BMW X3 VS Mazda CX-8
- Scorchingly fast
- Gives its rivals a run
- Terrific chassis
- Apple CarPlay price is extortion
- Some (not me) find the ride too hard
- Needs more visual aggro
- Good value for money
- Practical space
- Smooth diesel engine
- Higher grades get very expensive
- Six-seat option only available on one variant
- Petrol engine needs more pep
Big fast SUVs have long been a guilty pleasure of mine. My brain has been telling me for years, since the first time I drove one - the first-gen Audi SQ5 - that they're silly and wasteful and 'not my kind of car'.
The Europeans - and latterly, the Americans - seem to be playing to an audience of me, convincing my prejudiced head that my try-anything heart is right: over-engined, jacked-up, stiffly-sprung family wagons are as much fun as anything else.
The X3 M is BMW's first full-fat M version of the X3, a car that has never really fired the imagination until this third generation. First we got the very good X3 M40i, now we have a 375kW, twin-turbo straight-six screamer, the M Competition.
|Engine Type||3.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
Everybody wants an SUV these days, so to cater to a quickly growing and diverse audience, car brands need to offer more than just the usual small, medium and large varieties.
It’s a neat trick that Mazda pulls off, but are there any compromises to packaging, quality, value or comfort as a result? We spent some time in the new 2021 CX-8 Touring SP to find out.
|Engine Type||2.2L turbo|
As much as I love the mental GLC63 - complete with V8 bellow - the X3 M is the one for drivers. While that's a silly thing to say on the surface - what 'driver' is going to buy an SUV? - this is the new reality. We love these things and they're not going away.
While it may not be quite as comfortable as any of its competition or have the V8 cachet of the Jag and the Merc, it still takes the fight to them in what is easily the roomiest and most practical in this niche part of the segment. And it's an enormous amount of fun.
You have plenty of choices in the mid-size fast SUV market - X3 M, GLC63, Alfa Stelvio Quadrifoglio - what's your choice?
Mazda’s updated CX-8 doesn’t really change much from the previous model, but it didn’t really need to fix what wasn’t broken.
The added Touring SP grade offers another choice for buyers who might be after some more upmarket features without the usual associated costs, while the Asaki LE’s captain’s chairs are genuinely a great feature.
The practical space and handsome looks are also big points in its favour, and even if the petrol engine can run out of huff towards the top end, the CX-8 remains a solid choice for those after a family hauler.
The third-generation X3 is by far the best-looking and isn't as badly blighted by BMW's current oversized, hatchback-straining grilles. It's not small, no, but in the flesh, it looks fine.
The usual M accoutrements are present, with new front and rear bumpers, skirts and a whopping set of 21-inch alloys. It looks different and marginally more aggro than the M40i and just enough so a vaguely interested observer will notice.
A quick look at the rest of the similarly-sized hard-and-fast SUVs reveals a similar approach.
The seats add some serious excitement, they're a proper set of M seats, complete with the slightly naff light-up X3 M logos in the backrest. But it's predictably well-made, is very comfortable and is full of nice materials.
The CX-8 clearly belongs in the Mazda SUV family, wearing the same understated yet elegant design language found on the smaller CX-5 and larger CX-9.
In fact, the CX-8 can be a little hard to differentiate from either of its siblings from a distance, so if you like what Mazda has done with its crossovers, you’ll like the look of the CX-8.
Personally, I like the styling of the CX-8, with its sleek headlights and taillights adding a bit of aggression to the aesthetic, while the chrome-trim found on the grille and window surrounds adds a touch of class.
The 19-inch wheels found in the more expensive grades do look much better than the 17-inch units on the Sport and Touring, however, and fill the wheel arches much better.
Our Touring SP also sports a number of blacked-out elements on the exterior to set it apart, including around the grille, the windows and the wheels.
We think it looks great, especially when contrasting against our test car’s Polymetal Grey colour, but we will point out that higher grades like the GT and Asaki nab a new grille that looks much more upmarket than the one fitted here.
It’s not just the outside that will be familiar to Mazda customers, as the interior mirrors much of the CX-5 and CX-8 as well.
Everything is laid out in a clear and easy to use fashion, and controls and ergonomics are spot on for the driver.
The Touring SP scores a number of nice touches on the inside, too, including suede accents and red-stitched highlights that do a lot to elevate the standard black-cloth interior.
Out test car is also fitted with an 8.0-inch multimedia system, but having experienced the larger 10.25-inch unit of higher grades recently, the bigger version is a vast improvement in terms of looks.
Overall, the CX-8 plays it a little safe with design, but it still looks distinct and upmarket, like all Mazda SUVs.
