CX-9: Soft is sweet for this swish mover

Meet the epitome of modern SUV thinking; a quiet, refined and comfortable seven-seater that is packed with smart tech and isn’t designed, nor expected, to go off road.


LOOK at how the CX-9 positions and prices and you might wonder if Mazda is setting itself up for the future introduction of another four-wheel-drive seven-seater with more hardened off-road credential.

Actually, the concept of such a vehicle has not been entirely discounted by the national distributor, though it says nothing is in the wind.

Mazda New Zealand has confidence the just landed CX-9, a new big brother to the CX-3 and CX-5, will be easily good enough to get its SUV campaign rolling at a pace the same-named previous model never achieved.

They’re citing expectation of at least 600 sales per year – almost three times the old car’s annual count - and of the newcomer finding favour with the 78 percent of the sports utility buyers who are foremost interested in the car-like driving experience, ambience, finish, comfort and safety that the new offer provides in spades.

However, the distributor also acknowledges it has no vehicle that might satisfy the remaining 22 percent who bypass car-like SUVs for utilitarian vehicles with the same seating capacity – the Isuzu MU-X and Holden Trailblazer, the Toyota Fortuner, Ford Everest and Mitsubishi Pajero Sport – and the perception of enhanced off-roading and towing robustness.

So what chance, then, that Mazda might look to add a heavier duty alternate; a BT-50 equivalent of the Ford Everest, perhaps?

While brand spokesmen could not totally dismiss the potential of this kind of rig being in the wings with Hiroshima, they have firmly rebutted any thought that the CX-9’s positioning and pricing – three versions, a GSX in front-drive and four-wheel-drive and a flagship Limited, respectively at $52,995, $55,495 and $62,995 – has been designed to allow for that eventuality (given that most ute-based contenders, with exception of Pajero Sport, start from $60k). They were also keen to reinforce during our CX-9 media preview that, as far as it was concerned, the vehicle arriving now is the only seven-seater they have been told about.

Nonetheless, there is acceptance that Hiroshima head office might well be keeping a watch on how the market for ute-derived wagons progresses; a 22 percent share, after all, is not insignificant.

Assuming it does not have an Everest equivalent in the works with the current generation BT-50 seems fair – Ford made clear its offer was designed wholly in house and purely for itself and anyway, with just four years to run, BT-50 is effectively already too far through its production cycle – conceivably it might consider creating one with Isuzu, which becomes Mazda’s ute development partner in 2021 and has already done well with its own twin, the MU-X (their version of Holden’s Colorado Seven/Trailblazer).

Mazda NZ general manager of sales and marketing, Glenn Harris, was uncomfortable discussing these potentials with MotoringNetwork. 

“At this point we see no Everest equivalent in the BT-50 programme nor have we been invited to participate locally. What happens at a global level? I’m not privy to that, but locally we have not been consulted on a seven-seat version on a BT-50 platform.”

The company’s product planning manager, Tim Nalden, said while he was intrigued about the heavy duty segment he certainly wasn’t upset the Mazda wasn’t a player, citing that current sales trends show the greater count of consumers prefer car-like on-road SUVs over traditional off-road large models.

He didn’t think Mazda was hard-done by in lacking an Everest equivalent: “I don’t think so. It’s got to be fit for purpose. I would ask if, locally, if there is enough customer demand for that kind of vehicle, at this stage, or is it manufacturer led?”

Sales stats suggested those kinds of wagons were competing against their donors, in a format Mazda here does have.

“Four-wheel-drive doublecab utes are just going through the roof so, when you look at how many have boats and jetskis on the back, they have really hit a sweet spot.”

The heavy focus on developing the CX-9 for the US market (it’ll swallow 80 percent of production) for the of fuel choice, but Nalden says he’s not concerned that the CX-9 lacked a diesel. That engine type is no longer as dominant as it once was, with Mazda perceiving the split at around 50-50, with customers showing increasing interest in petrol choices not simply because the fuel is not too expensive but also because the latest engines are showing improved efficiency.

