It’s no secret that the Mazda CX-9 is one of the very best of the big, seven-seat SUVs on the market right now, if not the best, as it not only served up surprisingly stylish looks and a spacious and ergonomic high-quality interior when it first launched back in 2016, but delivered remarkably impressive performance and driving dynamics, too.
But with it now entering its fourth model year, the CX-9 has reached the territory where it risks starting to feel its age as new rivals begin to come along – even with Mazda having given it a few tweaks for 2020.
To find out if these changes are enough to keep it feeling on top of its game, the task was challengingly entrusted to the $45,920 Sport FWD model, the cheapest CX-9 you can buy, to see if it can prove that this big bus still has the chops to remain the class-leading award-winner it was when it first came along.
While there are a number of new additions across the range, many others bypass the Sport model on test here – most notably, an enlarged 9.0-inch infotainment screen is available on all other models, while there’s only a 7.0-inch screen here that looks tiny in this big interior. An improved touchless powered tailgate and adaptive LED headlights also aren’t to be seen here.
As for the updates that do feature, some are admittedly quite trivial – a new key fob taken from the Mazda3, new badges, and a lick of grey for the 18-inch alloy wheels – but others are, thankfully very useful and well-thought-out.
For instance, an Auto Hold function that allows you to take your foot off the brake pedal when stopped at a red light without the car moving forwards, USB ports for the third-row occupants, and a redesigned lever that’s easier for kids to reach to fold the second-row seats forwards to allow access back there are all welcome additions that are easy to take for granted – the sort that are so intuitive you wonder why Mazda didn’t just put them in there in the first place.
The only possible explanation as to why that may be is because Mazda must have been so busy loading it with so much other kit that it simply forgot about all that until now.
Even in this entry-level model, three-zone automatic climate control, a head-up display, one-touch power windows, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, radar-guided cruise control, and a whole raft of active safety tech all features as standard, meaning there’s little that appears to be missing.
Sure, it may not feature the plush natural materials of the range-topping Azami model, but the cloth seat upholstery and door trims, and all other key contact points and interior materials have a distinctly high-quality feel. It’s incredibly roomy, too, with an afternoon outing proving that it’ll easily accommodate seven adults inside while still allowing for plenty of luggage space behind the third row.
One other thing that remains largely unchanged is the way that it drives, and that’s a very good thing, quite frankly, as the way the current CX-9 moves itself along has always been most impressive.
Key to it all is its fantastic engine – a potent 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder that makes 170kW and 420Nm running on 91RON. Originally debuting in the CX-9, it’s such a good thing that it’s been pinched for use in the higher-performance variants of the Mazda6 and CX-5, so it’s no surprise that it gets even this 1.9-tonne barge moving along with ease.
Although there’s an initial hint of lag from the big turbo off the line, once it spools up to deliver the full force of its torque at just 2000rpm it really does start to pile on the speed effortlessly and progressively.
Despite the trend most car manufacturers are following these days of delivering automatic transmissions with more and more gears, much like how guitar-makers are adding more and more strings to their extended-range instruments, Mazda continues to prove that six is actually all you need.
And so although the six-speed torque converter does sound a bit behind the times in a world of eight-speeds similarly to how a Fender Telecaster seems like a product of yesteryear compared to an eight-string Ibanez, it does still get the job done perfectly fine – not only are the ratios spaced out perfectly to make the most of the power without the need for constant shifting, but when it does need to shift, it’s prompt and smooth even when you try to catch it off guard.
Across the four-tiered Australian range, both front- and all-wheel drive are available, with the car on test here being front-wheel drive only. While the average person won’t really notice that it is, there are some drawbacks. Most noticeable is that because the engine makes so much torque, getting it off the line without provoking wheelspin is unavoidable if you are at-all aggressive with the throttle, although in fairness to it, that is a bit like setting off some fireworks and complaining about them being too bright and shooting too high.
Despite only being front-drive, torque steer is well managed, however, as is understeer through the corners thanks to a new and more advanced version of Mazda’s G-Vectoring system, which also helps with keeping body-roll in check.
It really does drive like a much smaller car than it is – I’m not sure that I’d call it completely agile as the clever all-wheel drive system not fitted to this car does make a world of difference when it comes to powering through and out of corners, but the responsive steering and expertly-managed ride mean that this big thing handles like a bison that’s been given a cheetah’s legs.
More importantly, though, is that it’s comfortable and compliant on the road, soaking up all the road imperfections you’ll commonly encounter with aplomb, keeping both you up front and your friends or children in the back happy.
While the CX-9’s 2020 update is clearly a case of evolution rather than a revolution, it’s not like it really needed much to be added or changed to keep it on top of its game.
Sure, the tech in this Sport model is showing its age compared to that in the range-topper, but for the money, this, the cheapest CX-9, presents as strong case for itself as an affordable family hauler as the top-trim Azami does for being a mainstream product that rivals the quality of premium products.
And as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to the way it drives, it hasn’t aged a day since 2016. Fun to drive and incredibly practical? This still proves today that you can very much have both.
2020 Mazda CX-9 Sport FWD List Price: $45,920
Pros: Effortless and responsive turbocharged engine, rides beautifully and handles confidently, incredibly well-equipped for a base model, outstanding value-for-money
Cons: Smaller infotainment screen and lack of digital instrument cluster makes it feel behind the times, struggles to put the power down at times without all-wheel drive
In a nutshell: The CX-9 is still at the top of its game and at the top of the class, and although the high-end variants are what you really want, this base model is nothing to turn your nose up at.
Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Mazda Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel. Please also note that the testing referenced in this article, including travelling with seven occupants in the car, was undertaken in advance, prior to the Australian Government’s restrictions on public gatherings of more than two people to aid in limiting the spread of coronavirus that are applicable at the time of publication.