IT ISN’T OFTEN – IN ANY VEHICLE SEGMENT – THAT TWO COMPETITORS STAND SO FAR AHEAD OF THE PACK, FOLLOWED BY BROAD DAYLIGHT, AND THEN THE REST.
But that's the case with MAZDA'S CX-9 and the KIA SORENTO.
Catalyst for this comparison is Mazda’s new CX-9 that we gave a four-and-a-half-star rating to at launch, and in reviews following. It’s the same number of stars given to Kia’s slightly older, but no less-gifted, Sorento.
Here we are testing what Mazda predicts will be the most popular model of its large SUV range, the CX-9 Touring.
It sits in the ledger at $52,890 plus on-road costs in all-wheel-drive guise. It comes only with a new 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine; one that the brand believes is now so efficient, it renders diesel redundant.
Kia may have something to say about that, given that its equivalent middle-grade Sorento SLi is available in AWD guise only, with 2.2-litre turbo-diesel four-cylinder power, and priced from $49,490 (plus orc).
So, which is best – petrol or diesel, the sublime Mazda or the surprising Sorento? We won’t give the result of this seven-seat SUV showdown away just yet, but we will say it's tight.
Mazda CX-9 Touring AWD - $52,890 (plus on-road costs)
Kia Sorento SLi AWD - $49,490 (plus on-road costs)
By sales volume, the large SUV segment is the fourth largest in the country – behind small cars, medium SUVs and utes – and with Toyota's Kluger and Prado top the class. Before this test we re-acquainted ourselves with the Kluger in a single model review (read here) given that only the $68K Grande flagship was available.
The ageing Kluger, despite having several virtues, would have been outclassed here, in the same way that the mediocre Holden Captiva, ordinary Hyundai Santa Fe and below-average Nissan Pathfinder are also outclassed.
Onwards and upwards, then…
While both the CX-9 and Sorento start from $40K-plus, most buyers spend extra for these higher grade models. Each gets leather-wrapping across all seven seats and the steering wheel, plus electric driver seat adjustment, multi-zone climate control, cruise control, satellite navigation, auto headlights/wipers, auto-dim rear-view mirror, reverse-view camera with rear sensors and 18-inch alloy wheels.
Kia’s cheaper SLi exclusively boasts an electric tail-gate, front parking sensors, premium audio and keyless auto-entry.
Mazda’s dearer Touring hits back with heated front seats, electric passenger seat adjustment, internet apps connectivity with voice control, blind-spot monitor and low-speed autonomous emergency braking (AEB) all missing from its rival. Call it even-stevens depending on the kit that most appeals.
It is, however, worth factoring in Kia’s seven-year unlimited kilometre warranty and annual or 15,000km servicing intervals at a cost of $1339 over 3yrs/45,000km. Mazda offers three-year cover and its annual or 10,000km intervals result in a $1666 bill over a comparable 4yrs/40,000km.
Parked side by side, it becomes immediately apparent that the Mazda CX-9 is substantially larger than the Kia Sorento. It is a mighty 5.08 metres long and 1.97m wide, versus the respective 4.78m/1.89m measurements of its rival.
For a very large family, the Mazda is the pick inside. Its seats are broad and plush in all three rows, and particularly in the final two seats that pop out from beneath the cargo floor, the CX-9 offers more comfortable accommodation than its foe.
Arguably, however, the Kia is more intelligently packaged considering its dimensions.
From the equally accommodating driver’s seat, it feels substantially more compact and less bus-like. Although the middle row is slightly firmer and occupants sit lower, there is nothing in it for legroom, and the backrest and bench likewise tips and slides forward effortlessly.
The third row of the Sorento is notably flatter and less forgiving than in the CX-9, but again, the headroom and legroom differences (both are marginally accommodating for a 178cm-tall male) are not what you’d expect given the divergent dimensions.
It takes until you get to boot space that the extra length of the Mazda comes to the fore. With all seven seats occupied, its 230-litre boot volume eclipses the 142L of its rival. Drop the third row down – easy enough to do in both, just pull a lever or rope then fold – and its gargantuan 810L continues to fend off the still sizeable 605L Kia.
For sheer size the Touring is perfect for family, err, touring. However, for ultimate smarts and quality – and if you can trade a bit of space – the SLi is the winner.
The CX-9 gets tri-zone climate control air-conditioning with buttons mounted on the lower centre console above the middle-row vents. Third-row riders must rely on feet ventilation only though, given that there are no face-level vents.
By contrast, the Sorento only gets dual-zone climate control, with no separate controls above its middle-row air vents, but it does feature two face-level vents and a fan-speed control for third-row passengers, which is arguably the superior option.
Meanwhile, Mazda delivers a quartet of USB inputs but only a duo of 12-volt outlets, respectively twice the number of USB ports and one less 12-volt outlet than the Kia.
Connectivity is a CX-9 forte in other ways, with its 8.0-inch colour touchscreen and MZD-Connect infotainment system continuing as the benchmark in the class. Notable mention goes to its smartphone-connected Pandora and Aha internet music streaming apps and ‘one shot’ voice control that accurately detects 1 Smith Street, Smithville, for example.
The Sorento gets a smaller 7.0-inch touchscreen, which is easy to use but nothing outstanding. Its nav did accurately feed in traffic updates and re-routing at one point during our testing, but it lacks voice control altogether.
