The Mazda CX-9 has been a fine flagship for the Hiroshima-based brand for five years now, so how's it holding up after all that time? We grab the keys to the cheapest variant on offer to find out.

What is it?

The 2021 Mazda CX-9 is the Japanese company’s flagship SUV and has been a critical success since it first launched in 2016. Although the range has been spruiked for the 2021 model year with the addition of some new variants – the sporty GT SP, the luxe Azami LE, and the celebratory 100th Anniversary Special Edition – the version we have on test here, the Sport, is the cheapest version available at $45,990 in FWD form.

Why are we testing it?

With the keys to this particular variant of the CX-9 having been tossed my way for the second year in a row and no substantial changes having been made to this trim level since I last tested it 12 months prior, this quick spin in it serves as an opportunity to check back in with the former Wheels Car of the Year winner and see how it’s holding up after half a decade on sale.

So there’s nothing new about the Mazda CX-9 for 2021 then?

Not when it comes to the entry-level Sport model you see here, no. While the new GT SP variant brings with it some new blacked-out looks, the Azami LE adds a unique six-seat layout with heated and ventilated second-row captain’s chairs, all variants from the Touring up gain paddle shifters, and all models from the GT up gain a larger 10.25-inch infotainment screen and a wireless smartphone charging pad, the Sport remains identical despite a marginal $70 price rise.

Okay… well what’s it like on the inside then?

It’s good, but it’s showing its age in some places, no doubt. The tacked-on 7.0-inch infotainment screen that sits atop the dashboard is the most noticeable sign of its age, as the big bezel that surrounds the tiny display is a constant reminder that you probably should have spent a bit more money. Standard satellite navigation, digital radio, and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto integration do mean that while it’s a tiny display, it is still an impressive and up-to-scratch system, though.

While the new, higher-end 2021 Mazda CX-9 variants add plenty in the way of upmarket trim such as real wood and Nappa leather, the Sport certainly feels like a base-spec by contrast with its cloth seats and black plastic. Still, there’s nothing wrong with that though as no part of this interior feels offensive, with it all feeling incredibly well-made despite the lower grade items, and there’s no question that it does feel to be worth its price point.

Impressively, a head-up display is fitted as standard, and it’s a proper one that projects onto the windscreen, not a flip-up unit some Mazda models previously featured. Although the Sport misses out on the Bose audio system of some higher-spec versions, the standard speaker system found here actually delivers pretty crisp sound quality thanks to the switch from analogue to digital signalling. (Okay, so that’s one change the Sport benefits from, not that you can physically see it.)

Three-zone climate control is also impressively included as standard, which is a clear display of the attention being given to rear occupant comfort. Certainly, unlike many seven-seat SUVs, the CX-9 offering three rows of seating is no afterthought as there’s an impressive amount of room in all three rows even for adults – especially given the second row seats are on rails, allowing for them to be slid forwards slightly to give third-row passengers even more room than they already have.

During my time with the car I did seat six adults inside (last time I had one on test, I fitted the full seven) and although the rearmost passengers were impressed with the amount of room on offer, they did note that the steeply-raked window design did make it hard to see out of. At least the CX-9’s rounded behind does still allow for a good amount of luggage space with the third-row in place.

I’ll admit that the mechanism for folding and sliding the second-row seats to access the third row could be more cleverly thought-out, too – with the latch at the top tilting and sliding them and the one at the bottom simply folding it flat, it may make it more difficult for your kids to let themselves back there, and it’s something that’s certainly a sign of the CX-9’s age.

Some minor gripes aside, though, the CX-9’s cabin does still hold up very well in terms of spaciousness and comfort, and higher spec’d models are still up there when it comes to tech and materials, but at the entry level at least, it is starting to show some signs of its age.

What’s the 2021 Mazda CX-9 like to drive?

One thing that’s a commonality across the 2021 Mazda CX-9 range is the way that it drives, as all models are powered by the same engine – a beefy 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine that makes 170kW and 420Nm. A six-speed torque converter automatic transmission is standard on all models as is front-wheel drive, although all-wheel drive is available as a $4000 option across the range aside from on the Azami LE and 100th Anniversary Special Edition where it’s fitted as standard.

