Mazda is the second most popular vehicle brand in Australia after Toyota, though it has long positioned its cars upmarket from other big-volume players.
The 2019 CX-9 Azami LE is its most premium to date, unless you count the oft-forgotten Eunos experiment. It’s priced $2000 higher than the regular Azami, and picks up some nicer cabin finishes made of wood and Nappa leather.
This range-topper is priced at $68,500 before on-road costs, and at the time of writing is advertised on Mazda's site for a tick over $70,000 on the road. In other words, a clear competitor to the similarly priced Toyota Kluger Grande, Nissan Pathfinder Ti and Holden Acadia LTZ-V.
At the same time, we imagine the company is hoping to entice some prospective Lexus or even Volvo buyers across, too.
For such a big car, the sleek CX-9 sure looks the goods, even three years into this generation's life cycle. There’s no disguising its bulk, but the design does its best to do exactly that, which contrasts it with the brasher, boxier Kluger and Acadia.
The interior quality is bolstered by those butter-soft seats with electric heating and cooling systems, that hand-stitched steering wheel, real wood on the doors and along the transmission tunnel, and further soft leather finishes all over the upper part of the dash. You do feel that little bit more pampered in here.
The interior's colour coordination is more polarising. Personally, I’d suggest the dark red hues inside would go better with silver or grey paint outside.
There aren’t many mod-cons missing from the spec sheet. You get an electric tailgate, a smallish sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, dusk-sensing LED headlights with adaptive high-beam mode that dips when a sensor detects oncoming traffic, auto-folding side mirrors, and a proximity key.
Additional cabin technology includes a head-up display that projects speed and navigation data onto the windscreen, an 8.0-inch centre screen, satellite-navigation, DAB+, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and a 12-speaker Bose sound system.
As we've found with the smaller CX-5, the infotainment system in the CX-9 falls victim to the brand-new Mazda 3's, which has a sharper-looking interface, a larger display and faster loading. However, you can at least still operate this screen by touch, as well as the BMW-style rotary dial between the front seats.
One of the real selling points is the 360-degree camera view, which shows you what sits behind and also gives you an overhead view. Its resolution or clarity could certainly be better, though it's better than nothing. You also get parking sensors at both ends.
The reclining middle-row seats are a high point. They're trimmed in the same soft leather as the front, and the two outboard pews also have electric heating. There's ample head room and leg room for two adults with a smaller individual between them, given the shorter centre seat-base.
You also get a multitude of storage pockets behind the front seats, door bins, a flip-down centre armrest with inbuilt USB point, pull-up sun blinds, and a separate climate-control module to change the rear vent temperature separate to the front occupants' settings.
The middle-row seat-backs fold down 60:40 with the larger portion on the driver's side, and they offer three top tether and two ISOFIX child seat attachment points. Getting access to the third seating row is pretty simple: just pull a lever at the top of the seat and it tilts and slides forwards.
Said third seating row doesn't have great access to ventilation, limited toe room and small side windows. But the entry aperture is decent in size, the seats are well finished, they have comfortable headrests, and you're covered by curtain airbags that run all the way along the side of the vehicle. They also have two top-tether points.
If you're using all three rows of seats, you have 230L of storage behind, enough for a few small bags. Naturally, the third seat row folds flat into the floor, increasing usable space up to the roof to a massive 810L. The boot area is beautifully finished with good quality carpet. The middle seat row also folds almost flat to house longer items.
There's just a space-saving temporary spare wheel under the floor, though in fairness that's de rigueur for the segment.
How does it drive? Power comes from a 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine that's also used in smaller Mazdas such as the Mazda 6 and CX-5. Its peak power output is 170kW, which is lower than its aforementioned rivals with six-cylinder engines, but where it wins is torque (or pulling power).
This figure is 420Nm, at a low 2000rpm, meaning you have good rolling response that belies the small displacement. It's smooth and refined, and punching into gaps or overtaking on highways with a load on board never really presents an issue.
Mazda claims fuel consumption on the combined cycle of 8.8 litres per 100km, though on our mixed loop we were closer to the claimed urban cycle efficiency of 11.4L/100km.
To its credit, the engine happily runs on cheaper 91RON fuel, and a Kluger or Pathfinder is no better on fuel. It's also much more economical than the previous-generation CX-9, for those keen on upgrading.
If you want a diesel, Mazda will point you to its smaller CX-8, since the CX-9 lacks that option. In my experience, that car's 2.2-litre twin-turbo diesel engine with 140kW/450Nm is an absolute benchmark, with more low-down pulling power and better fuel economy, as well as unusually high levels of refinement.
It would be great in this car, particularly for buyers in regional areas who do lots of highway driving, but alas...
The engine is mated to a smooth six-speed automatic transmission that rarely puts a foot wrong, and an on-demand all-wheel-drive system that can divert some engine power to the rear wheels when the car's electronic brain senses the front tyres battling for traction, like it might on a grassy hill at a weekend kid's footy match, or on a trail to a favourite camping spot.
Cheaper versions of the CX-9 can be had with front-wheel drive, but they're also prone to wheel-spin under heavy throttle on wet roads.
Underneath that body there's independent suspension at both ends (struts up front, multi-link rear), passive dampers, steel springs, electric-assisted steering (11.8m turning circle) and disc brakes at each end, measuring 320mm at the front and 325mm at the rear.
Highlights are the excellent noise, vibration and harshness suppression, impressively smooth ride quality given the 20-inch wheels on slim-sidewall tyres, and the decent handling and body control through corners. For a 2000kg crossover, it's actually quite pleasant to drive.
One thing worth flagging is the gross vehicle mass, which denotes the maximum rolling weight the car is legally able to handle. It's 2575kg, which minus the car's actual kerb weight leaves you 575kg of payload to play with. This should be plenty for two adults and five kids, but not seven burly blokes.
Atop this you get a 2000kg braked towing capacity, though the down-ball rating is only 150kg.
Driver-assistance features (rather helpful on a 5.1m-long behemoth like this one) include autonomous emergency braking in forward and reverse, traffic sign recognition, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning and a linked lane-keeping assist system, and blind-spot monitoring – a particularly helpful feature given the presence of said blind spots.
From an ownership perspective, Mazda now offers a five-year warranty with no distance caveat, as well as roadside assist. About time. Service intervals are annual or every 10,000km, meaning most people will need to return to their dealer for servicing more than once per year.
Mazda's capped-price servicing plan quotes pricing for the first five visits of (per visit): $339, $382, $339, $382, and $339. On top of this, you'll pay $89 to replace brake fluid every 40,000km or two years, $90 for a new cabin air filter every two years, and $85 for a new engine air filter after three years.
By contrast, a Kluger's service intervals are either six months or 10,000km, and the first four visits are capped at $180 a pop.
All told, the CX-9 Azami offers what you'd expect for a range-topper. It's pricey for an average family bus, but a heck of a lot more affordable than a premium Euro competitor. It's not without quibbles, but its cabin ambience, road manners and carpark presence make it a winner. It's a family crossover to aspire to, not settle for.