The large seven-seat SUV segment doesn’t run quite as hot as the mid-size SUV or even the compact SUV space, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of players vying for game time.
We’ve reviewed three of the best over the last 12 months, so here’s a quick side-by-side comparo of their best and worst bits
When the fourth-generation Nissan Pathfinder launched in Australian in 2013, it wasn’t exactly met with rapturous applause from previous owners.
Beloved for its rugged simplicity and off-road chops, the body-on-frame design of the third-gen car made way for a more car-like unibody build based on the same front-wheel-drive platform as Nissan’s Altima and Maxima sedans.
The passage of time has been reasonably kind to the car. Its biggest crime, really, is a sense of anonymity and sameness that sees it all but become invisible out in the general population.
The interior design, meanwhile, is starting to show its age, with swathes of plain soft-touch vinyl interspersed with a scattergun approach to buttons and controls.
The Mazda CX-9 brought elegance to the mainstream large SUV market, and a recent update has taken that to the next level with the new top-spec Azami LE. The new luxo flagship adds Nappa leather upholstery and hand-crafted woodgrain trim for a truly premium feel.
Its swooping bonnet line and gentle roof curve soften the CX-9’s presence, while the gaping grille sets it apart from the pack.
The Toyota Kluger is Australia’s biggest selling city-slicking large SUV, offering V6 power and a comfortable and quiet seven-seat cabin that reaches premium levels.
It doesn’t push the boat too far out into the styling seas, but its bluff lines and boxed-off visage makes for an attractive if underplayed presence.
The interior is a similar story, with plenty of substance executed with a minimum of fuss.
Pricing and specs
We tested the Ti 3.5L V6 4WD, which costs $66,390 plus on-roads (May 2019). The same powertrain can be had in the base ST for $46,890, by way of comparison. The range has seen a slight price bump for 2019, but only by a few hundred dollars here and there.
That powertrain is the 202kW/340Nm 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine as seen in cars like the 370Z. It’s teamed with a front-biased AWD system run through a CVT gearbox, and it offers full-time AWD, a front-wheel-drive option and a 50/50 front/rear locking mode for speeds under 40km/h.
The top-spec Ti comes with plenty of gear, including seven leather-accented seats, twin sunroofs, LED headlights and daytime running lamps, automatic lights and wipers, keyless entry with remote start, a powered steering column, heated front and rear seats, multiple USB and 12v charge points, powered hands-free tailgate and tri-zone Bose stereo with screens in the headrests and wireless headphones.
The Azami LE clocks in at $68,232 before on roads and comes with literally everything that opens, closes beeps and/or whistles. Powered by a 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the Azami LE runs a six-speed auto through an AWD drivetrain.
In terms of specs, it has one of everything, including tri-zone climate control, 360-degree parking camera, leather upholstery, satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, 20-inch alloys, digital radio, automatic headlights and wipers, heated seats and steering wheel, powered tailgate and more.
There is a Bose stereo and a sunroof, too. It also offers up AEB, lane-keep assistance, traffic sign recognition and a heads-up display.
The Grande AWD ‘s $69,617 price tag makes it the most expensive non-4X4 Toyota available in Australia and is higher than better-equipped rivals sitting atop their respective ranges.
It comes with satellite navigation, autonomous emergency braking, lane keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, rain-sensing windscreen wipers, reverse parking sensors part leather upholstery, three-zone air-conditioning, keyless entry, power-operated tailgate, heated and ventilated front seats with memory, a sunroof, an 8.0-inch touchscreen and digital radio.
The Pathfinder holds 453 litres of luggage with all three rows of seats up, which is damn impressive. It holds 1354 litres with the third row down, and a huge 2260 litres with the seats laid flat. Compare this to the 195/529/1872-litre figures of the Kluger, for example, and it’s easy to see the Pathy wins the space race.
At first blush, the Pathfinder doesn’t look all that big but open the doors and the impression disappears into its cavernous interior. It sits five in luxury and seven in comfort, with clever split-function folding seats on the second row for relatively easy access.
The Mazda CX-9 takes its ‘large SUV’ tag seriously, with its 5.1m length, 1.97m width and 2.93m wheelbase that makes it a little harder to park than, say, the Toyota Kluger which measures 4.89m long by 1.93m wide.