This turbo donk was one of the highlights of the CX-9’s overall package when it first debuted, and it still holds up today as a mighty good engine – something proven by it having been pilfered for other Mazda models such as the CX-5 and Mazda6 as a performance engine option.

Having been tuned to blend the smoothness and refinement of a petrol engine with the low-end torque delivery of a diesel, its strong pulling power around the 2000rpm mark makes progress feel effortless, while being a petrol unit it’s more than happy to be wrung all the way out towards the redline.

The six-speed ‘box is a well-geared unit and serves as a reminder that six forward ratios really is all you need as it’s never hunting for gears or slurring its way through a stack of overdrive ratios. It shifts promptly, smoothly, and directly, too, and does exactly what a good automatic should – it lets you forget about it.

Ultimately, smoothness is what this drivetrain is all about, and that’s something my five passengers were keen to highlight as well as I played chauffeur on a Sunday birthday outing. Despite it sounding a tad gruff when you do really give it the beans, as far as the feeling of the CX-9’s drivetrain is concerned you’d be forgiven for thinking it ran on pouring cream, not something as crude as petrol.

The ride quality, of course, is the other big part of the smoothness equation, and the way it’s been set up is bang on the money for a family SUV like this. Able to iron out all but the worst of bumps, it still has enough firmness to help the CX-9 handle impressively well for an SUV of this size, and while I’d argue that newcomers like the all-new Kia Sorento do have the edge on it in the handling department these days, it’s certainly taken some time for the ageing Mazda to be outclassed when it comes to dynamics.

I’d argue that opting for all-wheel drive is worth it if you’re a keen driver as in front-drive form there is a bit of unwanted wheelspin and torque steer to contend with, but for the average person you’ll probably be wiser saving the four-grand for when you’re next allowed to go on a holiday.

And so, it’s much the same story as it is on the inside when it comes to the way that the CX-9 drives, as it’s still hugely impressive in most regards, but it’s only just around the edges where it’s showing its age, and where its much younger competition is getting the edge on it. Still, it still impresses big time for a vehicle with its roots dating back so far by comparison.

How do the numbers add up?

For the Sport FWD model tested here, quite favourably indeed. With the step up to a Touring model representing a not insignificant $8000 jump and most of the kit you’d ever need already included here – a HUD, digital ratio, standard sat nav, and three-zone climate control were not that long ago the preserves of top-end model variants – I’d argue that unless you’re wanting one of the leather-clad range-topping CX-9 variants, the basic Sport is the one to go for at an incredibly fair $45,990.

In addition to a five-year unlimited kilometre warranty, Mazda offers five years of capped price servicing. With a 12 month/10,000km service interval, the cost alternates between $363 and $408 per visit, although the cabin air filter and brake fluid will both need changing every 40,000km which are an additional $105 and $96 respectively.

If there’s one area the CX-9 is not too nice on your hip pocket, it’s at the petrol pump where the powerful engine’s noticeable thirst comes into play. Using 11.3L/100km during my time with it – a figure that will only be higher if you opt for an all-wheel drive model – and premium unleaded recommended to extract the most performance out of it (although it is 91 RON compatible) it could sting you more than you’d expect if you’re coming from a diesel seven-seater.

So, what’s the verdict?

Although the base Sport model does show the CX-9’s age around the edges more than most other variants in the model’s broad range, it’s arguably the one to go for if you’re after an all-around solid seven-seat family SUV.

With a strong list of standard features, an incredibly spacious and comfortable interior, and a smooth but powerful drivetrain, it’s still one of the most impressive offerings in the class even if it’s slightly outclassed by some newer rivals.

Although it might be due for a proper facelift and more than just some minor updates, the CX-9 is still very much worth buying in its refreshed 2021 model year guise.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Sport FWD List Price: $45,990
  • 8/10
    Performance - 8/10
  • 8/10
    Ride & Handling - 8/10
  • 8/10
    Tech & Features - 8/10
  • 8.5/10
    Practicality - 8.5/10
  • 8.5/10
    Value for Money - 8.5/10

Pros: Excellently equipped for a base model, genuinely able to accomodate six or seven, smooth and punchy turbo engine still a peach, strong value for money
Cons: Starting to feel a bit old, raked rear window makes third-row feel slightly claustrophobic, second-row folding and sliding mechanisms could be more clear and clever

Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Mazda Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel.

Patrick Jackson
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