This X3, if you need reminding, is bigger than BMW's first SAV (ugh), the X5. That means plenty of room up front, heaps of legroom for most in the back and enough room for five aboard.
Front seat passengers score a pair of cupholders with a cover and the centre rear armrest has two more for a total of four. Add to that bottle holders in each door and your beverage holding capabilities are pretty standard.
The boot starts at an impressive 550 litres, almost tripling to 1600 litres when you drop the 40/20/40 split fold seat. You get a good flat load space when you do that, too.
Measuring 4900mm long, 1840mm wide, 1725mm tall and with a 2930mm wheelbase, the CX-8 is classified as a large SUV, but its width is actually the same as a one-size-smaller CX-5.
The length is closer to a CX-9, while the wheelbase is identical to its larger sibling, which means the CX-8 offers the practicality and space of a seven seater, but is easier to manoeuvre around town.
From the front seats, the cabin feels light and airy, thanks to a large glasshouse, while storage options extend to large door bins, a deep centre-storage cubby, two cupholders and a small tray for your phone/wallet.
The second-row seats also offer plenty of room for adults and will even slide forward and recline to get into the perfect position.
There is plenty of head and legroom, even for those sitting in the middle seat, but shoulder room can be a little compromised.
For those that seldom use the second-row middle seat, the Asaki LE features two captains’ chairs that are much more comfortable for adults, and even features ISOFIX and top-tether points for child seats.
In the second row, there are small door bins, a fold-down armrest with cupholders and air vents with climate controls, while the Asaki LE scores its own unique centre console with functions for seat heating.
The second-row doors are also a bit bigger than a CX-5, making ingress/egress to the third row a little easier, but it also means it can be trickier to get in and out of tighter parking spaces.
But if you are considering a CX-8, it’s probably because there is a third row of seats, and they are just what you’d expect.
It’s a little cramped in seats six and seven for my six-foot-tall frame, but there is decent legroom if the second-road seats scooch up a little.
Children shouldn’t have a problem being comfortable back there though, but charging points are only available on higher grades.
The boot of the CX-8 can swallow a decent amount of volume with all seats in place (209L), enough for a medium-sized suitcase and more than enough for some groceries or school bags.
Fold the third-row flat and that expands to 775L, making it easier to haul a whole family's luggage for a holiday.
Tucked underneath the boot is also a space-saver spare wheel for a little peace of mind on long road trips.
Price and features
For $157,900, before on-road costs, you may think this car should be absolutely loaded with stuff. And it is. Whether that's enough is up to you, but the price is about right for its segment.
It's worth remembering we only get the up-spec Competition version, BMW saw no point in offering the 'normal' version nobody was going to buy.
For your cash you get 21-inch alloys, multi-zone climate control, ambient interior lighting, keyless entry and start, active cruise control, electronic damper control, digital instrument cluster (not the new 'Live Cockpit'), sat nav, auto high beam, auto LED headlights, launch control, leather seats and steering wheel, electric front seats, head-up display, auto parking, power everything, auto wipers, huge panorama sunroof and a tyre repair kit.
The big central screen features BMW's iDrive, controlled by either the rotary dial or via touchscreen. It's a belter of a system and I reckon it's still the best, although you have to pay for Apple CarPlay - this remains controversial and I wonder how long the company will persist.
Mazda’s CX-8 has changed a lot since it was first introduced to local showrooms in mid-2018.
Back then, it was a diesel-only range, available in two grades, but now Mazda Australia offers the CX-8 across five trim levels, two engine choices and front- or all-wheel drive, for a total of 11 variants.
Opening the range is the Sport grade, available in petrol front-drive and diesel all-wheel-drive forms for $39,990 before on-road costs for the petrol and $46,990 for the diesel AWD.
The Touring is also available in petrol FWD and diesel AWD versions, priced at $46,790 and $53,790, while new for 2021 is the Touring SP, which builds on the second-to-bottom grade for an extra $1000.
Meanwhile, the GT trim is a diesel-only affair, in front ($59,290) and all-wheel-drive ($64,290) flavours.
The diesel-only Asaki tops the CX-8 line-up, in FWD ($62,790) and AWD ($66,790), but Mazda has also introduced the new Asaki LE range-topper that bumps up pricing to $69,920.
We’ll dig into the engine specs a bit further down, but standard equipment is impressive, thanks to the likes of tri-zone climate control, a head-up display, and an 8.0-inch multimedia system with satellite navigation, digital radio and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto support.
Less impressive on the base Sport grade are the 17-inch wheels and black-cloth interior, but a sub-$40,000 seven-seat SUV needs to make compromises somewhere.
