Car reviews - Mazda - CX-9 - Azami AWD
Meaningful improvements to safety and ease-of-use, heaps of space for all passengers, boot capacity with three seating rows deployed, excellent ride quality and body control, surefooted and stable dynamics, quiet and refined on the move
Room for improvement
All-wheel-drive system allows too much front-end wheelspin, uncomfortable front seats, tailgate opening height forces tall people to stoop when loading, fuel consumption
Mazda made a few small tweaks to the CX-9 and the family-friendliness gains are huge
15 Aug 2018
IN AUGUST 2017 Mazda made a few tweaks to its CX-9 seven-seat SUV range, including upgraded autonomous emergency braking technology that can detect pedestrians and operate at higher speeds.
Safety is a high priority for family buyers considering a CX-9 and any improvement in this area is welcome.
Outside of emergency situations, the biggest everyday difference to CX-9 buyers will come from the addition of an extra pair of child restraint anchorages plus easier access to the third seating row.
And when their CX-9 is not full of bickering offspring, parents will enjoy enhanced tranquillity in transit courtesy of the additional sound insulation fitted as part of this update.
Some of the other changes were not quite as successful. Read on to learn more.
Price and equipment
The Mazda CX-9 range opens at $43,890 plus on-road costs for the front-drive Sport, but we went straight to the top of the tree with an all-wheel-drive Azami priced at $64,790. These figures include the range-wide $1400 hike that accompanied the August 2017 upgrade.
As mentioned, in return for the extra coin is upgraded autonomous emergency braking (AEB) that includes pedestrian detection and the ability to operate at speeds between four–80km/h (up from four–30km/h).
Higher-spec GT and Azami variants also get traffic sign recognition and heated rear seats.
In addition to the AEB upgrade (it also works when the car is in reverse), there is standard rear parking sensors with cross-traffic alert and blind-spot monitoring across the CX-9 range.
Other inclusions comprise a reversing camera, satellite navigation and three-zone climate control.
The flagship Azami we drove also came with leather upholstery, heated power-adjustable front seats with memory, a larger 7.0-inch multimedia screen with premium audio and DAB+ digital radio, front parking sensors, a head-up display, adaptive cruise control, dusk-sensing adaptive LED headlights, rain-sensing wipers, driver fatigue monitoring, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assistance, a powered tailgate, keyless entry and start, a sunroof, a second-row centre armrest with extra USB ports, fog lights, and 20-inch alloy wheels.
With cream leather upholstery (black is also available), heaps of equipment and Mazda’s usual high standard of fit, finish, tactility and cabin presentation, our top-spec CX-9 felt every bit the $70,000 car – which is the size of the cheque you’ll have to sign once the premium paint and on-road costs are taken into account.
As a result, the CX-9 does a convincing job of bridging the gap between mainstream and luxury brands. That said, no single person or couple is going to buy one as they might a status symbol such as the BMW X5 or Mercedes GLE.
But we were impressed most by the added flexibility enabled by the inclusion of top-tether points for attaching child restraints on both of the rearmost seats. The vast majority of seven-seat SUVs don’t have this facility, so the updated CX-9 presents more potential seating combination options than most.
What’s more, we found it was possible to easily access the third row with child restraints installed in the central row, provided they are attached using the Isofix anchorages on the two outboard positions (using the conventional seatbelt attachment gets in the way). It’s a shame, then, that we found attaching the Isofix difficult due to obstruction by layers of upholstery.
But tilting and sliding the central seats forward is easy, with a light action that can be done with one hand (another plus of this running change to the CX-9). Anyone who has built up their muscles doing the same task in a Toyota Prado will probably use enough force to send the seat through the windscreen the first time they encounter one of these new-fangled Mazdas.
With a 186cm driver up front and a same-sized passenger behind them, there is enough legroom for another vertically endowed person in the third row. But they do suffer for headroom back there. Adults of average height would be absolutely fine.
