The most affordable version of Mazda’s largest and priciest range demonstrates why the evergreen CX-9 has remained at the sharp end of the large SUV segment for quite some time
- How does the CX-9 drive?
- Drivability scorecard
- How is the CX-9’s interior?
- Interior scorecard
- What are the CX-9’s running costs?
- Running costs scorecard
- The final verdict
- Overall rating
- Sharp pricing, big value
- (Big) family friendly packaging
- Smart, upmarket styling
- Pleasant powertrain and chassis
- Cabin showing its age in areas
- Tiny infotainment in base spec
- Engine can get thirsty at times
- Not cheap to service
Has it really been six years since the current and second generation of Mazda CX-9 first hits Aussie showrooms? It’s hard to believe, right?
Key to it is, in large part, styling. Mazda’s so-called Kodo design worked for its largest and most expensive model line right out of the box and, to many eyes, it still remains daisy fresh today.
Often overlooked is that, unlike Toyota with Lexus or Hyundai with Genesis, Mazda doesn’t have a premium sister brand to curb its upmarket presentation, in styling as much as anywhere.
But, of course, there’s more to CX-9 critical and commercial success, solid and without waning enthusiasm, than unbridled stylistic appeal that continues to woo Aussie buyers.
There’s real substance and smarts to the large SUV model line, one that offers myriad variant choice offering seemingly something for every buyer whim and budget.
What resonated with CX-9 in numerous past reviews still rings true today: you really can’t go wrong with Mazda’s big seven seater, so it’s a simple case of picking a version that suits your price point.
Tested here is the most affordable of the current, burgeoning 13-variant-strong line-up, the Sport FWD. It lists for $47,250, or around $52K mark on road. For context, an entry-level Kia Sorento S V6 and Hyundai Santa Fe V6 (base) cost $47,650 and $46,050 respectively.
That’s quite a modest sum for a seven-seater packing a whole lot of metal, glass and rubber within its five-metre-plus length. And one that looks semi-premium sharp, even on small-ish 18-inch wheels.
Surely there’s a catch. Cut corners. A crucial compromise or three. Of course, with six variant tiers on offer the humble Sport grade is going to omit some equipment and niceties.
Outside, the Sport lacks the sexy 20-inch wheels found on the mid-grade GT, it wears dowdier 18-inchers set in cushier, chunkier tyres. Still, the fitment of auto high-beam LED headlights, rain-sensing wipers and power-folding and heated mirrors gets big thumbs up.
Rear parking sensors and a reversing camera are par for the course, though you need to walk up to next-grade Touring for front parking sensors and LED fog lights.
A big tick comes for safety. The Sport fits the same core safety suite found further upstream in the range, including forward and reverse AEB, radar cruise with stop and go, blind spot monitoring, lane keep assist, rear cross-traffic alert, traffic light recognition and driver attention alert.
It’s a big step up to the (circa $65k) GT SP for a 360-degree camera system and adaptive LED headlights.
Similarly, the Sport doesn’t get short changed under the bonnet as the 170kW and 420Nm 2.5-litre turbocharged petrol four is the sole unit offered across the CX-9 range.
It’s paired with a six-speed automatic transmission in all guises, though opting for the on-demand all-wheel drive commands a $4000 premium over our front-driven review spec.
How does the CX-9 drive?
Mazda ought to embrace turbocharging more widely because it works a treat in CX-9. On paper, its 420Nm should offer diesel-like shove, if with the refinement of the petrol format. And so it proves in practice.
The 2.5-litre engine piles on its torque peak nice and low, at 2000rpm, making for impressive tractability and rarely calls for higher revs during most balanced driving. There’s next to no perceivable lag, too, with a nice crisp throttle response in the for bargain.
You shouldn’t be thrown by the transmission’s slim six forward ratios. The flexibility of the petrol engine and its broad-rpm energy fills the wider ratio gaps, so the CX-9 isn’t left wanting for a seven or eight speed alternative.
It gets off the mark crisply and settles into a leisurely canter out on the open road, and the six-speed is an intuitive self-shifter that plucks the best from the 2.5.
There is a more sprightly sport drive mode, but the CX-9 is rarely left wanting for it.
Both front and on-demand all-wheel drive is offered up and down the CX-9 range though, frankly, unless you’re regularly traversing across broken or slippery surfaces the FWD offers little drive disadvantage.
AWD exclusively gets Off Road Traction Assist smarts, but on road the front-drive plies enough traction from the broad 255m rubber format that traction is almost never an issue.
On paper, the front driver is also markedly more frugal, its 8.4-litre claim quite rosier than the nine-litre neat figure for the all-wheel drive version.
However, during our week with the Sport FWD, the onboard computer tended to touch double figures more frequently than we might’ve expected.
Its solid and well-mannered powertrain is matched well with the CX-9’s nicely polished ride and handling.
Compliance across surfaces lumpy or harsh is quite accomplished and the thicker sidewall of the 18-inch tyres undoubtedly takes some of the edge that could be present in higher-grades shod with 20s.
The little extra cushioning doesn’t go unnoticed, though nor does some of the slightly annoying suspension noise our test car demonstrated across some sharper road imperfections.
At nearly 1.9 tonnes, the big front-driver is no sports car, though it does have quite commanding body control and doesn’t tend to bob and float around like some big family rigs might.
Again, those broad tyres add plenty of grip thanks to their considerable footprint, but there’s also enough engagement that carrying a head of steam across winding back roads feels safe and secure. It’s a predictable and cooperative machine on the move.
At the helm, the sheer size of the CX-9 is ever present though it’s not a difficult wagon to place on the road the judge outside of its prominent snout.