Stepping up to the Touring adds more upmarket features such as keyless entry, push-button start, power-adjustable front seats, heated front seats and leather interior.
Our test car, the Touring SP, differs thanks to red-contrast stitching for the interior, suede accents for the seats and dashboard, and heated rear seats, as well as blacked-out exterior elements (more on that below).
The GT grade scores a larger 10.25-inch multimedia system, wireless smartphone charger, powered tailgate, wood interior trim, sunroof, 10-speaker Bose sound system and steering wheel paddle shifters.
Finally, the Asaki nabs a 7.0-inch driver display, Nappa leather interior, cooled front seats and a heated steering wheel, while the Asaki LE swaps out the second-row bench seat for two heated captain’s chairs and a bespoke centre console with cupholders and USB ports.
No matter how you slice it, this is an impressive equipment list, on any grade you go for, but we will point out that prices are up this year (from $80-$1350) across the line-up.
Engine & trans
The X3 M arrives from the US with a shiny new version of BMW's modular six-cylinder performance engine. While the M Performance M40i has a single turbo (B58) straight six, one tiny change to the name - from B58 to S58 - means a heck of a lot.
The S58 takes the same fundamental formula, bolts in two new single-scroll turbos, throws in forged conrods and a few other changes to boost the power to 375kW (500 horsepower) and 600Nm.
That torque figure is available across a nice wide 3350 revs, between 2600rpm and 5950rpm.
Getting all that to the wheels is the M version of BMW's all-wheel drive system xDrive and an active rear differential. The near-ubiquitous eight-speed ZF brokers the connection between that system and the flywheel and it's all impossibly smooth and feels bulletproof.
Our Touring SP petrol is powered by a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, which drives the front wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission.
The petrol engine outputs 140kW at 6000rpm and 252Nm at 4000rpm for a zero-to-100km/h run in a lethargic 10.9 seconds.
And depending on configuration, FWD or AWD, the oil-burning CX-8 can reach triple-digit speeds in as little as 9.6s.
A third-row of seats is not light, of course, with our Touring SP grade tipping the scales at just under 1800kg, while the Asaki LE weighs in at a positively porky 1977kg.
The reality, of course, is different but not unexpectedly so - a week in my hands in the suburbs and a cobweb-clearing early morning run delivered a 14.1L/100km average. Again, not bad given the kind grunt that's on tap.
The CX-8 in front-drive petrol form will return an official fuel-consumption figure of 8.1 litres per 100km, while opting for a diesel will lower that to 5.9L and 6.0L/100km for front and all-wheel-drive versions.
In my brief time with the Touring SP petrol, I averaged 9.4L/100km, mostly due to remaining in the inner-city and lugging around baby paraphernalia like a pram and car seat. Oh, and a baby.
The start-stop engine technology does help keep consumption down, but the near two-tonne kerb weight (1799-1978kg) doesn’t help fuel economy.
One of the things I love about BMW is the company's ability to produce a car that on one hand is so normal and competent for the every day but also produce a version that is completely doolally.
The fine folk at M obviously involve themselves from day one so that when they get a finished car they can get cracking on making it properly fast. Obviously, quite a bit has to change for that to happen.
The X3 M is very stiff. Pop the bonnet and you'll see a piece of whatever the metal equivalent of four-by-two keeping the two sides of the car apart.
This is something M does whenever it gets a vanilla BMW, as it has with the M2 and outgoing M3 and M4 pair. To name three. The difference from the driver's seat, when compared to, say, the M40i, is immediate.
The steering is super-responsive, the front of the car reacting incredibly quickly given the X3 M's two-tonne weight.
Even in Comfort mode, the X3 M's ride is pretty firm. That doesn't bother me especially, nor my wife, who has a keen sense of ride quality. It never really falls over the line of being uncomfortable but it's worth knowing if you're considering this and you have to carry passengers.
If you drive around town in either M1 or M2 (in the factory settings at least), you're mad - the suspension becomes very hard and the steering too heavy. In fact, the steering in its Super Sport setting is just too heavy and uncooperative.
Cheerfully belting the 7200rpm redline at every upshift, barking between gears and delivering torque the way a hungry Labrador delivers a headbutt if you get in between it and food, the straight-six is glorious.
The 4.1-second sprint from 0-100km/h is only part of the story. Not many cars can cover ground so quickly and fewer still SUVs of this size and weight can do it with such precision.
When you turn the wheel on the X3 M, the front goes where you want it, instantly. All that under-bonnet bracing prevents the front flexing and shimmying, which is the enemy of going fast. So that sorts out getting into the corner. The best thing is you can push through corners and slingshot out the other side, riding that huge torque slab, the rear wheels doing most of the work with the occasional wriggle to keep you smiling.
