Surprise rival for luxury car brands
Drifting ever upward in a push for profit, Mazda has introduced a new model at the top of its SUV range.
The CX-9 Azami LE is the most expensive Mazda you can buy today, priced from $66,490 plus on-road costs - around $70,000 on the road and $1500 more than the previous range-topper.
The LE treatment brings soft-touch burgundy-coloured leather, real wood trim, ambient lighting and a hand-stitched steering wheel in a cabin to rival luxury marques.
Those elements build on the Azami's already-strong kit including a full safety suite, LED headlamps, 20-inch wheels and more.
The range-topping CX-9 doesn't want for equipment. Convenient touches include a powered tailgate and 360 degree camera which accompany luxury features like electric seats with memory adjustment and a 12-speaker Bose stereo linked to an 8-inch infotainment screen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Unfortunately, the system remains glitch-prone. A bugbear of recent Mazda models, our test car's infotainment suite turned silent and unresponsive once during our week-long test.
Luxury flows through to a back seat with independent climate control and seat heating, plus twin USB chargers tucked into a cubby hole in the centre armrest.
It's practical, too, with three-row versatility bringing a useful 230 litres as a seven-seater, or 810 litres with the third row folded flat.
Mazda should be commended for making its full suite of safety kit standard across the entire range. While some brands restrict gear to expensive models or bundle safety into expensive packs, Mazda stocks the CX-9 with adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking and other features as standard.
Speed sigh recognition gels well with its head-up display system, leaving you in no doubt about the current speed limit.
Mid-life tweaks for 2019 include changes to the car's springs, shock absorbers, engine mounts and steering system intended to make this Mazda more refined than before.
It's hard to pick a difference without driving the cars back to back. But we can say the CX-9 was Mazda's most polished machine and it remains a quiet car with sophisticated manners. Available only with all-wheel-drive and 20-inch wheels, the Azami LE brings crisp steering responses and sure-footed traction to match effortless acceleration from a sweet-if-thirsty turbo petrol engine.
Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander, from $60,500 plus on-road costs
The new Santa Fe is plush in Highlander trim with brown leather seats. A diesel engine isn't as quiet as Mazda's unit, but it will take you further.
Toyota Kluger Grande, from $69,246 plus on-roads
Designed for growing families, the Kluger brings the luxury of space. A new model is around the corner, which means there are deals to be done.
Lexus RX350L Sport, from $84,329 plus on-road costs
Lexus' seven-seat RX350L costs an extra $20,000, isn't as good to drive and won't match the Mazda's luxury touches until you spend $100,000 on better-equipped models. But you do get a luxury badge.
Sweet to drive and loaded with gear, the Mazda CX-9 Azami LE ticks plenty of boxes for families with cash to spend.
Mazda CX-9 Azami LE vitals
Price: $66,490 plus on-road costs
Engine: 2.5-litre 4-cyl turbo petrol, 170kW/420Nm
Safety: 5 stars/ 6 airbags, autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control.