60:40 split fold seats in all three, but whereas Toyota and Mazda place their smaller-section access on the left-hand, or kerbside, of the car, Holden fits the easy-access portion on the right, or traffic side.
On the other hand, Toyota and Mazda use a flip-forward access arrangement, meaning a child seat can’t be easily fitted while maintaining third-row access. Holden uses a clever lift and slide system that maintains seat backrest angle relative to the base and allows a child seat or booster to remain in place, though only the right seat gets this function, not the left seat as well (it’s a regular flip-forward seat).
Moving forward into the middle row and accommodation is much more closely matched. All three provide genuine big-car spaciousness, plenty of head and leg room, sliding seats with reclinable backrests, and ISOFIX plus top-tether seat anchors.
The Acadia and CX-9 offer a stadium-styled raised seat; it’s less pronounced in the Holden, but more obvious in the Mazda. Again, the Mazda feels a bit more premium with richer materials and nicer finishes throughout, while the Holden sits starkly at the other end of the scale.
Holden monsters the other two in terms of small item storage with three separate door pockets in each door, plus a generous centre bin. Toyota is tighter on rear seat oddment storage than Mazda, but again neither offers USB access, unlike Holden.
Climate controls for the second row can be found on the back of the centre console of each.
Toyota might not go overboard with versatility in the back, but up front the Kluger is made for pack-rats.There’s a wide open drawer all the way across the dash, with a pass-through for cables so you can plug your phone or iPod in with less clutter.
There’s a nice, clear layout to the major controls, but the 8.0-inch nav’ system feels a bit out of date. Toyota doesn’t do smartphone mirroring yet either, so things like Apple CarPlay or Android Auto aren’t catered for, but CDs (if you still listen to them) are.
There’s not too much to break up the blackness, but some silver highlights and the odd bit of contrasting brown adds some variation. More importantly, though, slide back the centre console lid and there’s a huge storage space big enough to stow lunchboxes, handbags, iPads, confiscated toys or anything else you might want to keep hidden from view. The driver gets a power-adjustable seat, but the front passenger doesn’t.
Mazda pushes a more premium look and feel inside with extra chrome and glossy black bits. There’s not as much space for carry-on bits and pieces, which is somewhat disappointing given the broad external dimensions of the bulky centre console.
Mazda’s infotainment does finally include CarPlay and Android Auto, on top of being accessed through a touchscreen plus a supplementary rotary controller making it much easier to operate on the go. The factory system can be a little slow-loading at times, though, but at least it’s simple to use.
The CX-9 Touring is the only one of the three to come with a head-up display for the driver, meaning less time looking away from the road.
The Acadia presents with a much more down-to-earth ambience. The quality of finishes takes a step back compared to the other two; there’s a lot of dull black and silver plastics, and an ’80s-era laminex wood effect used on the console and doors.
It just doesn’t feel as wide as the Kluger or CX-9 up front either. Major controls are large, which is handy if you live in a snowy area and need to use them with gloves on, but creates a bit of a light-truck look in a family car.
Holden’s latest-generation touchscreen takes a leap forward with a fresh new user interface, crisp graphics and almost zero perceptible lag. Voice inputs are more natural and smartphone mirroring via CarPlay and Android Auto is standard.
Head to the boot and none of the three is oversupplied with capacity with all three rows in place. Each uses varied methods and point of measure (there’s no set industry standard for boot volume, annoyingly), but here are a few details that stand out.
The Kluger’s tailgate seems to move at the speed of a pitch drop, but is the only one with a 60:40 third row, which might be handy for some. There’s room to stow the cargo blind under the floor, and a cargo hook in each side.
The CX-9 misses out on a powered tailgate, and it’s a big heavy door with a high resting height too. The floor is a little longer, but tapers away at the corners.
On the backs of the seats you’ll find top-tether child seat points that aren’t in the Kluger; there’s no cargo blind either, but you do still get bag hooks plus a 12V power socket.
The Acadia frees up a fraction more space and is loaded with a 12V plug, but misses out on bag hooks, and if you want a cargo blind you have to purchase one as an accessory. The second row can be dropped from inside the boot, though, which is very handy too, plus it features top-tether seat anchorage points.
|Model||Toyota Kluger||Mazda CX-9||Holden Acadia|
|Towing capacity, braked||2000kg||2000kg||2000kg|
|Towing capacity, unbraked||700kg||750kg||750kg|
It’s a case of two against one in this line-up. Toyota and Holden stick with a traditional big V6 engine, but Mazda instead serves up a turbocharged four-cylinder.
There are no engine options either, it’s one-and-done across the range. Buyers who prefer diesel can look elsewhere within each brand’s range.
