MAZDA’S CX-9 arrives in our garage with plenty of pedigree, having recently been announced as Wheels Magazine's Car of the Year for 2017.
Now, all that COTY goodness get puts to the real-world test as the seven-seat Mazda finds itself enlisted for six months of family duties and general around-town running.
There will be school runs, loaded-to-the-gunnels holidays and plenty of peak-hour grind, as well as the occasional fast blast down a challenging back road to test the handling mettle that contributed to the model’s COTY crown.
Our CX-9 is the top-spec Azami finished in Soul Red. Armed with the all-wheel-drive system that half of buyers opt for, it’s the most money you can spend in a Mazda dealership; the RRP is $63,640 before dealer and on-road costs (we also scored floor mats and a tow bar).
But there’s plenty included for the coin, including leather (we chose the cream hue that contrasts nicely with the black dash and roof lining), a 12-speaker Bose sound system, electric front seats, a colour head-up display and radar cruise control as part of a more advanced active safety suite. As with all CX-9s it also gets sat-nav, reversing camera, blind spot monitoring, three-zone auto air-con and auto braking in forward and reverse.
It was straight into action with a run to the country with the family on board. The kids (a four-year-old and a seven-year-old) quickly figured out the retractable side blinds and centre arm rest complete with cupholders, covered storage and a pair of USB inputs (double bonus!).
Unfortunately, they’ve also worked out the rear air-conditioning controls.
Early signs are that the fuel use is a big improvement over the thirsty previous model but perhaps not the game changer some might have been expecting.
A 110km/h freeway run was followed by a few hundred kays of country cruising with the occasional full-throttle blast to overtake. Consumption hovered close to the claimed 8.8L/100km average, but some city driving quickly shoots that back into double digits.
More impressive was the general driving experience. The torquey 2.5-litre turbo does a beautiful job of summoning the full 420Nm to comfortably maintain pace up hills, giving the CX-9 an effortless, diesel-like flexibility across the mid-range.
That said, it’s not exactly sporty in its nature, relying more on the low to middle part of the rev range to produce its best.
Similarly, the six-speed auto is intuitive without being particularly sharp. For that there’s a Sport button, which is (curiously) separate to the gear selector; why Mazda doesn’t just copy Ford, BMW and others and have the main gear selector choose the tranny’s Sport mode is a mystery.
There are new levels of refinement for the mainstream seven-seat SUV class, too. Our country trudge was made easier with impressive suppression of wind and road roar. The fact the engine doesn’t rely on revs removes yet another noise source from the NVH equation.
One gripe was the occasional 100km/h tyre roar on coarse-chip bitumen from the 20-inch Bridgestones.
It only happened occasionally and on poor quality surfaces, something we’ll be monitoring as the tyres wear.
Part of our inaugural CX-9 trip involved something very un-SUV-like – fast gravel roads, a change in surface the Mazda did an equally good job of dealing with.
The only concern was those Bridgestones, which provide respectable grip on both bitumen and dirt, but aren’t designed to deal with sharp rocks.
The prospect of a skinny 17-inch space saver as a backup meant we backed off the pace, just in case.
There will be more dirt during our time with the CX-9, but for now it’s beaches, ’burbs and school runs.
And keeping a close eye on the fuel gauge.
The CX-9 is designed to run on regular 91-octane fuel, on which the 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbo produces the claimed 170kW.
But fill it with 98-octane premium unleaded and it’ll muster up to 186kW thanks to the top-shelf fuel’s superior knock resistance and the extra boost/ignition timing this allows.
Our time with the car has kicked off with the 98 RON brew, but later in the CX-9’s life we’ll switch to using regular unleaded and monitor changes to performance and economy.
Four with more
The second-generation CX-9 dumps its Ford-sourced 3.7-litre V6 for a new Mazda 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbo.
The force-fed donk’s 170kW on regular unleaded is down from the 204kW of the V6, however, torque has taken a big step in the right direction, with the new model peaking at 420Nm, well up on the 366Nm of the outgoing atmo engine.
Even better is that the torque peak now arrives at 2000rpm, less than half the revs of the V6 needed to deliver max twist (4250rpm).
Fuel use has dropped from a claimed 11.2 litres per 100km (it was higher in earlier iterations of the same car) to 8.8L/100km.
First published in the May 2017 issue of Wheels Magazine, Australia’s most experienced and most trusted car magazine since 1953.