Parking, it can become tricky to sense the distance to objects ahead and in some situations you’ll be wishing for the front sensors offered further up the range.
Reverse parking is also a little challenging, if mostly because the reversing camera is quite fisheyed and not overly helpful when squeezing the CX-9’s bulky rear end into tight spaces.
Power & performance 8.0
Ride & refinement 8.0
How is the CX-9’s interior?
Mazda’s interior design really entered a nice purple patch around the time that the gen-two CX-9 fronted up and while it’s not quite as slick as some newer models from Hiroshima the large wagon still brings plenty of champagne vibe on what’s clearly a beer budget.
There’s a strange if complementary duality to the CX-9 cabin. It seems roomy and airy – and indeed is – and yet there’s a big hunkered down sportiness at play, thanks to the height of the curvaceous dash fascia and the prominent centre console, the latter with its fetching floating-look design.
The upshot is that the CX-9 feels solid, chunky and substantial as you nestle into the cabin. There’s little of that propped up captain’s chair effect some SUV buyers are after, though outward visibility is quite open and clear.
Material choice is hardly lavish but there’s a nice solidity to both the material choice and the sense of construction and integration. There’s very little in eyeshot that smacks of cheapness and little that seems cost conscious.
Some of the button and switch choice is a little old school and the CX-9 is perhaps not quite as slick in presentation as newer Mazda models. That said, equally, there isn’t much in the cabin that suggests base model status, if with a couple of exceptions.
The 7.0-inch multimedia screen is tiny. A major update to CX-9 in 2021 brought a huge improvement to the infotainment window dressing, though the lower-grade versions missed out on one key change to a 10.25-inch display.
However, where the high-trim variants got a display screen only, the Sport’s tiny screen retains touchscreen functionality usable in tandem with Mazda’s ‘classic’ MZD rotary controller.
Sat-nav, digital radio, wired Apple Carplay and Android Auto, a reversing camera…for a small unit it packs plenty of content. It’s just not really the flashiest or slickest multimedia format and can be a little clunky to use.
Cycling through, say, Spotify using the MZD controller can be an exercise of utter frustration – no wonder newer Mazda models such as the CX-30 small SUV and CX-60 midsize SUV feature a new-generation operating system that better utalises this rotary joystick.
The cloth seats also betray the Sport’s base mode status, though there’s little to grumble about here.
The hardy fabric and mechanical seat adjustment are par for a basic course, though if you’re got particularly grubby kids perhaps the step up to the leather-trimmed Touring might be a wise choice.
Downright premium, and real bonus at Sport’s price point, is the three-zone climate control.
You don’t get inductive phone charging and device power is a little compromised given that the dual USB ports tucked into the rear of the centre console bin are meant to be shared between both the first and second rows.
Speaking of row two, rear passengers are treated to welcoming accommodation. There’s a huge amount of room, plus ample slide and tilt seat adjustment in order to dial up just the right amount of legroom and comfort to taste.
The rear bench is chunky and cushy, with a high-set seat base so that smaller kids can still get a good view of the outside world during long-haul trips.
Row three is accessible easily thanks to a nifty one-touch lever arrangement for the 40:60-split fold row-two seat backs and climbing through, at least for smaller occupants, isn’t much of a chore.
Unsurprisingly, third-row legroom and headroom is at a bit of a premium and it’s really best reserved for kids.
As a seven-seater, there’s a modest if usable 230 litres of boot space, which is ideal enough for the week’s groceries and smaller luggage.
This expands to 810 litres as a five-seater. Handily, you can stow row three neatly in a 50:50 split, so you can load bulkier objects and still retain a six-seat configuration.
The CX-9 can convert to a two-seater with a huge load area and quite a nicely flat floor space. You also get handy grocery hooks and a space saver spare wheel that tucked underneath the cargo area floor.
Layout & materials 8.5
Cabin technology 7.5
Driver comfort 8.5
Passenger space 8.5
What are the CX-9’s running costs?
As mentioned, the 2.5-litre turbo four isn’t the most frugal engine out there and we regularly saw double figures during our assessment. That said, the torquey unit will run happily on 91RON or E10.
Service internals, at 12 months or a fairly slim 10,000kms, are shorter than some competitors that offer longer 15,000km terms however the smaller CX-5 with the same 2.5-litre turbo engine has recently had its intervals extended to the longer tenure, so it’s likely we will see this extended in the near future.
And the capped pricing, that averages out to $396.40 per visit across the first five years, is getting up there too.
By comparison, an entry-level Toyota Kluger GX V6 costs a miserly $1250 to service over five years – some 35 percent less than the Mazda.
Warranty is a typical five years of unlimited-kilometre running.
Running costs scorecard
The final verdict
The CX-9 Sport FWD is a perfect example of a quality base model that shouldn’t be overlooked. In omitting features and spec to arrive at a palatable price, Mazda has managed to maintain quality where it really matters: a lusty and undiluted powertrain, a fine chassis, fulsome safety equipment and paring back areas that are more wants than needs.
It’s a helluva lot of seven-seat family hauler for the outlay it commands.
There’s many options easily recommended right the way up through the CX-9 range. And despite its advancing years, and thanks to rolling updates, Mazda’s flagship SUV is no less relevant or appealing today as when it launched back in 2016.
But don’t disregard the Sport, even in front-driven guise, if you like the cut of the CX-9’s jib and your budget allows a headier spend. You just might be surprised at just how much you get at the ground floor.
Overall rating 9.0
Running costs Average
Keyword: Mazda CX-9 Sport 2023 review