Mazda CX-9 VS BMW X3
- New 10.25-inch display
- Seven-seater's versatility
- Comfortable ride
- Expensive AWD option
- Six-seater's compromises
- Older ANCAP safety rating
- 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
The second-generation Mazda CX-9 may have been on sale in Australia for nearly five years now, but it remains the second best-selling large SUV using unibody construction (as opposed to old-school, off-road-focused body-on-frame).
That said, it is getting on a bit, so Mazda’s given it an update with a twist for 2021, hoping to inject a little bit more life into its flagship model.
And when we say twist, we mean it. After all, who would’ve thought there’d ever be a six-seat CX-9? Well, we’ve checked it out to see if it’s the version we needed all along. Read on.
|Engine Type||2.5L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Regular Unleaded Petrol|
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|
The CX-9 is still a great option for families looking for a large SUV, even if it is starting to show its age as new rivals continue to launch with newer technologies.
That said, the availability of a luxury-focused six-seat configuration (Azami LE AWD) for the first time might be enough to convince some buyers to give it further consideration.
But for others who need the versatility of seven seats, this is still the CX-9 we’ve all come to know and love – but just a little bit better – particularly in its best-selling Azami AWD form.
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?
Given its latest update is relatively minor, the CX-9’s exterior largely looks the same as before, which, depending on your point of view, is a very good thing. As far as we’re concerned, it certainly is.
That said, train-spotters will notice some differences, with the GT SP (new), Azami and Azami LE (new) grades getting a refreshed grille that’s slotted and available in two grade-specific finishes unlike the insert their carryover Sport, Touring and GT siblings still have.
And aside from the GT SP, Azami and Azami LE’s new sets of 20-inch alloy wheels (again in grade-specific finishes), the only other exterior change is the Azami and Azami LE’s larger-diameter chrome exhaust tailpipe extensions. Sporty!
Inside, the CX-9 has more changes in store, headlined by the new ‘floating’ 10.25-inch central display all but the Sport and Touring get (they stick with 7.0- and 9.0-inch units respectively).
The new set-up is powered by Mazda’s latest multimedia system, which is certainly an improvement over its predecessor, and a much needed one at that.
Worth noting, touch is not an input method, with the rotary controller on the centre console the only option, which is actually great for safety, so we’re all for it.
The Azami and Azami LE also get new quilted Nappa leather upholstery, which looks and feels great, and adds to the overall high-quality theme.
Otherwise, it’s pretty much business as usual, which is great because the CX-9 has always had a well-designed interior. Yep, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
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.
Being an SUV that’s 5075mm long, 1969mm wide and 1747mm tall, practicality is arguably the most important thing for the CX-9, and with the option of six seats for the first time with the new Azami LE, it’s even more versatile.
All seven-seat grades have a 60/40 split-fold second row that manually slides and reclines the same as before, with only the Sport missing out on one-touch tumble operation, which makes accessing the 50/50 split-fold third row even easier, even if it’s still not graceful.
But the six-seat Azami LE is configured differently, given its second row has two captain’s chairs instead of a bench. That said, it operates in a very similar manner, just with power adjustment.
I still had around eight centimetres of legroom and four of legroom behind my 184cm (6'0") driving position, while the large transmission tunnel that’s a foot-space issue in seven-seat versions... isn’t.
One key difference with the very roomy and comfortable Azami LE is it only has four top-tether child-seat anchorage points, while all other grades have five thanks to their extra seat. Either way, four ISOFIX child-set anchorage points are split across the second and third rows.
Alternatively, the third row can be used by adults on shorter journeys, although they won’t have a lot of space to enjoy. Again, I'm 184cm tall and it’s tight back there, with no headroom or legroom on offer, but children will, of course, fare much better.
The CX-9’s boot is still pretty usable with all three rows in action, with 230L of cargo capacity available, but you can stow the two rear seats to get 810L in total.