But it’s cavernous inside, with excellent head and knee room, including in the third row that comfortably accommodates two adults.
Boot space with three rows in use is a handy 230 litres, with the third-row seats offering a 50:50 split to add extra cargo. Folding the entire third row down brings a considerable 810 litres behind the 60:40 split second-row seats. With all rear seats down, the CX-9 will hold up to 1641 litres behind the front seats.
The US-built Kluger is 4.89 metres long and 1.93m wide with the main cabin sitting above its 2.8m wheelbase. One reason for its popularity is that while it comfortably accommodates a family of seven, its size isn’t a hindrance when it comes to parking or negotiating city streets.
Head and legroom are excellent in the first two rows, but it gets a little tight in row three that is best suited for kids.
As with most SUVs, boot space is tight (195 litres) if you’re using all seven seats, but even with the third row down you’ll only fit 529 litres, which is less than some medium SUVs. Fold down the middle row and you’ll fit 1872 litres worth of gear behind the front seats.
Six airbags including full-length curtain bags to the third row are standard fitment on the Pathfinder, along with a 360-degree camera, rear-view camera and parking sensors front and rear.
In terms of driver aids, the Pathfinder Ti scores AEB, rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, tyre pressure monitoring and blind-spot warning. It also features a rear-seat alert, which activates if the rear doors are opened and closed before the driver sets off.
The CX-9’s size and strong body structure with side-impact door beams combine with six airbags to protect occupants well in the event of an accident, though you have a decent chance of avoiding that with autonomous emergency braking that operates at speeds up to 160km/h.
Other active safety features include lane-keeping assist, driver attention alert, rear-cross traffic alert, and blind-spot monitoring that can spot a car about to overtake you swiftly from up to 50 metres behind.
The Kluger Grande comes with the full suite of available active safety features, including radar-based autonomous emergency braking that works at city and highway speeds – part of what Toyota calls its Pre-Collision Safety system. This is backed up by lane-keeping assist, blind-spot warning and rear-cross traffic alert.
The Kluger is also equipped with seven airbags, including driver knee bag and side curtain protection for all three rows, and it has three child-seat anchor points for the middle row of seats but none for the back row.
Warranty and running costs
Nissan has finally joined the throng and is now offering a five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty on its cars, Pathfinder included.
Service intervals are a little shorter than the average at 10,000km or 12 months, while capped price services costs are very competitive. The first four services, for example, will cost $1333.
MORE Which companies offer the longest warranties?
When it comes to fuel use, the 3.5-litre petrol engine is claimed to drink 10.1 litres per 100km on the combined fuel economy cycle. Our 320km of testing revealed a figure closer to 10.7L/100km for the 2089kg Ti. Its 73-litre tank is perfectly happy with 91 octane fuel, too.
The CX-9 is also covered by a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, while its service costs are very competitive. Over five services at 10,000km or 12-month intervals, the price varies between $339 and $382.
At 8.8L/100km on the combined cycle, the CX-9’s 74-litre tank is also content with 91 octane.
Toyota recently moved its fleet over to a five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty, while its servicing costs are the best of the three.
Costs for the first six services (defined as three years or 60,000km) are capped at $180, which is very competitive.
The AWD Kluger Grande sips 9.5L/100km on the combined fuel economy cycle, and its 72-litre tank accepts 91 octane.
The seats are broad and soft, touch points are padded and there are plenty of places to stash, stuff and charge things.
The third row seats are relatively easy to access, and the full-length bench style seating and large headrests make for a comfy, if ideally short-lived, experience. There are air vents and cupholders back there to make the journey more bearable.
Up front, the seats verge on a little too soft in the base, but they still hold up over 100km-long stints quite well. The powered steering column and seat memory slots make short work of getting comfy behind the wheel, though the plethora of buttons is annoying and fiddly to negotiate.
Visibility throughout is more than fine, thanks to the Pathfinder’s airy glasshouse, though the big, steeply raked A-pillars can impede forward vision.
The ancient foot-operated park brake is an annoyance, as is the lack of Apple CarPlay.
The spacious cabin feels welcoming with plenty of leg and elbow room in the first two rows, and the front seats gain additional creature comforts including powered settings and seat heating and ventilation.
