‘Semi premium’ is a term that continues to creep deeper into motoring vernacular like un-contained fungus, as flippant and nondescript as the tirelessly flogged old chestnut ‘sport’.
And yet, it’s still so seemingly appropriate for the like of the flagship Mazda CX-9 large SUV, now well into its second-generation, tickled at the beginning of the year to include a new variant – of sorts – in the fresh-looking GT SP on test here.
Disclosure: I bookmarked the assessment of the steed on the screen before you with two German machines, both formally considered properly premium in grade, each north of a six-figure ask.
There are certain and quite important areas where, for fundamental motoring goodness, the 2021 Mazda CX-9 GT SP does things better. Equally, there are other areas that, mostly due to rational cost consciousness at given pricing tier which it sits, the Mazda doesn’t quite measure up though, obviously, not to any fault. If the semi-premium shoe fits, then.
So, what does the new ‘SP’ nomenclature bring to the established mid-grade GT package? For starters, it’s providence sits in sporty – there’s that descriptor – forebear variants in the past. And now it’s become a designation is applied to a select number of Mazda models that includes Mazda 6, CX-5, CX-8 and our subject of review, under the marketing catchphrase of “sophistication meets performance”.
Ostensibly, this is a black pack styling makeover of existing and familiar versions for what’s a nominal uptick in pricing. But there’s genuine swagger to match the boasting. Three of the quartet can be had with the big daddy (and mummy) 2.5-litre turbocharged petrol four, the stop-out being the CX-8 version which can be had with the torquey 2.2-litre twin-turbo diesel four.
But it’s the CX-9 and 6 that trade a little harder with their sophistication cards, bringing rich burgundy leather trim against their SP stablemates’ black synthetic (Maztex and Grand Luxe) fit-out. Call it extra-semi-premium if you like.
So is the GT SP, here it high all-wheel-drive spec, the enticing sweet spot in the popular CX-9 line-up, a sport-luxury pitch not quite as flush as the Azami stuff if more neatly bundled in value and effect for money? Let’s find out.
At the time of testing, the 2021 Mazda CX-9 GT SP AWD was advertised at $69,990 drive-away, calculated from a list price of $67,490 before on-road costs. The front-driven version is four-grand more affordable before on-roads ($63,490), if $4500 thriftier in driveaway form ($65,490) according the public website.
Against the regular GT choices, the SP treatment adds just $500. You need more than extra three grand to step further up the CX-9 tree to swing into the all-paw Azami ($70,625). If you like the cut of the Mazda SP jig but can’t stretch to CX-9 money, the aforementioned CX-8 Touring SP diesel, in AWD guise, wants for a much more palatable $54,790 before on-roads.
Rivals? Toyota Kluger GXL AWD ($60,850) and the likes of the Jeep Grand Cherokee 80th Anniversary ($66,941 list) are in the fiscal ballpark if you’re sold on petrol propulsion and all-wheel drive – throw in the Subaru Outback AWD Touring ($47,900 list), too, for something else the roughly fits that brief – while alternatives such as Lexus RX350 Luxury ($83,136) start to get up into properly premium money.
Start fiddling with engine and driveline types, and your options open up considerably, particularly with diesel AWD choices like the Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander AWD ($65,200 list) and Kia Sorento GT-Line AWD ($64,070).
Colours? A choice of four pearl and mica finishes are at no cost for the CX-9 GT SP, while our tester’s fetching Polymetal Grey along with Machine Grey Metallic each command a $495 premium.
Tow kit hardware adds $1040, with electric brake integration a further $666, with tow ratings are 2000kg braked and 750kg unbraked.
In a good many areas, Mazda went to town with its CX-9. Even the base Sport gets goodies such as automatic LED headlights with auto high-beam, 18-inch wheels with chunky 255mm rubber, rain-sensing wipers, power-folding mirrors, a head-up display, three-zone climate control, adaptive cruise control and full-functional infotainment featuring proprietary sat-nav, DAB+ and smartphone mirroring.
At mid-range GT spec, you’ve added 20-inch wheels, leather-trimmed and electrically-adjustable front seating, two-row seat heating, front and rear parking sensors to compliment the reversing camera, a paddle-shift steering wheel, one-touch tip and slide rear seating, a hands-free powered tailgate, the high-grade 10.25-inch infotainment system with new Mazda Connect interface, USB ports across all three seating rows and Qi wireless phone charging.
Specific SP extras include the aforementioned burgundy leather trim, red interior highlights, gun metal and black exterior highlights, and black-finish wheels. In short, it’s at GT grade where the CX-9 transforms from a nicely appointed SUV to one that has the fitment and feel of a luxury variant.