And if you want maximum cargo capacity, the middle seats can also be folded, but not in the Azami LE, annoyingly.
Either way, the CX-9 doesn’t have a load lip but does have a flat floor, so loading bulkier items is a cinch, while two bag hooks and four tie-down points are on hand for securing loose items if they can’t fit in the double map pockets on the front seat backrests.
There are two cupholders in the third row, another two in the second row’s fold-down armrest (seven-seater versions) or large centre console (Azami LE), and another two in the first row’s larger centre console, while the front and rear door bins can also take bottles – and other knick-knacks.
All grades get USB ports in the first row, while the Touring and above also have them in the second row, and the GT and above also feature them in the third row. It’d be nice if there was no differentiation, though.
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.
Price and features
The CX-9 has become more expensive, with some grades up a little, while others are up a lot. The range now starts from $45,990, plus on-road costs, and reaches $73,875 (see pricing table below), but there is more standard equipment now.
Either way, two new grades have joined the now-comprehensive CX-9 line-up, bringing the total to six, with the new GT SP slotting in above the mid-range GT but below the previously flagship Azami, which is now bettered by the new Azami LE.
The entry-level Sport and Touring round out the line-up, with each grade coming with front-wheel drive as standard, although all-wheel drive is an expensive $4000 option for all but the Azami that instead asks for a $4435 premium, and the Azami LE which gets it as standard.
Features-wise, the Sport gets dusk-sensing LED headlights, rain-sensing wipers, 18-inch alloy wheels, push-button start, a 7.0-inch central display, satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support, digital radio, a six-speaker sound system, a head-up display, three-zone climate control and black cloth upholstery.
While the Touring has the same 18-inch alloy wheels, it steps up with keyless entry, a 9.0-inch central display, paddle-shifters (new), power-adjustable front seats with heating, and black leather upholstery.
The GT goes even further with 20-inch alloy wheels, a hands-free power-operated tailgate, a sunroof, the aforementioned 10.25-inch central display (new), a 12-speaker Bose sound system, a wireless smartphone charger (new) and heated outboard middle seats.
As its name suggests, the new GT SP is the sportier version of the GT, adding a unique black finish to its 20-inch alloy wheels and side-mirror caps as well as burgundy leather upholstery and red stitching for just $500 more.
Meanwhile, the Azami has 20-inch alloy wheels with a bright finish (new) as well as adaptive LED headlights, LED daytime running lights, a 7.0-inch multifunction display, a heated steering wheel and 'Pure White' or 'Walnut Brown' quilted Nappa leather upholstery (new).
And finally, the new Azami LE mimics the Azami but replaces its middle bench with two power-adjustable captain’s chairs with heating and cooling plus a dedicated centre console, so six seats in total instead of the usual seven.
Also of note, the CX-9 has a new metallic paintwork option: 'Polymetal Grey', which helps it stand out from the crowd.
For reference, the CX-9’s rivals include the soon-to-be-replaced Toyota Kluger ($44,850 to $68,574) and the recently launched facelifted Hyundai Santa Fe ($43,990 to $61,660) and new-generation Kia Sorento ($45,850 to $63,070).
2021 Mazda CX-9 pricing before on-road costs
|Sport FWD||automatic||$45,990 (+$70)|
|Sport AWD||automatic||$49,990 (+$70)|
|Touring FWD||automatic||$53,490 (+$180)|
|Touring AWD||automatic||$57,490 (+$180)|
|GT FWD||automatic||$62,990 (+$1270)|
|GT AWD||automatic||$66,990 (+$1270)|
|GT SP FWD||automatic||$63,490 (NEW)|
|GT SP AWD||automatic||$67,490 (NEW)|
|Azami FWD||automatic||$66,190 (+$1297)|
|Azami AWD||automatic||$70,625 (+$1686)|
|Azami LE||automatic||$73,875 (NEW)|
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.