A good chunk of the applause goes to the way the xDrive all-wheel drive system and its 'M Active' diff at the rear work together in Sport+ mode.
As colleague Steve Corby discovered at this car's clay-pan launch, the front wheels aren't doing much of the driving when you've turned it all up to 11 in '4WD Sport'.
When the road goes from straight to twisty, the excellent brakes come in to play, hauling the car down from big speeds without complaint. Even better is that in normal driving, they're not grabby and the pedal always lets you know what shape you're in.
From the outside, you’d be forgiven for thinking the CX-8 is a CX-9, but behind the wheel there is no doubting its smaller dimensions and unique selling point.
With the CX-8 being as wide as a CX-5, it makes manoeuvring through the tight inner-city streets of Melbourne a breeze.
In our time with the car, we never turned down a tight laneway with cars parked on both sides and panicked about squeezing through with our mirrors intact.
This also helps with navigating streets shared with cyclists , with the CX-8 remaining comfortably in its lane at all times.
Our Touring SP grade was fitted with the 140kW/252Nm 2.5-litre petrol engine, which does an admirable job at moving the near-two-tonne car to city speeds, but struggled a little as the speedo climbed towards 100km/h.
This is especially evident in some freeway on-ramp situations that require you to get up to speed to merge, with the engine feeling out of breath – and even a bit coarse – towards the top-end of the rev range.
Luckily, peak torque is on tap from fairly low down, so when navigating the CX-8 to the supermarket or shopping centre, it is a delight to cruise from traffic light to traffic light.
We also sampled the diesel-powered Asaki LE recently, which offers up noticeably more pep thanks to its turbo-diesel engine's 140kW/450Nm – which matches the BT-50 workhorse’s 3.0-litre unit.
The diesel engine is no doubt a better option for those that take long road trips or frequent the freeway, and also stands the CX-8 even further apart from the turbo-petrol-only CX-9.
As with other models in its stable, Mazda has nailed the driving position and feel with the CX-8, with the driver’s seat offering heaps of all-round visibility, enough adjustability to get comfortable, and a steering wheel that serves up subtle cues as to what is happening on the road.
Don’t get us wrong, the CX-8 isn’t as engaging or sharp as an AMG SUV, but it’s certainly one of the better mainstream SUVs for fun and feel behind the wheel.
The X3 M rolls out the door of BMW's North Carolina factory with six airbags, stability and traction controls, front and rear parking sensors, around view camera (including reversing camera), forward and reverse AEB, blind spot sensor, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, reverse cross traffic alert, speed limit recognition and tyre pressure monitoring.
There are also two ISOFIX points and three top-tether restraints.
The X3 scored a maximum five ANCAP stars in 2017.
The Mazda CX-8 was awarded a maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating from its test in mid-2018, with notably high scores for adult and child occupant protection.
As standard, the CX-8 is fitted with crucial safety systems that you would want in a family car, such as autonomous emergency braking (AEB) with pedestrian detection, lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert with automatic braking, a reversing camera, traffic-sign recognition and rear parking sensors.
Stepping up to the Touring grade adds front parking sensors, while the Asaki nabs a surround-view monitor – both features that are nice to have, but not essential.
According to ANCAP, the CX-8’s AEB system is operational from 4-160km/h and is deemed ‘good’ for overall performance, while its lane-keep and lane-departure tech works from 60-180km/h and was given a ‘marginal’ grade.
BMW offers a segment standard, but increasingly mean-looking, three years/unlimited kilometre warranty. It's not just BMW, though, it's all of the premium Germans. You do get three years roadside assist into the bargain and you can pay to extend the warranty, too.
You can pre-pay your servicing, with a five-year/80,000km Basic package for $3685. If you think you're going to give your X3 M a proper walloping you can opt for the the 'Plus Package'. For a not-inconsiderable $8173.
BMW will cover your brake pads and rotors for the same period as the Basic package.
Service intervals are variable because, as ever, BMWs tell you when they need a trip to the dealer.
Scheduled service intervals for the CX-8, regardless of petrol or diesel, are every 12 months or 10,000km, whichever occurs first.
Some rivals like the Hyundai Santa Fe need servicing every 12 months/15,000km, so those who like to rack up the mileage in a year need to take note.
The cost of servicing over five years works out to be $2057 for the petrol engine and $2237 for the diesel, which averages out to about $411 and $447 per annum respectively.
Maintenance costs are a little on the expensive side for the CX-8 when compared to something like the Toyota Kluger, which asks $200 for every 12 month/10,000km service in the first five years.