The CX-9 has an ANCAP safety rating of five stars with 2016 datestamp. It scored 35.87 out of 37 overall, and Good grades for whiplash and pedestrian protection.
Features include forward and reverse autonomous emergency braking as well as forward collision warning, blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning, lane-keep assist, emergency brake assist, rear cross traffic alert, driver attention monitoring and traffic light recognition smarts.
Airbag coverage extends through front, front side and curtain coverage, the latter extending through part of the way into row three – something to consider if you carry people in the third row often.
While not the most modern cabin in what’s a fast-moving segment, the CX-9 design blends classicism with a reasonably contemporary vibe that has aged gracefully over the past few years.
Where it really shines is in innate richness minted in a decent variety of mostly tactile and good-looking materials that’s most welcoming, and the GT SP’s burgundy trim goes some way in bringing a prestige vibe to the ambience.
The front seats are comfy and cosy, offering a huge degree of fully-electric adjustment. If there’s one markdown in general ergonomics, it’s that the door armrests and console lid are set quite high, demanding the driver’s seat be raised higher than expected to allow elbow clearance for those of us with long arms. No biggie.
You do feel as if you sink into the cabin rather than sit propped upright, but the soft-touch surfaces, much of which benefits from racy stitching, helps make the effect pleasing and welcoming.
As we’ve noted in CX-9 reviews past, it’s a sound approach to a design that incorporates neat premium frills clearly inspired by pricier European influences, such as the split centre console, and there’s ample stowage around the front row that’s properly-sized for adult needs.
Like its CX-8 sibling, the CX-9 does suffer from incredibly thick A-pillars that can, and do obscure your line of sight through corners. Otherwise, outward visibility is quite good, rather than utterly outstanding, which is the nature of a design that, on the plus side, brings a solid sense of surety in being wrapped in a lot of metal, glass and rubber.
In typical Mazda fashion, the control layout is logical and intuitive, save for having to run USB cables into the console bin and across the transmission selector if you wish to tether your phone, which inevitably ends up in the console bin itself.
Somewhat annoying is the high-grade 10.25-inch infotainment system, which unlike the touchscreen design of the 9.0-inch system used lower down the range, features a display screen only with dedicated rotary dial and button control on the centre console rather than offering touch inputs.
The problem? Porting a touchscreen format used for Apple CarPlay into remote control is clumsy and distracting, particularly when attempting to switch between app functionality quickly – Spotify track selection to Apple Maps zooming, say – when offering a touchscreen alternative is far quicker and frankly safer including when on the move – where Mazda insists on locking out access even on its touchscreens.
Content, when you do access it, is great. The sound quality of the audio is excellent, the camera view is nice and crisp, and there’s neat simplicity to Mazda’s more contemporary operating system, even if it offers small stumbles (such as strange complexity of swapping between FM and DAB+ sources).
Row two roominess ranges from excellent to decent depending on where you adjust the sliding mechanism, and at the most rearward position it’s amply comfortable for taller adults. The seat base is set reasonably high, which is great for small kids’ outward visibility, and the tilting seatback allows a generous degree of tuneable comfort.
Speaking of which, the GT brings plenty of creature comforts to those in the back, including the dedicated climate controls, plenty of device power, retractable sun blinds and brilliantly bright LED overhead lighting.
The one-touch access to row three, which tilts and slides the rear 60:40-split second-row pew, is as handy as it is suitably upmarket. It does put the narrower access kerb-side, though the annoyance is only minor.
Room ‘out back’ is decent enough and fairly typical of segment: spacious enough for kids and shorter adults at a pinch, but nothing like a proper MPV. The USB outlets are a handy inclusion though the lack of ventilation can make it a stuffier place to sit the further forward in the cabin.
The 230 litres of boot space as a seven-seater doesn’t look much on (virtual) paper, but there’s decent depth and length at the base and it only gets tight if you’re loading in bulky objects. Drop the third row and there’s generous 810 litres to work with, which is larger some of the competitive set. Converted to a two-seater, the load space is huge and offers a reasonably flat floor, too.
Well appointed, smartly packaged and warmly welcoming, the CX-9 GT SP’s interior ticks a lot of the right and its foibles are thankfully few and far between.
The CX-9 fits a 2.5-litre turbocharged petrol four-cylinder petrol engine producing 170kW at 5000rpm and 420Nm from 2000rpm. No diesel is offered – you’d have to opt for the CX-8 if your preference is for an oiler.
It’s paired with a six-speed automatic transmission with paddle-shifter functionality from the steering wheel as standard.