Thankfully, its 10-speaker Infinity audio system cranks up nicely, and sounds far more premium than the Touring’s no-name six-speaker unit.
That isn’t the only area in which the SLi feels more premium. From the auto detection of a nearby key that electrically unfolds the door mirrors and switches on a puddle light on approach to the vehicle, to its keyless auto-entry and auto tailgate, it immediately feels like less a ‘base model’.
It may surprise some that this South Korean-built model has tighter fit and finish, and richer plastics, than its newer Japanese rival. But this is a Kia that, in addition to feeling less bus-like than the Mazda, also feels more ‘Euro premium’ without any asterisks, qualifications, ifs and buts.
The CX-9 dashboard poaches many bits from cheaper Mazda3 and Mazda6 models. It’s a good effort and is still well-built, but also a bit generic and ‘supersize me’ by comparison.
ON THE ROAD
Mazda believes a modern turbo petrol engine can be as efficient as a diesel when hauling a two-tonne SUV. In any driving space, we found this not to be the case.
Surprisingly, the larger CX-9 weighs 1911kg versus the smaller Sorento’s 1985kg, however their respective combined cycle fuel consumption stickers read 8.8 litres per 100 kilometres versus 7.8 l/100km respectively.
Both utilise AWD, both have six-speed automatic transmissions and both can tow up to 2000kg. To give you an idea of how close their outputs are, the 2.5-litre turbo petrol Mazda’s 170kW of power is 23kW ahead. But the 2.2-litre turbo-diesel Kia’s 441Nm of torque is 21Nm in front.
So we first conducted a low-speed urban driving loop where the CX-9 returned 14.5 l/100km versus 11.3 l/100km.
We then went touring from Sydney’s CBD, heading west climbing from zero to 1100 metres up and over the Blue Mountains. After a gentle, traffic-free convoy cruise the reset Mazda trip computer showed 9.1 l/100km versus 7.2 l/100km.
Some identical-speed spirited driving on bumpy and twisty country roads raised these figures to 14.1L/100km (Mazda) versus 9.4 l/100km (Kia), and a gentle cruise back resulted in overall totals of 10.4 l/100km and 7.6 l/100km in the diesel’s favour.
After 360km the Sorento was showing its 71L tank was just under three-quarters full, whereas the 74L CX-9’s gauge was bang-on halfway.
It should be noted that around town in particular, the Kia’s diesel is simply superb in terms of response and its relaxed delivery of surplus torque. It mates with an intuitive and adept auto, a combination of which is always refined and impressive overall.
Only when your foot is flat to the floor does the diesel lose out to the punchier petrol, which is equally as refined, but raunchier and keener to the ear while being demonstrably swifter during overtaking measures. Work the Mazda petrol hard, though, and you know what happens to consumption…
Both large SUV models have similar suspension traits that result in decent comfort and great control over any surface. Perhaps the Touring is a fraction more compliant and loping, but arguably both should be even plusher given the chubby sidewalls of their 18-inch tyres.
As an aside, we’re still waiting for the day an SUV in this class rides as well as Ford’s soon-deceased Territory.
As speeds rise, however, the SLi tames a bumpy Aussie backroad far better than its rival. There’s less rattle through the steering, less vibration through the cabin and greater composure everywhere.
Although the Kia’s steering lacks the sweet sharpness and consistency that helps the Mazda feel much smaller than it is, its set-up tightens as lock is wound on. To drive through corners, it simply feels like a comfortable, enlarged hatchback, a bit like what a Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class is to its A-Class hatch sibling.
This may surprise some, but the Sorento is more fun to drive than the CX-9, with a rear-end that moves passively but gently to help its nose point into corners, and what must be the best electronic stability control (ESC) in a South Korean vehicle.
Mazda is renowned for its ‘zoom-zoom’ dynamic philosophy, and its large SUV certainly sits flatter through corners particularly at the front end, to match its sharper steering. But it also feels more cumbersome and less willing to change direction, it’s more easily affected by mid-corner bumps and its ESC is harsher in its intrusions.
What the Japanese brand has never been renowned for is producing vehicles with excellent noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) properties, but the CX-9 changes that in a big way. This is a deathly quiet SUV that trumps its decently quiet rival here.
We did say this one will go down to the wire…
TMR VERDICT | Who wins the ‘large SUV lobdown’?
If your brood look ready to start in the Wallabies front row, then by default it would be wise to choose the CX-9 Touring, particularly given its larger boot.
The Mazda is a sizeable, smooth and swift performer that rarely dips from a high level of accomplishment for interior accommodation and on-road finesse. But be prepared to pay for its performance at the fuel pump, and when servicing.
Beyond sheer size – for its settled road manners, the performance of that stout diesel under the bonnet, and for its surprising feel of solidity and quality – the Sorento SLi has this contest won by a nose.
It most confidently proves the efficacy of diesel over petrol in a heavy SUV, it offers greater packaging smarts in a size that results in more nimble dynamics around town, and yet on country roads it is smoother (if not quieter) than its rival.
Add in an 'industry leading' warranty, and, by the width of an envelope the verdict is sealed. Kia Sorento... just...
- Mazda CX-9 Touring – 4.0 stars
- Kia Sorento SLi – 4.5 stars
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