Fam­ily du­ties

Mazda heads for the top of the class with its af­ford­able seven-seater

Herald Sun - Motoring - - FIRST DRIVE - JOSHUA DOWL­ING NA­TIONAL MO­TOR­ING ED­I­TOR joshua.dowl­ing@news.com.au

MAZDA’S fam­ily SUV has gone to fin­ish­ing school. The nextgen­er­a­tion CX-9, due in Aus­tralian show­rooms in June, is new from the ground up and has ex­tra pol­ish.

The ar­rival of the over­hauled seven-seater com­pletes Mazda’s vis­ual makeover — all pas­sen­ger cars now have the com­pany’s bold grille and squinty head­lights.

Mazda gave the me­dia a pre­view drive of the CX-9 in ad­vance of the Los An­ge­les mo­tor show last week.

Rather than driv­ing it on a race­track or an au­to­bahn, for once the test route took in the daily grind, to bet­ter re­flect re­al­world use.

The two-hour test put us in the thick of peak-hour free­way traf­fic and the stop-start snarl of the sub­urbs. It’s the same test route en­gi­neers em­barked on be­fore they started de­vel­op­ment of the new model.

Mazda stud­ied the typ­i­cal speeds that fam­ily wag­ons logged on the daily com­mute and school run.

They drove their test ve­hi­cles, equipped with di­ag­nos­tics to cap­ture the data, in school pick-up and drop-off traf­fic, and in the grind of the work­place com­mute.

What the boffins dis­cov­ered sur­prised them, al­though it prob­a­bly would not sur­prise any­one who en­dures this task daily.

Fam­ily SUVs don’t need a high revving en­gine, as the en­gines barely rev above 3000rpm and the ac­cel­er­a­tor pedal is rarely pushed to the floor (ex­cept for, say, merg­ing on to a free­way or over­tak­ing).

SUVs also need a gen­tler throt­tle re­sponse. In other words when you push the ac­cel­er­a­tor pedal, you don’t want the gear­box to sud­denly shift down a few gears and the en­gine to flare up, only to hit the brakes mo­ments later.

So Mazda did two things: it de­vel­oped a 2.5-litre four­cylin­der turbo en­gine that de­liv­ered most of its torque at low revs, rather than chase power. It also dulled the ini­tial throt­tle re­sponse so the CX-9 is more stress-free in stop-start driv­ing. That’s why the CX-9’s out­put, 169kW ac­cord­ing to the brochure, may fail to im­press, es­pe­cially in a full-size, sev­enseat fam­ily SUV.

Torque, on the other hand, shines — the 420Nm of grunt from low revs will do the heavy lifting when mov­ing from rest.

The lat­ter fig­ure is what you’d ex­pect from a diesel en­gine and, no, there isn’t a diesel CX-9. In­stead, Mazda has cre­ated a re­spon­sive petrol en­gine with diesel-like urge and econ­omy, run­ning on reg­u­lar un­leaded. It’s ge­nius.

Fuel consumption fig­ures have yet to be pub­lished but Mazda prom­ises a 20 per cent re­duc­tion com­pared with the V6 it re­places.

DRIV­ING

Buy­ers up­dat­ing from the pre­vi­ous CX-9 will no­tice the im­prove­ments im­me­di­ately. The steer­ing isn’t as darty as the cur­rent model; there are more turns lock to lock so the steer­ing has a much more lin­ear and pre­dictable feel.

The sus­pen­sion is a touch softer over bumps and lumps but the CX-9 still feels se­cure in cor­ners.

It only feels a bit cum­ber­some in tight and nar­row turns but that crit­i­cism can be made of any ve­hi­cle of this size and mass.

Per­haps the big­gest im­prove­ment is the cabin. The dash­board has a clean, el­e­gant de­sign, one of the best in the busi­ness af­ter Mercedes-Benz.

Real tim­ber and alu­minium trim are used as cabin high­lights on top-end mod­els.

All the but­tons are well laid out and easy to use but for a couple of ex­cep­tions: Mazda’s “dial and push” cabin con­trol setup could be a lit­tle more in­tu­itive; and the op­tional head-up dis­play could be sup­ple­mented with a dig­i­tal speed dis­play near the in­stru­ment di­als.

The seats are snug but the side bol­sters don’t jab you when you get in or out. The third-row seats are eas­ier to ac­cess be­cause Mazda has length­ened the mid­dle of the body slightly.

Un­like most SUVs in this class, the new CX-9 will have three child-seat an­chor points in the sec­ond row and one each for the third-row pews.

Fam­i­lies in the­ory can fit five child seats at once (if the seats are nar­row enough) or three child re­straints (two in the sec­ond row and one in the third row) with room to spare.

Rather than a track or an au­to­bahn, the test route took in the daily grind, to bet­ter re­flect re­al­world use

Cur­tain airbag cov­er­age ex­tends to the third row, which still lacks air­con vents.

Mazda says cargo space is un­changed — the roof is lower but the cargo bay is wider.

VER­DICT

On ini­tial im­pres­sions, the CX-9 has the in­gre­di­ents to top the class of af­ford­able full-size seven-seat SUVs. Let’s just hope Mazda doesn’t get greedy with the price. Fam­i­lies have mouths to feed!

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