MAZDA CX-9

JAPAN’S MOST FEARLESS CAR MAKER REDEFINES WHAT A SEVEN-SEAT FAMILY CAR CAN BE

NATHAN PONCHARD

Q U I N T E T D O U B L E

This is the fifth time in Wheels Car of the Year history that a manufacturer has won the award two years back-to-back. The first was Ford (1965 XP Falcon, 1966 XR Falcon), quickly followed by Holden (1968 HK Monaro, 1969 LC Torana). In the ’80s, it was on-song Mitsubishi (1984 Nimbus, 1985 TM Magna), and more recently, Volkswagen’s hatchback double-act (2009 Mk6 Golf, 2010 Polo).

The CX-9’s COTY win takes Mazda’s tally to seven, four of which have been in the last 14 years.

“FOUR-POT TURBO WORKS BEAUTIFULLY ... EFFORTLESSLY FLEXIBILE”

TOBY HAGON

“SUCH A CONVINCING BLEND OF DESIGN, PRACTICALITY AND PERFORMANCE”

ALEX INWOOD

THE FACT it has taken more than a decade since the Ford Territory’s landmark Car of the Year win for another SUV to snatch the crown proves that this award is no popularity contest.

In the intervening 12 years, SUVs have risen from 18 percent of the total Australian market to 37 percent in 2016, just four points shy of the dwindling passenger-car percentage.

So it’s somehow timely – perhaps even well overdue – that Mazda has delivered us a seven-seat family SUV as carefully designed, thoroughly engineered and wholly desirable as the new-generation CX-9.

Given the almighty strength of the competition, it’s almost impossible to think of a year where victory could’ve been sweeter. That the CX-9 managed to elbow its way through the final COTY round against the almost intimidating Audi A4 and Mercedes- Benz E-class ranges – and win – is testament to the towering capability of this premium-mainstream, US-designed, Japanese-built SUV.

As judge Mike Duff so eloquently pointed out, “the stand out is that [the CX-9] is so much better than it needs to be … Mazda didn’t need to work half as hard as it has to create the best car in its segment.”

If that sounds like faint praise, it shouldn’t.

This seven-seat SUV is so vastly superior to the competition, you’d need to stretch to a premium SUV like Audi’s superb Q7 to try and better it – for double the price...

Proof that the CX-9 is by far the most convincing SkyActiv model Mazda has ever produced came in COTY’s final round. A challenging four-up, mixedsurface, cabin-comfort and ride-quality battle against the two finest variants the Germans could muster – the A4 2.0TFSI Allroad wagon and the airsuspended E400 4matic sedan – revealed the $42K CX-9 Sport delivered not only superior suppleness and smoothness, but also a quieter ride and the most comfortable second-row seat. In a Mazda! Cue the sound of dropping jaws and denting German pride.

From the moment you lay eyes on it, the CX-9 demands attention. Its cab-backwards design goes against the grain of how to package a large, peoplecarrying breeder bus, yet the striking result is a handsome seven-seat wagon – engineered from the inside out – that blitzes its category for interior comfort and versatility, despite being smaller (and more than 130kg lighter) than the model it replaces.

Indeed, a true indicator of the CX-9’s excellence is how it manages to meld together the core COTY disciplines – Function, Technology, Efficiency, Safety, Value – into one consistently satisfying whole.

For example, the technology it brings isn’t just for impressing the neighbours. An aluminium bonnet and front guards in a $42K base-spec seven-seater brings real-world chassis-balance and fuel-efficiency gains, not to mention a value-for-money prize. But it’s the fitment of crucial safety technology like autonomous emergency braking across the range – at both the front and while reversing – that not only elevates the CX-9’s value factor even further, but actually has the potential to save lives.

How do we know that? Because we tested it. The CX-9’s AEB proved the most consistently effective of the entire 28-strong COTY field. Combined with a fluent, intelligent ESC calibration and a level of broad-ranging dynamic competence we’ve rarely (if ever) seen in an SUV since the 2004 Territory, the CX-9 heralds a significant advancement in the active and passive safety of seven-seat SUVs.

At every stage of the judging process, our test CX-9s – front-drive, base-model Sport and topspec Azami AWD – were at the pointy end of the field. Ford’s You Yangs proving ground revealed the big Mazda can hustle its way around a corner with unexpected poise, and maintain its cool on an

undulating, pothole-riddled straight at any speed.

