Mazda CX-9 VS Subaru Forester
- New 10.25-inch display
- Seven-seater's versatility
- Comfortable ride
- Expensive AWD option
- Six-seater's compromises
- Older ANCAP safety rating
- Good value
- Great to drive
- CVT transmission
- Not as modern looking as some rivals
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|
The Subaru Forester is a well-known SUV that most people probably assume is pretty good, because it’s been around a long time and there are lots of them about, so it must be doing something right.
But there are so many mid-sized SUVs around now, like the Kia Sportage, the Hyundai Tucson and Mazda CX-5. So, what’s the truth about Subaru's Forester? Is it good value? What’s it like to drive? How safe is it?
Read more about the Forester
Well, the new one has just arrived, and I have the answers to those questions and more.
|Fuel Type||Regular 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.
The Forester is now one of the older SUVs among its rivals, such as the Sportage, Tucson, Outlander and RAV4, but it’s still the best to drive of that lot, and the best value.
Sure, it’s not as modern and good looking as the Sportage and doesn’t have a third row of seats like the Outlander, but the Forester is still practical and has a tough look.
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.
This generation of Forester came into the world in 2018 and now Subaru says it’s given the mid-sized SUV a mid-life makeover. A generation tends to last for about seven years, so 2022 is halfway through, but as far as makeovers go the changes are from a reality-show transformation.
It’s in the headlight design where you can really see the difference. This new Forester now has headlights with a more pronounced LED ‘eyebrow’. Subaru also says the grille, bumpers and foglights have been restyled, although I can hardly see it. When the PR people at Subaru say the changes are ‘subtle’ you can be assured they are extremely minimal.
So, the Forester keeps its distinctive boxy, rugged looks, which, while not all that pretty to my eyes, do give the SUV a capable and practical feel that its rivals don’t have. I mean the new Kia Sportage is stunning, with its intriguing design, but it looks afraid of mud, and so does the Mazda CX-5, which favours form over function.
Nope, the Forester looks like it should be sitting on a shelf in an adventure shop, alongside carabiners and hiking boots. I like that.
The Forester that stands out most in the range is the 2.5i Sport. This sporty grade was added a couple of years ago and gets bright orange pinstriping along the side skirts, while the cabin gets the same dayglo trim.
Talking of the Forester’s cabin, it’s a plush, premium feeling place and the 2.5i-S I drove had layer upon layer of different materials on the dash with textures ranging from a mesh-like rubber to soft leather upholstery with stitching.
The cabin isn’t as modern as newer SUVs such as the Sportage, and there’s a busy feel to the design which is a bit crowded and confusing with all its buttons, screens, and icons, but owners will get used to this quickly.
The Forester is 4640mm end to end, which is about the length of your thumb shorter than a Kia Sportage. A more interesting measurement is the Forester’s ground clearance – it’s 220mm, which is 40mm more than the Sportage’s and that gives it better off-road capability. So, actually rugged and not just rugged looking.
The Forester comes in 10 colours including Crystal White, Crimson Red Pearl, Horizon Blue Pearl and Autumn Green Metallic.
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.
The Forester feels like it’s been created with practicality in the front of the designer’s minds. There are large doors, which open super wide for easy entry and exit, great rear legroom for even me, at 191cm tall, and a decent-sized boot with 498 litres (VDA) of luggage space to the cargo cover. That’s bigger than the Mitsubishi Outlander’s 477-litre boot but smaller than the Sportage’s 543-litre cargo capacity.
Cabin space is good with massive door pockets, four cup holders (two in the rear and two up front) and a large centre console box under the armrest. Still, it could be better – the hidey hole in front of the shifter, which is obviously designed for a phone, is too small for mine and ever since I drove the new Toyota RAV4, with its innovative shelves carved into the dash, I wonder why all cars and SUVs don’t have them.
All Foresters have rear directional air vents, which is excellent, and these, combined with the tinted rear glass and the two USB ports in the second row, mean kids back there will be cool and have power to charge their devices.