There’s on-demand all-wheel drive – if that format isn’t a huge ownership priority, you can save a fair wedge by opting for the front-driven version instead. In fact, choosing two-wheel drive reduces claimed combined fuel consumption considerably, from 9.0L/100km for the AWD to 8.4L/100km for the FWD.
It runs happily on regular 91RON or E10 in its 74-litre tank.
In short, the CX-9 drives wonderfully. With its polished powertrain and accomplished ride, the big Mazda hits it out of the ballpark in what are arguably the two most important areas.
No perceivable turbo lag, impressive response, ample torque on board to rarely demand raising its pulse above 2000-2500rpm during balanced urban driving, the 2.5L unit is a gem of an engine, proof positive that Mazda should invest more in spread turbocharging further throughout its range.
It’s an excellent six-speed automatic, too, that might appear slim in its ratio count compared with some competition offering up to eight speeds, but doesn’t really suffer because of it mostly because the engine it’s paired with is gutsy enough down low and, being petrol, has a high rpm ceiling if you ever feel the need to use it – and you rarely do.
It’s a quiet powertrain, too, but lean into it and there’s pleasingly raspy note and it’s even a touch sporty. There’s a choice of drive modes but, realistically, there’s enough pep in the reserves that there’s not much cause to go fiddling with the mode selector.
Premium, as in genuinely premium? You bet. Some big dollar Euro SUVs could benefit with the sort of classy refinement the Mazda offers at a mainstream budget.
It’s the very same story with the ride quality. Sure, it sits on large 20-inch wheels with a lot of mass those passive dampers need to contend with across bumps and lumps, but thanks to the deft tuning – aided no doubt by the thick 50-series tyres – the ride compliance is, as we’ve noted in reviews past, beautiful.
The suspension filters out the small road imperfections with ease, absorbs big hits gently, settling nicely and quickly in the wash-up. This is the sort of deft execution you expect from more thoroughbred adaptive damping and, on balance, the Mazda rides better than the fancier air-sprung designs common in much more upmarket offerings, many of which lack the natural and assertive body control the Mazda enjoys. Yes, it’s that good.
The CX-9 backs up its powertrain and suspension finery with excellent resistance to extraneous noise, with very little rumble from those broad 255mm tyres and a proper sense of bank vault surety between the cabin, the road and the environment. It can dial up a level of serenity that’s seriously impressive, the sort of ambience comfort you’d expect from bona-fide luxury motoring.
Between its manners on the move and the welcoming cabin space, the CX-9 makes for a superb open-road tourer and long hauler, the sort of machine that really has your back across the tyranny of distance. Thus tasked, the adaptive cruise works well and the active assistance systems aren’t too intrusive and bothersome.
It really does very little, if anything, poorly in the driving or passenger-ing experience, certifying itself as Mazda’s flagship in dignified execution moreso than anywhere else.
Like its CX-8 sibling, the larger CX-9 is a little tough to judge when parking, not for lack of visibility but just because it’s quite a large unit.
Otherwise gripes are very minor – the aforementioned A-pillar thickness that robs a bit of forward vision, a reversing camera with static rather than adaptive guidelines, and the lack of digital speed in the instrument cluster, though this last bit is countered logically with the speed readout in the head-up display.
It’s a class act. And a certifiably premium one at that.
The Mazda CX-9 is covered by a decent five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty.
Servicing intervals are a typical 12 months if capped at 10,000km between visits, which is shorter than some rivals.
Of course, that’s something to think about if you plan on clocking up big mileage on a regular basis.
Capped-price servicing for the GT SP AWD ranges between $364 and $409 per visit, totalling $1910 for the first five visits.
You author is highly suspicious of ‘black packs’ and sticker packs, as it’s a tiresomely flogged and lazy industry trick often reserved as a sweetener to sell old and poor-selling model variants.
Not here. The SP treatment really does brings a pleasing alternative effect to hugely likeable regular CX-9 GT, even if much of it merely a shift in colourisation. It’s only a $500 upcharge and, in aesthetic benefit for a sharper look, money well invested for a good many buyers with a taste for the SP effect.
Not that the CX-9 needs a bit of extra fairy dust as it heads closer towards this generation’s mid-life. The breed has long rated well into the eights in CarExpert reviews and as it continues to prove itself as a benchmark – if one recently playing a bit of catch-up in areas of infotainment – there’s absolutely no reason to soften our appraisal and enthusiasm.
From core design and packaging to final execution – some infotainment grumbles apart – the CX-9 continues to come highly recommended. Don’t part money for any large SUV, be it mainstream, ‘semi-premium’ or formally premium, without putting the big Mazda at the top of your options list.
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