That’s the new Skyactiv-G T 2.5-litre which, while slightly down on power output compared to its 3.7-litre V6 predecessor at 170kW, nonetheless has more torque at 420Nm and, through being a more efficient engine – and also as result of this new model being 124-142kg lighter than its forebear – is markedly more economical, with combined economy returns of 8.8 litres per 100km in four-wheel-drive format and 8.4 in front-drive.

Mazda also seeks to impress that its engine has been tuned specifically to prioritise torque delivery from low in the rev range – just as a diesel does and in superior fashion to the old V6 – and that the output figures it quotes are from running 91 octane. If an owner prefers to feed it 98 petrol, the torque doesn’t change but the power ramps up to 186kW. So why not quote the higher figure for greater kudos? Because Mazda figures most owners will use the cheaper juice.

Whatever the output, Nalden says: “Anyone coming from the V6 model to this one will find that they do not have to put their foot down as hard to get the torque response they are looking for.”

Nalden says assessment of economy data for the sector suggests it looks equally good against diesel and petrol rivals. “We looked at all the available data and we are confident we place right in the middle.”

Anyone comparing CX-9 against the current most popular diesel and petrol choices – respectively the Hyundai Santa Fe and Toyota Highlander – will be able to distinguish that the Mazda offers a superior running cost and returns, he argued.

Nonetheless, while the CX-9 was pretty handy with a 2000kg towing capacity and was certainly well-sorted for driving in light off-roading conditions – “it’ll certainly get up to the skifield” – it was not a direct rival for those ute-derived models that, due to their more utilitarian (often ladder-framed) constructions, low-range gearing and diesel muscle can haul up to 3.5-tonnes and immerse up to the sills in mud.

“It’s an all-wheel-drive vehicle … it’s not an off-road vehicle. In saying that, you can take up to the mountain and into the snow.”

Yet that won’t impact on volume expectations, with Nalden expressing that even the cited volume expectation, which breaks down to 50 a month, might prove too light.

“Our target is two and a half time the volume we had with the old model, but perhaps we are still under-calling it … I think that when people understand how the powertrain works in developing its torque so low down and then appreciate that it has those diesel-like qualities … well, I suspect it might be comfortably above those 600 units per year.”

That will allow a 6.2 percent share of the total SUV market – that’s everything, high-end luxury cars included - and establish the CX-9 as the third most dominant performer, behind the top dog Highlander and second-placed Santa Fe. It would also allow a 16 percent share of the petrol-only section, still second to the Toyota.

Which model will lead the sales? On evidence presented from the brief driving stint, I’d have thought the cheapest edition would be a contender – it’s comfortable, well-equipped, drives really nicely with no obvious difference in performance and realistically the lack of all-wheel-drive potentially won’t be an issue on the school run anyway. Also, it is well placed to snatch attention from the next-size down CX-5, a five chair opportunity.

Yet Nalden cites the Limited as being more likely to be dominant. “It’s true there will consideration from those people in a CX-5 to look at a (base) CX-9 and say ‘I can get those extra two seats’ (for much the same outlay) … but those people driving a Limited will say that it is even better for an extra $8-10 grand.”

Fair call. It was interesting to ascertain how different the front-drive edition felt to the four-wheel-drive models; in theory, it should not be great, as the iACTIVE all-wheel drive system is designed to send 100 percent of the drive to the front wheels in regular conditions. Both were only driven on firm seal, so obviously in optimal traction condition, yet the entry car did seem to have a lighter, more free-wheeling feel to it.

Provisioning two of the three models with all-wheel-drive makes sense, though, because eight in 10 SUVs in this category are bought with that feature. You’d want to take the all-wheel-drive onto gravel simply to test its cleverness. Mazda attests iACTIVE is making hundreds of calculations every second to manage its own power delivery – it even uses the outside temperature and monitors whether the windscreen wipers are in use to work out the weather conditions. That’s smart!

What will be appreciated, in either format, is how well-sorted this car’s dynamics are. While the weight has dropped, the dimension has not and, assuredly, the latter is defined with the US in mind. They don’t like ‘em small over there, and while the stylist’s delivery of rakish lines makes it appear smaller than the old one, in measuring over five metres long and nearly 1.8 metres tall, it actually isn’t.