The results are staggered with Mazda’s 2.5-litre turbo the least powerful with 170kW of power, stepping up to the 3.5-litre Toyota with 218kW and the 3.6-litre Holden topping the list with 231kW.
Looking at torque – arguably the more important metric for big heavy SUVs – shuffles the pecking order somewhat. Mazda leads with 420Nm from a low 2000rpm, Toyota sits on 350Nm and Holden on 367Nm at 4700rpm and 5000rpm respectively.
Connected to those engines are a six-speed automatic in the CX-9, an eight-speeder in the Kluger and a nine-speed auto in the Acadia. Despite the differences in gear count, there’s no real gap in the basic operation of each.
All three use a torque converter auto, all three step off the line smoothly, and can be easily regulated for low-speed shuffling in forward and reverse. All three react positively when asked to pick up the pace, which isn’t always true of dual-clutch and CVT-style autos found in some other vehicles.
In low-load conditions, at higher speeds over mild undulations, the Acadia can shuffle between gears more frequently, whereas the Mazda leans on its available torque and shows far less indecision. On the open road, the Toyota’s transmission tends to be more settled, however around town the Kluger tends to spend more time settling on the right gear for the job.
Ultimately, the CX-9 feels the most robust of the three, with peak torque on tap at a far more accessible point of the rev range, and much less struggling with a full complement of passengers.
That’s not to say that either the Acadia or Kluger feel overwhelmed, there’s sufficient reserves of power and torque in both when lightly loaded, but extracting that little bit more – be it loaded up, or for overtaking – means having to dig deep, and at odds with the effortless and refined feel of the CX-9.
Officially, fuel consumption claims for the AWD versions of the Kluger (9.5L/100km), Acadia (9.3L/100km) and CX-9 (8.8L/100km) keep the same order, but on test each came out higher at 12.8, 12.6, and 10.2L/100km in mixed-cycle driving (please note, the CX-9 used in this comparison was a front-wheel-drive model, improving its results slightly – Mazda was unable to provide an AWD Touring for assessment).
|Model||Toyota Kluger||Mazda CX-9||Holden Acadia|
|Engine||3.5-litre V6||2.5-litre 4cyl turbo||3.6-litre V6|
|Transmission||8-speed auto||6-speed auto||9-speed auto|
|Drive||FWD, opt AWD||FWD, opt AWD||FWD, opt AWD|
Ride and handling
The three contenders in this comparison draw the closest together in the ride and handling stakes. It’s unlikely any one of them would be chosen for its on-limit handling, so analysis here is heavily skewed towards overall ride comfort.
That’s not to say that any displays particularly errant handling traits. If you do intend to drive with some verve, there’s still moderate body roll from all three. A vaguer, less weighted feel from the Kluger’s steering, and a more nimble and accurate steering feel in the Mazda, if you’re really putting them through their paces.
More importantly, the ride comfort and quality are carefully tuned to ensure the comfort of all on board.
The Kluger is, ever so slightly, the softest and most undulating of the three. It will soak up the worst that Aussie back roads can throw at it, or happily iron out the myriad speed bumps and spoon drains that litter Aussie streets. It also bobs around a little bit before settling, and feels a touch more wallowy or ponderous at higher speeds.
Holden engineered a suspension tune specifically for local conditions, tweaking the Acadia compared to its GMC-badged counterpart in America.
The local team has done a spot-on job of balancing ride plushness with body control, making the Acadia feel more compact and nimble than it might otherwise be for its size.
In LTZ-spec, the Acadia uses passive dampers, while the higher-grade LTZ-V moves to an adaptive system, however the LTZ version feels more comfortable and more settled. Body control and bump recovery are more accurate than the pillowy Kluger.
Mazda’s ride is by far the plushest of the three. While the other two don’t ever feel like they can’t cope with uneven surfaces, the CX-9 goes one step further with an almost magic carpet ride. It’s also quite serene with a hushed interior across most road surfaces.
Its steering has the most positive feel and consistent weight of the trio too: still pleasant enough to wield through tight spaces without being a chore, more planted and feeling secure on the open road.
Service and warranty
From the first of January 2019, Toyota joined Holden and Mazda in offering a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty across its range. If you keep your Kluger serviced within Toyota’s dealer network, an extra two years of engine and drivetrain coverage will also be applied.
Holden and Mazda stick to five years' coverage in total. Vehicles used for commercial purposes have kilometre limits imposed: 200,000km for Holden, 160,000km for Toyota, while Mazda offers its unlimited-distance cover for all users.
