Technology upgrades keep the Mazda CX-9 at the pointy end of the large SUV segment – and the addition of a sporty new GT SP grade will please many.
Since the second-generation Mazda CX-9 hit the market in 2016, this large SUV has picked up many accolades – in Australia and beyond. That was down to the CX-9’s near-ideal blend of handsome lines, impressive driving dynamics, and an interior that punched well beyond the mainstream price tag.
Now, in an effort to keep this flagship SUV fresh, the 2021 Mazda CX-9 has swung in for a subtle midlife update that upgrades the technology offer inside while refining the range with two new grades.
At the top of the 2021 CX-9 lineup is a new $73,875 Azami LE model, which exclusively offers a six-seat cabin layout with plush, individual captain’s chairs in the middle row. Unlike other CX-9 grades, the Azami LE is AWD-only.
The other new addition is the CX-9 on test here: the 2021 GT SP, priced at $67,490 if front-wheel-drive will suffice, while AWD adds $4,000.
Based on the long-running GT grade that is $500 more affordable, the SP picks up sportier black-finished 20-inch alloy wheels (a switch from silver), plus rich burgundy leather upholstery in the cabin. Paired with the new Polymetal Grey hue seen here, the GT SP is really quite distinctive.
Otherwise, the exterior design remains the same crowd-pleasing mix of organic lines and key Mazda cues that take in a more shallow-rake tailgate than some rivals, and of course, a prominent, rear-mirror-filling grille.
Like all Mazda CX-9 grades, the new GT SP is fitted with a particularly muscular turbocharged petrol engine. The 2.5-litre four-cylinder unit produces 170kW of power and 420Nm of torque: considerably more pulling force than other petrol-powered rivals, and even some diesel SUVs.
When the turbo four-cylinder was introduced in 2016, some initially had doubts – especially given the four-pot replaced a V6 in the original, Ford-derived CX-9.
Well, any doubts were immediately put aside after, well, about 100 metres of driving. The CX-9 is effortlessly torquey and tractable, building speed rapidly off the line and never struggling up hills or when overtaking on the motorway.
Naturally, all that capability from a petrol engine in an SUV that weighs two tonnes means fuel consumption can be quite high – this needs to be factored into the CX-9’s running costs, which we’ve laid out in a dedicated section below.
We’ve tested many second-gen CX-9s, and the fuel consumption virtually always works out to between 10L/100km and 12L/100km depending on the conditions – higher in town, and lower on the open road, where you might scrape into the single digits.
The CX-9 will happily accept Australia’s most affordable E10 ethanol-petrol blend, but the engine will make a little more power if you treat it to CX-9 – and with a hard-working turbo engine like this, we’d stick to premium.
Many seven-seat SUVs, like the CX-9’s new key rival – the Hyundai Palisade – offer an optional diesel engine to better cope with heavy loads. The CX-9, which is mainly targeted at the petrol-dominated American market, does not.
That said, Mazda sell the (narrower) three-row CX-8 with a 2.2-litre turbo diesel engine with even more torque despite being considerably more frugal.
That said, we prefer the CX-9. The recent facelift has done nothing to alter the ride and handling characteristics of this large SUV … which is good, because the CX-9 was already the class benchmark.
The big Mazda easily eclipses the Toyota Kluger’s lumbering demeanour. It embarrasses the unsettled Nissan Pathfinder. And the CX-9 still manages to out-handle the admittedly impressive new Hyundai Palisade – which can seat one extra passenger.
Quite simply, the CX-9 impresses because it rides really comfortably during daily duties, but on a great country road, it also offers keen drivers more than a modicum of dynamic prowess, with feelsome steering and a communicative, well-balanced chassis.
Even on large 20-inch wheels, relatively low profile tyres and a single mode suspension, the CX-9 has an absorbent ride and brilliant compliance over bumps at low or high speeds. Despite that compliance, it isn’t boaty, or soft – helping to keep car sickness at bay.
Awkwardly, the CX-9 has a clearly superior suspension to some German luxury SUVs that are far more expensive. A BMW X5 or Mercedes-Benz GLE both to be carefully specified with small wheels and air suspension to even match the CX-9’s ride quality, let alone better it.
Doing so would set you back nearly $110,000 for either the BMW or the Mercedes-Benz, reaffirming our long-running argument that the CX-9 represents excellent value for money. Some rivals are cheaper, but they are cheaper for a reason.
The only mainstream three-row SUV that we think plays in the same ballpark as the CX-9 is the Skoda Kodiaq 132TSI (from $49,490), which is a size smaller than the Mazda – but offers similar practicality and an equally good ride-handling balance.
Refinement in the Mazda is also deeply impressive. Ten years ago, this brand were known for rowdy interiors, but that’s no longer the case. Across most road surfaces and at most road speeds, the CX-9 is quite serene inside.
On the safety front, the CX-9 is decent, but as a car that is five years old underneath, it doesn’t have quite as many semi-autonomous systems as some rivals.
There is forward AEB and reversing AEB across the range, but no junction AEB – and Mazda’s lane keeping aid is far more rudimentary than the Hyundai Group’s well-tuned lane trace on the Palisade, Santa Fe, or the Kia Sorento.
Also, while the CX-9 includes blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert, we think that a 360-degree camera should be standard – this is a big barge. However, you have to step up to the Azami to get that feature.