A tall person would also be able to occupy the central position of the middle row, but the hump-like cushion and theatre-style raised height of the central bench does sit them uncomfortably high. The transmission tunnel in the floor means they borrow toe-room from passengers either side, though to its credit Mazda has designed the CX-9’s sunroof to not intrude on rear headroom.
The CX-9’s rear doors are exceptionally long and the backrest of the central bench is located forward of the C-pillar, which is unusual. It all makes getting in and out of the third row easy. The fact central row passengers sit up high also gives them brilliant visibility.
It’s not at all claustrophobic in the third row, either, which is just as well as the CX-9 has no air-vents back there, relying on airflow from vents in the other two rows.
The CX-9 neither looks as big as it is, or feels it to drive, so the amount of interior space feels nothing short of miraculous.
With both rear rows of seats deployed there is still an admirable amount of boot space and there are deep plastic-lined compartments under false floors at each edge. These were ideal for storing youngsters’ muddy shoes and wet clothes, or securing smaller shopping bags (there are also fold-out hooks for bigger ones).
However, the tailgate does not open high enough for tall folk to avoid stooping when loading in items.
Storage throughout the cabin is pretty good, with the glovebox and centre console bin both average in size and supplemented by a deep recess in front of the gear selector and broad door bins all round.
We found the angle of the in-door bottle holders a bit unnatural to use and struggled to fit taller vessels but the cupholders in the centre console are generous and the rear doors have much better bottle holding abilities. There’s also a sunglasses holder in the ceiling.
For those in the central row, there are double map pockets on the back of both front seats and a thoughtful lidded tray in the fold-down armrest with USB charging points inside. There are also two good-sized cupholders in there.
Right at the back, both seats get a cupholder and a large rectangular storage recess in the wheelarch trims.
Mazda’s CX-9 ads carry the slogan, “get it for your family, drive it for yourself” but the front seat comfort is atrocious. The passenger side is even worse than that of the driver. Occupants with a whole 30cm height difference both suffered. It’s a Mazda thing, unfortunately. But the centre and rear rows are really comfy, particularly the plush-cushioned, reclining former.
We can gripe and moan about Mazda’s dated infotainment system as well, but once accustomed to its quirks it is pretty easy to use and functional. The crisp clicky action of its rotary controller – and the air-con controls for that matter – is satisfying and expensive feeling, like the bezel of a quality watch.
The CX-9’s head-up display is the stuff of luxury cars, with its crisp colour graphics and broad range of information. The new traffic sign recognition is at least as good as that of a BMW, too, and unlike many similar systems it’s still visible while wearing polarised sunglasses.
Mazdas often get criticised for noise, vibration and harshness but this updated CX-9 has progressed in that area too. The company claims it has reduced noise for second- and third-row passengers by about five per cent, and while we’re unable to verify that without back-to-back testing we did enjoy a peaceful drive. Most telling was the fact we found the next car we drove – from a German luxury brand no less – to be contrastingly noisy.
But what we took away from our week with the CX-9 from an interior perspective was how easy it was to live with as a family. Being a parent is hard, and the designers of this big Mazda seem to have acknowledged that.
Engine and transmission
For this update, no changes were to the 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbo-petrol engine that debuted in the current-generation CX-9, or its six-speed torque converter automatic transmission companion.
The CX-9 engine develops 170kW of power at 5000rpm, with 420Nm of torque arriving at 2000rpm. It’s a flexible engine and difficult to detect lag, providing instant and plentiful performance on demand. There’s a deep throb and a bit of vibration through the pedal under hard acceleration but otherwise it is smooth and refined.
Mazda’s six-speed auto has been around for a while now, but this decisive little unit still impresses with smooth yet positive and quick shifts. In the torquey CX-9, it’s also superbly calibrated, to the extent we could simply leave it in Sport mode during out dynamic test and concentrate on steering and braking. For general use it’s so seamless and intuitive that we had to force ourselves to observe its behaviour for the purpose of this test.