Each brand has its own version of a capped-price service schedule, so that you have a better idea what you’ll be forking over when it comes time to visit your dealer. If you opt for the Kluger, you’ll have to stop in every six months or 10,000km at $180 per visit for the first four services (or $720 at the end of two years).
Over the same period, the Acadia (at 12-month/12,000km intervals) will have racked up $658 of service bills, while the CX-9 will be $800 (Mazda lists brake fluid replacement as an additional charge and will add this cost on top of the standard capped service fee, though it’s included above for comparative purposes).
After five years, Holden will have had its hand out for $1535 compared to Mazda’s ask of $2028, while Toyota’s lack of an extended fixed-price program means it might be wise to shop around between nearby dealers if you can.
The differences separating these three family SUVs are so small they’re almost non-existent. No, the Kluger, CX-9 and Acadia aren’t identical by any means, but where one might pull ahead in one area, another will overtake it based on a different criterion.
Individual owners will provide their own weighting to each of the sections covered in this review, and may reach a different verdict.
On price and spec, the cheapest but by no means poorly equipped Mazda takes the lead. On the strength of safety, Holden brings the most up-to-date technology. Although, all cars carry five-star ANCAP ratings, albeit awarded in different years, meaning slight differences in assessment criteria.
The Kluger scores a polished finish on the strength, space and practicality of its first- and third-row seating, and boot, but Holden takes the blue ribbon for its second-row versatility and clever third-row access, even if it is on the ‘wrong’ side. On presentation and luxury, Mazda impresses with an interior that looks more like it belongs in a limo than a big family wagon.
If on-road performance is likely to be your guiding light, the torquey turbo engine, impressive overall refinement, and well-cushioned ride of the CX-9 will be hard to go past. Add in tech like a head-up display (not found in the Kluger or Acadia) and adaptive cruise control (missing from the Acadia), and the big Mazda is something of a consummate grand tourer.
If running costs are your main point of concern, you might lean to Holden’s more cost-effective service schedule, or perhaps Mazda’s fuel efficiency will delight family accountants.
As you can see, there’s no clear-cut winner. There are strong points and low points for each, and the very closely matched nature of this segment of the market means there are no clear leaders or long-way-off followers – the separation is in degrees of difference.
If you like Toyota’s natty sort-and-store interior then it’s the right one. If you like the bluff looks of the Acadia, you won’t miss out on anything critical elsewhere. Or if you’re in a ‘finer things in life’ mood, the plush CX-9 would be the right fit.
Looking at the nine main areas touched on in this comparison (price and spec, safety, first row including infotainment, second row, third row, boot, drivetrain, ride and handling, service and warranty), each of the contenders racked up three first-place finishes. It doesn’t get much closer than that.
Ultimately, though, there must be a winner – not to mention a third-place getter. In this instance, the bronze medal goes to the Toyota Kluger GXL. Just.
With price counting against it, a few less advanced safety features, a question mark over long-term ownership costs, and drivetrain and ride characteristics that trail the pack, the Kluger wasn’t able to shine even with a roomy and practical cabin.
Despite putting up a worthy battle, the Holden Acadia couldn’t come out on top either. Its clever middle-row access point deserves praise, but it also deserves to be swapped to the other side of the car or implemented on both sides. Interior presentation also looks and feels behind what the segment and pricepoint commands with too many low-rent touches.
Credit where it’s due, though, Holden’s AEB is the only one to include both pedestrian and cyclist detection, semi-automated parking is a handy feature, and the slick infotainment system is intuitive – not to mention the most family-friendly USB ports throughout the cabin.
As a follow-up to the dated Captiva, the larger, more versatile Acadia makes Holden a genuine contender in the large-SUV sector.
That leaves the top of the podium to Mazda, not on the basis of the strongest finish, but rather because of the least third-place results per section. There are downsides, like a lack of third row face-level ventilation, which gave the CX-9 its only real thumbs-down.
Otherwise, a punchy engine, respectable fuel consumption, quiet cruising and a plush ride make the CX-9 Touring a real road-going champ. Some interior versatility and storage has been traded for an interior that’s roomy, superbly comfortable, and closer to a prestige car than any other mainstream seven-seater.
Mazda’s ongoing addition of safety tech over the CX-9’s lifetime means the Touring doesn’t miss any major inclusions demanded of the segment. Having boosted already standard AEB with a higher speed threshold and pedestrian detection as part of a running change in 2017, lane keeping, radar cruise and traffic sign recognition joined the spec sheet (for lower-grade models) in 2018. Commendable.
Close calls don’t get much closer than this, though, meaning if you’re in the market for a big family seven-seater, there’s no wrong choice out of this trio, only three barely different right choices.