It’s the interior of the Mazda CX-9 that has received the biggest upgrade for 2021.
It’s out with the old eight-inch screen, and in with a replacement 10.25-inch unit that is sleeker, wider, and much higher resolution. It also runs entirely new software pinched from Mazda’s newer 3 small car and CX-30 small SUV.
Those models saw Mazda do away with touchscreens. That decision runs against the present tide of the motoring industry – but it’s one that we approve of. Broken-up Australian roads make accurately hitting a target on a touchscreen hard. Simple physical controls make key functions easier to get right the first time, and the Mazda does well here.
Interestingly, when the second-generation CX-9 launched, some pundits thought that the rotary knob that could control its then-smaller screen was reminiscent of the Audi Q7. Now, Audi has ditched that function while Mazda have doubled down on it.
Anyway, the 10.25-inch screen that drives the CX-9’s infotainment is an improvement. The software isn’t as intuitive or deeply-featured as BMW iDrive – probably still the industry benchmark – but it isn’t bad. The integrated navigation, DAB digital radio, Bluetooth audio, and wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connections all work as expected.
Many people will opt to use their smartphone through the screen as this is the easiest input method of all, though the fact this new CX-9 update doesn’t transform CarPlay and Android Auto to a wireless connection is a missed opportunity to get the CX-9 ahead of most rivals.
It should be noted, though, that the entry-level Sport and second-tier Touring grades miss the new screen and software, and continue to soldier on with the previous generation system that is quite dated.
Like the GT that sits beneath it, the GT SP includes a surround-sound Bose stereo that sounds absolutely cracking, rendering songs with clear bass and treble tones.
Unlike the GT, which costs $500 less, the GT SP is exclusively upholstered in a rich burgundy red leather inside, which looks sporty – and premium.
Unlike the smaller CX-5, which suffers from seat squabs that are too short to be supportive, the CX-9 has great front seats that offer long distance comfort.
Most CX-9 grades score leather on the seats: the base Sport grade has cloth, while the Touring has black leather. The GT has black hide or classy ‘natural stone’ beige. Above the red-trimmed GT SP, the Azami and Azami LE step up to softer nappa leather in either walnut brown or pure white.
Cold mornings are soothed by heated seats from the Touring up, while the GT adds heating for the outboard second row seats, too. The Azami and Azami LE pair go further, adding cooling up front as well. There is a decent range of electric adjustment and our testers all found a good driving position was achievable.
Build quality is excellent in the CX-9, with tight shut lines and no rattles from any trim. The materials used about the cabin are also above average, with soft padding fitted to almost every surface and a more plush ambience than, say, the Toyota Kluger.
Move to the second row and there’s enough headroom and shoulder room for three adults to fit side-by-side, with easy access with a comfortable hip point. The second row slides and reclines for extra flexibility.
The third row in the CX-9 will just about fit a six-footer, though most would regard the way-back as a kid only zone. The Mazda’s tapered roofline limits headroom more than the squared-off Hyundai Palisade – and it’s worth noting that the Palisade can seat eight, not seven.
Naturally, if you need even more space – like room for eight people plus suitcases for everybody – you should be looking at a van like the new Kia Carnival.
With the CX-9 set up in five seat mode, the boot measures a decent 810 litres behind a power tailgate … that operates quite slowly. Put up all three rows and cargo room drops to 230 litres – enough for the school bags or a small shop, but that’s about it.
Running a large, two-tonne turbocharged petrol seven-seater is never going to be cheap, but the CX-9 does rein in costs in a few ways.
While it does consume more fuel than diesel-powered competitors like the Palisade, the Mazda’s fuel economy falls consistently between 10L/100km and 12L/100km in a regular mix of driving. That’s not too bad. Plus, you can use 91-octane fuel – though the Mazda rewards premium octanes by producing more power.
Servicing the CX-9 is completed every year or 10,000 kilometres – whichever comes first. Those intervals are a bit short: the norm for most cars is to allow 15,000km between scheduled maintenance.
Mazda publishes capped servicing prices, though these are subject to change. At the time of writing, the CX-9 GT SP AWD cost $1,134 for three years or 30,000km of scheduled servicing, or $1,905 for five years or 50,000 kilometres.
By comparison, the Hyundai Palisade diesel cost $1,407 for three years or 45,000 kilometres, or $2,345 for five years or 75,000 kilometres – note the higher allowed distances there. Skoda’s Kodiaq has the same maintenance intervals, but you can pre-purchase a three year service pack for $900 or a five year pack for $1,700.
At least the Mazda is more convenient to maintain than the Toyota Kluger, which needs to visit the dealer every six months or 10,000km.
Like other Mazdas, the CX-9 is covered under a five year, unlimited kilometre warranty. That level of coverage is now the norm among new cars in Australia.
The updates to the Mazda CX-9 for 2021 are enough to keep this family SUV right at the pointy end of the large crossover class in Australia.
New and improved technology inside is welcome, but the fundamentals of the CX-9 remain highly competitive even five years after this shape launched. The largest Mazda is terrific to drive and sports a plush and well-made cabin that fits the whole family.
The addition of a racier GT SP grade, with its fashionable black wheels and burgundy leather at a reasonable $500 impost over the more traditional GT will also be welcome for many.
It’s for those reasons we continue to recommend the CX-9 without any major reservations.
Variant tested GT SP (AWD)
Key specs (as tested)
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