Ride and handling
Even on the 20-inch wheels of our top-spec tester, the CX-9 rides exceptionally well. There’s just enough firmness for it to feel solidly surefooted and to resist the high-speed wallow and roll that afflicts some of its competitors.
As with the way it shrinks around the driver, the CX-9 feels nimbler than a car of its size ought to, which makes it utterly unintimidating round town and satisfyingly swift along a sweeping country road.
The perfectly weighted steering has a beautifully natural feel too. Like so many aspects of driving the CX-9, it feels so intuitive that we had to consciously assess it. It’s reasonably communicative, if a bit vague in the wet, and we noticed it kicking back a bit on poorly surfaced corners.
Gravel performance was also good, the surefooted stable feel on bitumen translating arguably better on dirt than on wet bitumen. Braking was impressive on unsealed roads as well.
So far so good. And as if it needed to improve the CX-9’s already able dynamics, Mazda continued the range-wide rollout of its ‘G-vectoring control’ to its largest model for this update.
What we did notice was how much our CX-9 would wheelspin and scrabble when darting out of junctions, particularly in the wet. We even checked underneath to make sure it was the all-wheel-drive model Mazda had advised us it was.
Mazda claims its on-demand i-Activ AWD system is predictive and proactive, but two different drivers regularly caught it out during our week with it.
When we deliberately floored it out of a T-junction in the rain, the duration of wheelspin was embarrassing. Either it’s a bit rubbish or on our car it was broken. But there were no warning lights on the dashboard.
Based on this experience we’d not bother paying the $4000 premium Mazda levies for AWD.
Safety and servicing
In 2016 the Mazda CX-9 attained a full five-star ANCAP crash-test rating, with an overall score of 35.87 out of 37. This breaks down into 14.87 out of 16 scored in the frontal offset test, a full 16 points in the side impact test, a perfect two out of two in the pole test, the full three out of three for seatbelt reminders and both whiplash and pedestrian protection deemed ‘good’.
The CX-9’s safety equipment list includes six airbags (dual frontal, side and curtains that protect all three rows), anti-lock brakes, electronic stability, traction and trailer sway control, blind spot monitoring, a reversing camera, roll stability control and seatbelt warnings for all seats.
Service intervals on a CX-9 Azami AWD are 12 months or 10,000km, with the first five priced alternately at $332 and $375 under Mazda’s capped-price maintenance program. These prices were correct at the time of writing and do not include brake fluid ($86 every 40,000km or 2 years) or cabin filter ($91 every 40,000km).
Driving the CX-9, particularly in top-spec Azami trim, it feels as though Mazda has thought of everything.
We’re glad they rushed out the update tested here – just a year after the model’s launch – because it includes really useful additions that make sense – and a big difference – to the CX-9’s family-friendly appeal, not to mention the added safety benefits.
No car is perfect but the big Mazda’s disappointments were limited.
Just make sure you can cop the CX-9’s front seat design before you buy, as we really struggled to get comfortable.
Kia Sorento GT-Line ($58,990 plus on-road costs)
All things considered, including how much we liked the CX-9, we reckon the Sorento is Australia’s best bitumen-biased seven-seat SUV – not to mention its market-leading seven-year warranty. What’s more, this classy South Korean feels as solidly built as a bank vault.
Toyota Kluger Grande AWD ($69,617 plus on-road costs)
The boofy Kluger feels sumptuous in flagship Grande trim and has masses of interior space. Creamy smooth courtesy of Lexus-derived V6 petrol and eight-speed auto mechanicals and not as thirsty on fuel as you might expect. Shame about the barge-like fast-road dynamics.
Nissan Pathfinder TI AWD ($66,190 plus on-road costs)
Like the Mazda the Pathie is a petrol-only affair (although a hybrid is available) that has an above-average top tether count. Nissan has slightly raised its dynamic bar, with the mid-life facelift, but compared with the slick Mazda its cabin presentation and quality disappoints.
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