But there were also a few weaknesses in the CX-9’s repertoire. Its steering could be a bit quicker and less prone to (mild) kickback over corrugations, and its chassis is definitely superior to its tyres. The Mazda’s turbo-petrol ‘SkyActiv’ donk is so torquey that even the AWD Azami on Falken Ziex 255/50R20s could be felt to torque steer a little before sending drive to the rear. And neither variant achieved short braking distances on dirt or wet concrete. Extreme weather conditions across the hilltops of our road loop also caused one of the CX-9’s front windows to suck outward slightly at 100km/h-plus speeds, depending on the wind direction.

While we’re on the topic, the front seats of all CX-9s, regardless of trim or manual/electric movement, have no under-thigh adjustment (merely electric height, rising from the back), leaving them too flat for some body types over longer distances, and the dual centre-front armrests can nudge against elbows on twisty roads. Anyone over 190cm may also find the Mazda’s centre-row seat a bit too commanding, but for everyone else, it’s brilliant.

It’s the seven-seat packaging that the CX-9 seriously aces. The fact that 40-plus-year-old adult males can access the rear row, sit comfortably, and easily converse with the driver without raised voices says volumes about the huge strides Mazda has achieved with refinement. While there are no air vents back there (Mazda claims it didn’t want to spoil the styling and packaging by plumbing aircon through the roof), there’s enough air volume spewing (no pun intended) from the centre-row pair, the under-seat vents from the front, and even the high-mounted dashboard quartet to fill the CX-9’s hushed cabin with chilled crispness.

You can also bolt a proper child’s seat into the third row without impacting on luggage space – an extreme rarity for a seven-seater – and when said seats are folded away, the CX-9 exposes a vast luggage cavern that’s among the finest in its class. (Though you’ll pay $480 extra for a retractable luggage cover.)

But loveliest of all is its interior quality. A superb leather-bound steering wheel, even on the base model, and excellent dashboard presentation and finish mark this mainstream Mazda as something far beyond its station in life.

And then there’s its drivetrain – a spirited, super-torquey 2.5-litre turbo-petrol four with enough spunk to match the most accelerative seven-seaters in its class but with fuel economy at least 20 percent better than any V6 rival (including the previous-gen CX-9). The 170kW/420Nm CX-9 unit has enough muscle to spend much of its life comfortably operating in the 2000-3000rpm range, auto shifter in Drive, riding a wave of lush torque, but fill the tank with 98 octane and you get 186kW, not to mention performance once reserved for muscle sedans.

Zero to 100km/h in 7.7sec, anyone?

Yet like the COTY-winning MX-5 before it, the CX-9’s excellence is a win for democratic motoring. At an incredible $42,490, the front-drive Sport proves that you don’t need to be wealthy to experience polished, luxurious refinement. And just because you bought a seven-seat SUV, doesn’t mean you can’t extract pleasure from driving it.

Even at $63,390, the flagship Azami AWD gives a buyer pretty much everything they could want – thumping Bose audio, head-up instrument display, sunroof, chunder-friendly leather and a striking driveway presence – for half the price of its European equivalents.

CX-9 began its journey to COTY glory by wiping the floor with its rivals in a 10-car Megatest earlier in 2016. And it rounded out this knife-edge Car of the Year win by proving that a humble Mazda can out-ride and out-refine two of the finest premium cars Germany can muster.

Call it a victory for the people.

MAZDA CX-9

BODY Type 5-door wagon, 7 seats L/W/H 5075/1969/1747mm Wheelbase 2930mm Track (f/r) 1663/1663mm Boot capacity 230 – 810 litres Weight 1845 – 1924kg DRIVETRAIN Layout front engine (east-west), FWD/AWD Engine 2488cc 4cyl turbo (170kW/420Nm) Transmission 6-speed automatic CHASSIS Brakes ventilated discs (f), solid discs (r) Tyres 255/60R18 – 255/50R20 Spare space-saver ADR81 fuel consumption 8.4 – 8.8L/100km CO2 emissions 197 – 206g/km Front airbags Side airbags Curtain airbags Knee airbags Collision mitigation Crash rating 5-star (ANCAP) Prices $42,490 – $63,390 3-year retained value 54 – 56% Service interval 12 months/10,000km

M O R E T H A N J U S T S P I N

In making the change to a turbo-petrol four for CX-9, Mazda’s engineers needed solutions to ensure virtually zero lag and appropriately crisp throttle response. It came with the introduction of a raft of measures, including a manifold design that, at low revs, harnesses the energy of the individual exhaust pulses from each cylinder to keep the turbine spinning, thus reducing lag. Also helping is a super-high 10.5:1 compression ratio, which required innovative cooling techniques to avoid detonation.

Upshot? It works: this is a r brilliantly responsive engine.

“TERRIFIC CHASSIS REFINEMENT. RIDE AND HANDLING VERY WELL SORTED”

JOHN CAREY