One of the brilliant things about my job is people ask me which car they should buy. One of the funniest things about my job is when those people ask, they've often got their hearts set on a seven-seat SUV, regardless of the number of children in their family. Or indeed, the complete absence of children in their family.
The reasons I give to go in another direction are numerous; why spend the extra money? Why have a five-metre car for the mythical lift to soccer for the neighbour's kids? In short, most people don't need seven seats and never will.
I think the Mazda CX-8 is the first seven-seat SUV I will not try and talk people away from even if they don't need seven seats. Because, as it turns out, it's really quite good and actually not that big.
Does it represent good value for the price? What features does it come with?
The three-car CX-8 range starts with the front-wheel-drive Sport, then an all-wheel-drive version, and a range-topping Asaki. My car for the week was the front-wheel-drive Sport, which arrives at $43,410.
I dare you to pick the CX-8 out of a line-up. Unless it's right next to its CX-5 sibling and they're in profile, you just can't tell. That's no bad thing; it means both cars are very attractive. But both need big wheels to look their best, and in this Sport spec they're too small... if you're worried about that sort of thing.
The CX-8 is a very attractive car.
Inside, again, it's pretty difficult to separate the two with the obvious exception of the third row. Mazda interiors are beautifully made, and over the years have been cleared of fiddly buttons, switches and lights. It's a particularly thoughtful, if dark and colourless interior.
Mazda interiors are beautifully made, but this one is dark and colourless.
The CX-8 interior is much bigger than the CX-5 and not that much smaller than the CX-9, which is a bit odd. But there you go.
Front-row passengers have a deep central console bin (with USB and 12V power), two cupholders and a tray under the centre stack. All four doors have a bottle holder.
Rear seat occupants have two cupholders in the centre armrest and a handy storage tray with two USB ports. There's also an Audi-like rear climate-control panel, but third row occupants miss out on that. They don't miss out on cupholders, though (there's a grand total of six), and also have somewhere to put phones and other detritus. The boot also has a 12V power outlet.
In the back is an Audi-like rear climate-control panel.
With all seats in place, Mazda says you have 209 litres of storage with a further 33 litres underneath. That seems... conservative to me. Stow the third row and you have 742 litres, which is huge and wagon-like. Mazda doesn't offer a total figure with all seats folded, but it's bound to be north of 1000 litres.
With all seats in play, boot space is rated at 209 litres.
Fold the third row down and that number grows to 742 litres.
Mazda doesn't offer a total figure with all seats folded, but it's bound to be north of 1000 litres.
There's a further 33 litres of storage under the boot floor.
The third row is reasonably easy to access. The middle row seats flip forward and slide, creating a space for kids to slip into the final row. I was able to sit down and pull the second row towards me, and with it all the way back, I fit. When I say fit, I mean like a rubber glove one size too small, but I can get in. But the generous amount of sliding distance available in the middle row means I can be comfortable in a knees-in-my-face kind of way for a short trip.
The sliding second row makes it easier for people to get into the rear seats.
The third row seats are also easy to operate. You just pull them up with one hand and lock the headrest in place. Another pull of the fabric tape, the headrest drops and you push it back into place. It doesn't leave a seamless boot floor, though, so things might go missing in the gaps.
What are the key stats for the engine and transmission?
As with the rest of the Mazda range, the company seems to have made too many SkyActiv badges so has slapped them on not just the engine but also the transmission. This entry level machine is powered by Mazda's 2.2-litre turbo-diesel four-cylinder with 140kW and 450Nm to move its 1840kg kerb weight.
The 2.2-litre turbo-diesel makes 140kW/450Nm.
All that power and torque is sent to the road via a six-speed automatic that pushes grunt to the front wheels only. Its 0-100km/h seems a bit slow at 9.5 seconds, but there you have it.
Like its looks, the CX-8 is very difficult to separate from the CX-5 on the road. I was expecting more of a CX-9 feel, but the 8 is subtly softer than either of them. There's a bit more body roll and a less firm ride, which just makes it a bit more of a relaxed place to be.
Rear-seat passengers won't be bounced around by bumps, either, and that's probably helped along by the Sport's higher-profile tyres.
I didn't really miss all-wheel drive around the city. The CX-9's petrol engine is always more than happy to light up the front tyres when you accelerate out of a corner or look at the loud pedal in the wet. The softer torque delivery of the diesel in the CX-8 means far less spinning and chirping, so the lack of four-wheel drive wasn't really an issue.
Like the other CXs, though, it steers really nicely, with a sensibly weighted and geared rack. You won't be twirling your hands and arms around to park and the response to inputs is unusually snappy for this kind of car. I like it.
I also like the spec level; the CX-8 isn't missing much at all, other than perhaps vents for the third row. There's a lot of tech, too.
I wasn't particularly enamoured with the spongy feel of the brake pedal. The car always stopped, no dramas, but it felt a bit dodgy under the foot.
Capped-price servicing covers the first five services. Mazda wants to see you every 12 months (good) or 10,000km (not so good). The first, third and fifth services are $325, while the second and fourth are $397, meaning a total cost of $1769. Given the average yearly mileage of Australians, that's really only going to cover three-and-a-bit years.
There are other, cheaper seven-seat SUVs but they're not as attractive or as good to drive. And most of them are bigger, with the less-than-stellar Mitsubishi Outlander the only one I can think of as a smaller car.
The only other seven-seater I would recommend for those who don't really need one doesn't exist anymore (the Kia Rondo, though that wasn't strictly an SUV, which is what people now want). The CX-8 looks great, is good value for money and if you can live with diesel, it's cheap to own and run, too.
Does the CX-8 make sense? Does it lure you up from the CX-5 or down from the CX-9? Let us know in the comments.