Engine & trans
All CX-9 grades are powered by a carryover 2.5-litre turbo-petrol four-cylinder engine, which produces 170kW of power at 5000rpm and 420Nm of torque at 2000rpm.
If you’re after a diesel-powered seven-seater, Mazda also has the similarly sized CX-8 in its line-up, but it still doesn’t offer a hybrid option in any of its SUVs, even though many rivals are moving in that direction, including the aforementioned Kluger, Santa Fe and Sorento.
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.
According to the official combined fuel consumption figures (ADR 81/02), FWD variants of the CX-9 sip 8.4 litres per 100km, which isn’t too bad for a petrol-powered large SUV that weighs just shy of 1900kg. Claimed carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are 197 grams per km.
And given they weigh a whisker more than two tonnes, AWD versions of the CX-9s drink a slightly higher 9.0L/100km and emit 211g/km.
We covered 188km in the Azami AWD and Azami LE AWD at the CX-9’s launch and recorded 11.5L/100km after primarily driving on country roads and highways.
While that figure is nearly 30 per cent higher than Mazda's claim, it’s not outlandish considering the type of vehicle the CX-9 is. Either way, results will vary.
For reference, AWD variants have a slightly large fuel tank (74L) than their FWD counterparts (72L), but they all take more affordable 91RON petrol at minimum.
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.
As far as large SUVs go, the CX-9 is one of the better ones to drive. It’s certainly not confused; it knows what it needs to do and does it well.
The engine is properly punchy down low, serving up plenty of initial torque, so much so that you rarely need to chase its top-end power. In that way, it’s very diesel-like, despite being petrol. Needless to say, acceleration is surprisingly brisk. Not bad, then!
And the transmission it’s matched to also does its job well. Gear changes are pleasingly smooth, if not quick, while it's receptive to heavy applications of the accelerator, kicking down a ratio or two with little hesitation. Yep, don’t bother with its Sport mode.
The CX-9 also rides pretty well thanks to its independent suspension set-up, which consists of MacPherson-strut front and multi-link rear axles with passive dampers. Indeed, the kids aren’t going to be upset when they’re onboard.
Again, we mainly drove on country roads and highways, but it proved to be comfortable, particularly at high speed. And even during those rare, in-town, low-speed moments, it still impressed, on lower-quality roads or not.
And while the CX-9’s electric power steering is well-weighted, some buyers might be left wishing it was a tad lighter, especially when parking, but that’s more about personal preference than anything else.
What is more universal, though, is the system’s lack of feel. Obviously, we’re not dealing with a sports car here, but a little communication through the wheel wouldn’t go astray, particularly on a twisty road.
Speaking of which, the CX-9 handles its mass pretty confidently around a corner. That said, while it is relatively tied down, it still regularly exhibits a fair degree of body roll to remind you that you’re dealing with a large SUV.
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.
ANCAP awarded the CX-9 its maximum five-star safety rating in 2016, and despite the test occurring nearly five years ago, its results still stand.
Needless to say, the game has moved on, with the Santa Fe and Sorento recently resetting the standard, while the Kluger is soon to follow suit.
The CX-9 does, however, get front and side airbags as well as curtain airbags that cover all three rows, whereas the Santa Fe and Sorento only cover the first and second rows.
All grades of the CX-9 also get front and rear autonomous emergency braking, lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control with stop and go functionality, traffic sign recognition, high-beam assist and driver attention alert.
A reversing camera and rear parking sensors are also standard in all grades, but the Touring and above add front parking sensors, while the Azami and Azami LE also get surround-view cameras.
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.
As with all Mazda models, the CX-9 comes with a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty with five years of roadside assistance, both of which are average when compared to Kia’s market-leading seven-year terms with ‘no strings attached’.
Service intervals are 12 months or 10,000km, with the distance on the shorter side, although capped-price servicing is available for the first five visits, costing $2022 in total at the time of the writing, which is very reasonable.
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.