Proximity unlocking and push-button start mean you don’t need to get the keys out and this is also standard on all Foresters.
Finally, the chunky roof racks are also on every grade and you can buy cross bars ($428.07 fitted) through Subaru’s enormous accessories department.
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)|
Look, I don’t want to lose you this early in the review, but the next few paragraphs are going to sound a bit like gobbledegook, and I blame that on Subaru for giving the individual grades in the Forester range unimaginative names. But it’ll be worth sticking around because I can straight up tell you now the Forester is good value, like really good value...
The entry grade in the Forester range is called the 2.5i and it lists for $35,990 and comes with dual-zone climate control, an eight-inch media touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a 6.3-inch display for vehicle info, and a smaller 4.2-inch screen in the instrument cluster, cloth seats, a proximity key with push button start, plus tinted rear windows, LED headlights and daytime running lights and 17-inch alloy wheels.
The next grade up is the 2.5i-L for $38,390 and frankly it’s identical to the 2.5i except for one hugely important difference – it comes with more safety tech. If it was my money, I’d skip the entry grade and go straight to the 2.5i-L. Oh, and it also comes with heated seats.
The 2.5i Premium is the next up the ladder at $41,140 and comes with all the features in the grades below but adds 18-inch alloys, premium cloth seats, sat nav, powered front seats, and a power tailgate.
Hang in there, we’re almost through this.
The 2.5i Sport for $42,690 has the Premium’s features but has 18-inch wheels with a black metallic finish, there are orange highlights to the exterior and interior trim, water-repellent cloth seats and a power sunroof.
The 2.5i-S is the fanciest grade in the range at $44,190 – it’s the one I tested in the video at the top of this review. Along with all the features of the lower grades there are also silver 18-inch alloy wheels, leather seats, an eight-speaker Harman Kardon stereo and X-Mode, which is an off-road system for playing in the mud.
Finally, there are the two hybrid grades – the Hybrid L for $41,390 whose feature list mirrors the 2.5i-L’s and the Hybrid S for $47,190, which has much the same standard features as the 2.5i-S.
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 straight petrol engine is a 2.5-cylinder four cylinder making 136kW and 239Nm.
You might know already that Subaru uses ‘boxer’ engines, which are rare in that the pistons move horizontally to the ground rather than up and down vertically as in most engines. There are advantages to the boxer set up, mainly the fact that it keeps the car’s centre of mass low, which’s good for stability.
Both power trains use a continuously variable transmission (CVT) which is super smooth, but makes acceleration feel sluggish.
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.
According to the official ADR combined test that aims to replicate a combination of open and urban roads, the 2.5-litre petrol engine should use 7.4L/100km while hybrid petrol-electric Forester with the 2.0-litre engine should use 6.7L/100km.
My test of the 2.5-litre petrol, which combined urban commutes into the city, as well as forays onto dirt trails and country roads, returned 12.5L/100km. So in the real world, the Forester - even the hybrid version - isn’t particularly fuel efficient.
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.
This is, quite simply, one of the best driving mid-sized SUVs for the price. Yes, the CVT makes acceleration feel lacklustre, but that is the only downside.
The ride is comfortable, the handling is good, and the steering is spot on. Great visibility, excellent ground clearance of 220mm and a superb all-wheel-drive system make the Forester hard to beat.
I drove the 2.5i-S with the 2.5-litre petrol engine. I have driven Subaru’s hybrid previously, however, and can tell you that it tends to offer more oomph in acceleration thanks to the extra and instant electric torque.
Perhaps the only other negative point was the brake pedal in my 2.5i-S, which seemed to need a decent amount of pressure from me to pull the Forester up quickly.
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.
All grades have AEB, which can detect cyclists and pedestrians, and there’s also lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assistance, rear cross traffic alert (with braking on all grades above the entry car), and blind-spot warning as well.
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.
The Forester is covered by a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty. Servicing is recommended at 12 month/12,500km intervals and over the course of five years works out to be $2400. That’s quite expensive.
The hybrid’s battery is covered by an eight-year/160,000km warranty.