Yet you’re far more likely to be aware of its size when shuffling into a carpark – not too hard because of all the sensors and rear view camera though a 360 view camera would be even better - than when on the move.

I’m not saying it’s wholly more car than bus, but did think it a shame our route didn’t deliver more twists and turns, because the CX-9 is clearly up for them. For such a big vehicle, there’s virtually no body roll and its road-holding is smooth and composed. It left impression it can be pushed quite hard, moreso than the average SUV.

The engine also feels bigger-hearted than its actual capacity; there was no issue punting along at highway pace with three adult occupants. Unique technology includes a variable-flow control valve for the turbo that helps eliminate turbo lag. It seems to be highly effective; the turbocharger spools up nicely and the engine, even when revved, remains remarkably smooth for a four-cylinder, while the torque spread is wide enough to make the transmission work nicely.

When Mazda says ‘diesel-like’ they’re probably not so much referencing all and sundry so much as one of their own; the 2.2-litre in the CX-5 which generates the same 420Nm optimum as this petrol.

Though the potential for good economy is real, swapping cars with colleagues at a halfway point revealed there’s still potential to spoil Mazda’s good work: The car we took over had been subjected to massive thrashing that had knocked out the average burn rate to a six-cylinder-like 13.2L/100km.

Still, it’s an impressive powertrain that will definitely be a major selling point, not just in this model but also in other impending applications – the Mazda6 is down for a transplant and there’s talk the Mazda3 will be too.

The aural signature is clearly better than any diesel’s, when you get to hear it, that is. There’s some roar at take-off but the serenity at cruise reminds this car is extremely well-insulated from mechanical, road and wind noise. The floorpan is thicker than previously, 24kg of insulation has been placed between the floor and carpet, it gets substantial seals and acoustic glass in both the windscreen and front-side windows. You do apparently hear some wind rustle, and exhaust whoosh, when sitting right in the back, but not enough to annoy.

The pluses don’t end there. Mazda cabins are generally impressive, but this one is truly a tour de force. Even though the general layout adheres firmly to the modern Mazda matrix, an impressive level of focus has gone into it. The quality of the trim materials, the plastics in particular, and the fit and finish are exceptional, everything looks integrated and to scale and every variant has a properly premium ambience.

Also, the detailing goes above and beyond; one example of the clever thinking about how this vehicle will be used comes with the provisioning of USB ports in the rear armrest. The air con has three zones, with a separate operation for the rear part of the cabin, so I thought it strange the third row seemed to lack air vents – until discovering these are in the floor. It needs good ventilation because the rearmost chairs are commodious enough for adult occupants and, when those seats are tucked away, the boot area will be spacious for a number of canine ones.

We not only benefit from the American insistence on lots of space; their desire for plenty of features also works out fine for our market.

Standard equipment on the GSX includes blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, autonomous city braking, leather upholstery, three-zone climate control, sport mode, LED headlights, electric parking brake, keyless start, rear parking sensors and sat nav. The latter was troublesome on the day, losing ability to relocate our destination after we inadvertently missed a turn on the pre-configured route plan. We only overshot by perhaps 80 metres, and were back on the right road within a minute, however that still enough to throw the system off-line for the remaining half hour of driving.

The Limited adds radar cruise control – which, now that operates right down to a standstill and also will, providing you’re not dwelling too long, return you back to the pre-set pace once the traffic stream kicks off again, makes it perfect for city driving as much as town operation.

The top model also touts smart brake support at open-road speeds, lane-keeping alert with steering assistance, driver attention alert, satellite navigation, full-colour head-up display, premium Bose sound system, keyless entry and rear-door sunshades.

The CX-9 is a very classy effort and seems certain to succeed, assuming of course that Kiwis don’t suddenly reconsider the apparently modest interest in SUVs that are true off-roaders and can, by virtue of being diesel drinkers, deliver decent lug for hauling big loads without the downside of a big thirst.

Should market tastes swing back toward those old-school offers again, it might be quite useful for Mazda to have a Plan B.