Second-row passengers benefit from raised seating that affords excellent forward and side vision, separate climate control panel and vents, and a fold-down centre armrest comprising two cupholders and two USB sockets.
The third-row seats are roomier than most of the CX-9’s rivals, and will accommodate two average-sized adults comfortably over moderate distances. Legroom can be altered sliding the second row forward and there’s a sufficient gap under the seat in which to slide your feet. The wide rear door opening means you don’t need to be a contortionist to climb in or out of the third row.
The Kluger Grande’s stylish cabin looks well put together and you can choose between dark black and tan trim with neither costing extra. That said it doesn’t feel like a $70,000 car.
Cabin storage abounds, starting with a huge centre console bin, and broad storage tray above the glovebox that is good for holding phones. Big door pockets and a deep centre console provide ample space for bottles, handbags and the like.
First and second-row seats are plush and supportive, for good long distance comfort. The third-row seats are reasonably comfortable, but pretty tight for bigger people for anything more than short trips, though legroom is helped by being able to fit your feet under the second-row seats.
Ventilation controls are big and easy to operate, and there is a separate control unit for rear passengers mounted on the ceiling that blows airs through vents located in the third and second rows. There are also retractable blinds in which slide up and down to cover the rear-door windows and protect children from the direct sun.
On the road
It’s easy to like the Pathfinder’s road manners, but it’s also easy to forget them. Nissan revised the suspension tune to make it a bit firmer for Aussie conditions, and while it’s still soft, it’s decently mannered for around-town work.
There's an inherent suppleness to the first part of the MacPherson strut front/multilink rear suspension's travel, but it resists body roll and pitch/dive admirably well at regular road speeds.
Steering effort is minimal, thanks to the electrically assisted set-up, and the brake feel is actually terrific, with lovely modulation and plenty of bite underfoot.
The V6 engine is smooth, eager and vice-free, while the CVT gearbox does a very good job of disguising its origins. We didn’t sample the 50/50 locking mode this time around, but the stock Bridgestone Dueler tyres and 20-inch rims mean that while you’ll get down to that gravel road to a secluded beach spot, clambering up to a remote lookout is a bit beyond the Pathfinder’s brief.
Country driving is made easier by the addition of the easy-to-use adaptive cruise control system, and the Pathfinder is impressively free of outside noise intrusion into the cabin.
The CX-9’s size and AWD traction, meanwhile, helps it feel incredibly well planted on the road.
It’s surprisingly nimble too, with slick steering and multi-link rear suspension that provides an excellent compromise between comfort and handling, even on the bigger the 20-inch wheels.
The 2.5-litre petrol turbo engine responds well at all speeds and even has a sporty note when at the upper reaches. It’s a lively engine that teams well with the six-speed automatic to give the CX-9 a surprising turn of speed and overtaking ability.
Its size and 2.0-tonne heft is more evident when braking, with the pedal feeling a little spongy when coming to a stop from highway speeds.
The Kluger is pleasant to drive with a comfortable seating position and good forward vision. It feels planted to the road and the 218kW/350Nm 3.5-litre V6 engine runs smoothly and quickly responds to your right foot via the eight-speed automatic transmission.
At 2100kg, it’s not exactly designed for hard cornering, but it does feel stable through bends. The steering has a little play in it, though you do get more response from the 19-inch wheels than with the 18s under the GL and GLX.
While not a true off-roader like its Landcruiser Prado stablemate, the Kluger’s all-wheel-drive system instils confidence during off-bitumen driving on gravel, dirt or snow-covered roads, and farm tracks. A snow button near the gear selector reduces the chance of wheelspin on slippery surfaces.
It’s getting on a bit, but the Pathfinder is an honest and simple rig that’s well suited to a larger family. Its nondescript design and dated interior treatment won’t suit everyone, and I think that the more affordable end of the Pathfinder model range provides better value than the premium-priced Ti.
The Toyota Kluger set the standard for road-based large SUVs, and while the range-topping Grande is a comfortable and capable family wagon, it’s not quite as luxurious as its $70,000 price tag would suggest.
The CX-9 Azami LE doesn’t just feel premium, though... it IS premium.
It drives well, feels stately and ticks all the boxes for anyone seeking a sophisticated family SUV while being priced less than entry-level luxury branded seven-seaters lacking similar levels of safety and comfort as standard.
It's the pick of the three, for sure.
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