Competition for buyers in the mainstream has seen some brands carefully consider their current business model and trajectory.
Instead of trying to scratch out success in the cutthroat entry segments, Mazda has firmly positioned itself towards the premium end of the market. This isn’t really a shock, Mazdas have always been for buyers who are willing to part with a few extra dollars.
In markets outside of Australia, Mazda is something of a boutique marque, it doesn’t command the same presence in other Western markets as it does Down Under. Despite being a smaller player on the global stage the suits at Mazda are prone to backing the right horse.
Take SUVs as an example, Mazda read the market perfectly and anticipated the popularity of a raised seating position developing a portfolio that catered to changing tastes. Moves like this are why Mazda is on the up whilst former heavyweights GM and Ford are in decline.
Which brings us neatly to the updated 2019 Mazda CX-9, the brand’s flagship model. We are testing the GT AWD variant which sits towards the peak of the range and is priced accordingly at $63,390 plus on-road costs. Mazda claims GT models will account for 27 per cent of the CX-9’s sales volume.
The seven-seat SUV segment is hotly contested and brimming with quality - the Kia Sorento and Toyota Kluger present the most direct challenge, although, there are some medium SUVs offering a 5+2 seating configuration that make a strong value argument to sway young families.
GT variants get leather trim, a powered sunroof, powered tailgate, electronically adjusted front seats with memory function for the driver, Bose audio system and 20-inch alloy wheels as standard.
Where Mazda lands a clean blow on the chin of its competitors is safety. Every CX-9 gets Mazda’s comprehensive i-Activesense safety package that includes autonomous emergency braking, radar cruise control with stop & go, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, automatic high beam and traffic sign recognition.
Added for 2019 are a tyre pressure monitoring system and an excellent head-up display which for some strange reason Mazda calls an Active Driving Display.
Mazda’s pursuit of premium is easily identifiable when simply glancing at the CX-9’s exterior. The Mazda logo could be replaced by a stylised ‘L’ or four ceiling rings without anyone batting an eye. It’s elegant with well-judged highlights which isn’t easy to do, some marques struggle to determine what is a tasteful amount of bling.
The premium vibe is even more pronounced inside the well-trimmed cabin. Plush is the best descriptor, the gorgeous stone leather seats and door cards, along with the extensive use of soft-touch materials provide a brilliant tactile experience and enhance the atmosphere.
The designers have opted for the increasingly popular minimalist layout, effectively removing all superfluous buttons and switches.
Pleasingly, the MZD Connect system now includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, making the CX-9 the first Mazda SUV to feature smartphone mirroring. The 8.0-inch infotainment screen that takes pride of place on the dash is logically laid out and simple to use. The only criticism of what is a very intuitive system is the graphics display of the built-in satellite navigation – they are a long way behind the segments best.
While the overall attention to detail is impressive, the absence of rear USB ports borders on unforgivable. Portable devices are now so ingrained in our daily rituals, each seat needs a charge point. There’s also a strangely located 12V charger on the passenger side of the centre stack – a minor, but a curious ergonomic issue.
Moving down the back to the cheap seats reveals surprisingly usable pews. Children and vertically challenged adults will find the accommodations acceptable for longer journeys, not just quick drop-offs and extractions. It should be noted, the rearward vision is good with the third row in place.
On the road, the word plush is dropped again (and again). To improve the driving experience engineers have made revisions to the suspension and steering system.
The new low-friction dampers and recalibrated springs provide a delightfully smooth ride on less than ideal surfaces. Country buyers will appreciate the effort.
To bring additional life to the steering feel, the outer ball joint and steering knuckle have been redesigned, and the front hub bearings and steering mounts have been stiffened up. The result is direct, responsive steering that’s perfectly weighted regardless of the driving situation.
Noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels have always been a sticking point with Mazda vehicles. Having owned a few Mazdas, refinement has been sub-par. The revisions to the suspension and steering combined with vibration-reducing powertrain mounts, changes to the second-row seat rails and a revised headliner produce the most refined Mazda we have ever piloted.
Over our 747 kilometre test week, the CX-9 offered genuine long-range refinement that compares favourably to luxury models we have assessed over the same roads. When compared to a five-year-old Mazda, the level of improvement is remarkable. It’s always nice to be pleasantly surprised.
The beautifully insulated cabin commanded so much of our attention, the drivetrain had to play second fiddle. All CX-9 models utilise the same 2.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine that develops 170kW of power and 420Nm of torque. It effortlessly propels the car’s mass. There’s plenty of low down tactility with peak torque accessible from 2000rpm.
Although our tester was an all-wheel drive variant, drive is only sent to the rear when the limit of front wheel traction is reached, meaning the vast majority of day-to-day driving will be front wheel drive. Like the majority of modern, on-demand systems, it will shuffle the torque around as necessary and it’s often undetectable to those on-board. City slickers will find it hard to justify the extra $4000 for the AWD variant.
A very smooth six-speed automatic takes care of the shifts, which again had us pondering why any manufacturer would opt for a DSG or CVT in a family car. The evidence continues to show, there is still plenty of life in the conventional automatic.
Mazda is talking up the efficiency of the CX-9, with good reason, after a relaxed week behind the wheel, we returned a combined consumption figure of 9.4L/100km which is very close to the official number.
Competition has seen Mazda bolster its ownership credentials. The CX-9 is backed with a five-year unlimited kilometre warranty and a capped-price service program that takes the car to 160,000km.
Maintenance is required every 12 months/10,000km with costs under the capped-price structure averaging $405 for each visit back to the dealer during the first five years.
The 2019 CX-9 is a very strong offering, regardless of which variant tickles your fancy, the value equation is strong. Buyers of the entry-level models aren’t penalised with the shared drivetrain and included safety kit.
Buyers wanting more of a luxury experience will find the GT worth the extra spend. However, the Azami model looms large. For only $1600 more the Azami nets front seat ventilation, a heated steering wheel, 360-degree camera system, 7.0-inch multi-information driver display housed in the instrument cluster, windscreen de-icer and a frameless rear-vision mirror. It makes sense to climb another rung.
For a flagship SUV, the CX-9 does plenty for Mazda’s reputation. The newfound level of refinement will have overpriced European brands taking notice. Other than ego and the perception of status, the quality of the CX-9 removes the need to move into premium brands.
2019 Mazda CX-9 GT AWD Specifications
Price from $63,390 plus on-road costs Engine 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol Power 170kW @ 5000rpm Torque 420Nm @ 2000rpm Transmission six-speed automatic Combined Fuel Consumption 8.8L/100km Tank Capacity 74L Length 5075mm Width 1969mm Height 1747mm Wheelbase 2930mm Kerb Weight 2000kg Ground Clearance 220mm Turning Circle 11.8m Service Intervals 12 months/10,000km Warranty five year/unlimited kilometre
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