When Mazda announced the launch of the new CX-8, I had to admit, I was a bit dubious. Did they really need another SUV to slot in between the CX-5 and CX-9?

Don’t get me wrong – both the CX-5 and CX-9 are great cars, and I’d be happy with either as a daily driver.

But they aren’t really that far apart in size to warrant another model in the middle – are they?

Sure the CX-5 is a 5-seater and the CX-9 holds seven, but all I could think was Mazda were going to show us an SUV that looks similar to both but physically is almost exactly in the middle of the two models.

Is this a case of Mazda trying to have more models available, and that’s about all?

I was keen to find out, as Mazda sent us to Hampton Downs racetrack for the launch.

Mazda New Zealand speaks

First up for the day was a chat with David Hodge, the Managing Director for Mazda New Zealand (MNZ). He went on to say that May 2018 was the best on record for Mazda NZ, coming in at third place behind Toyota and Ford.

“Leading the way for Mazda is the CX-5. This represents 30% total volume for Mazda in New Zealand.”

Apparently, globally Mazda sales are up 5%, with China having the strongest growth.

Mazda’s core engine tech is the SkyActiv system, with the first generation coming to the end soon. “From 2019, we will see SkyActivX, which will be the second generation for this technology,” says David.

That’s not to say Mazda is not looking at electric vehicles, and they are teaming up with Toyota to do this. Currently Mazda does not have an EV offering.

David went on to say that Mazda believes it’s a while before EVs take a strong position in the market, mainly as the rest of world don’t have a high rate of renewable energy, unlike New Zealand.

“When you add in cost, reliability, range, and a lack of a recharge network, there’s still a long way to go.”

In May, only 1 in 80 cars sold in NZ new were EVs. “Mazda is committed to reducing CO2 emissions, and will continue to develop EVs. But we believe the Gen2 SkyActivX engine is the best move for the moment.”

As far as Mazda SUVs go, they make up 65% of all MNZ sales, with the CX-5 being the clear leader within that.

The CX-8 is for RHD markets only, so we can all feel a bit special that we are getting access to it.

The CX-8 details

So to the CX-8. This car is built on the same chassis as the CX-9, and in many ways is almost the same in its dimensions.

For a powertrain, there’s just one; An upgraded 2.2 diesel SkyActiv engine which puts out 140kW of power and a high 450Nm of torque at just 2,000rpm.

Interesting that MNZ are sticking to just diesels for the CX-8, but they do mention that the CX-9 is petrol only – one reason that someone would go for the CX-8 over the CX-9, if diesel was the preference.

Inside the car, it’s similar to the CX-9. MNZ does say they consider the CX-8 more of a ‘5+2’ than a seven seater. They see the CX-8 for families that have occasional use of the 3rd row, where the CX-9 they believe would be used more fully in the third row department. The 3rd row in the CX-8 has been designed for people (read teenagers) up to 175cm.

The car has a large cruising range, thanks to its 74-litre tank, and excellent (claimed) fuel economy, at 6.0litres/100km. 1200km is claimed as possible range.

MNZ went on to discuss the standard features on the CX-8 and I think this is where they have won the battle. For example, even the base model has a heads-up display (HUD), and it’s a proper projected-on-windscreen HUD, not one that displays on a little pop-up piece of plastic, as Mazda has done previously in lower models. Having HUD as standard draws a line in the sand for other manufacturers – let’s hope others follow suit.

There’s also a huge range of safety features as standard, where other SUVs would only have them on mid-spec or top-spec models, like lane keep assist, rear cross traffic alert, blind spot monitoring, traffic sign recognition, lane departure warnings, and others.

There’s also other standard things like a reclining second row, front and rear parking sensors, LED lights (headlights, fog lights, tail lights), SatNav, keyless entry and start, 3-zone AC, and 4 USB ports. More will be revealed on a full test, but believe me it will be enough for you to wonder if you really need to go to the Limited model to get the extras, when the base GSX will have most of what you need.

The Limited model does get a heated steering wheel, a ten-speaker Bose audio system, heated first and second row seats, a power tailgate, among other goodies.

Other good and bad news; the bad news is that Apple CarPlay and Android Auto aren’t available. The good news is that’s a ‘yet’ and it’s expected by the fourth quarter of this year it will become available – and even better will be able to be retro-fitted to suitable other Mazda models.

Intelligent Speed Assistance (ISA) is included for the first time in a Mazda and is standard across all CX-8 models. Linked to the Mazda Radar Cruise Control (MRCC), and using the navigation system and Traffic Sign Recognition (TSR), ISA provides additional speed limiting warnings.

Back to the diesel power plant – it uses variable turbine geometry turbo technology, where there is a two stage turbo, with a smaller and a larger turbine. This apparently increases everything, like power, torque and fuel economy.

Like the CX-5, the CX-8 has been fitted with G-Vectoring Control (GVC), and if it works as well as it does in the CX-5, then that’s excellent. A drive will tell all.

It’s also got ‘Predictive AWD’ in the AWD models, and has a braked tow rating of 2000kg.

In the models, as mentioned there’s the GSX base model, available in both FWD and AWD, while the Limited model is AWD only.

You do get 3 years of free servicing with the CX-8, and also a 5-year unlimited kilometre warranty.

That was enough info on the CX-8 – we needed to get behind the wheel.

ModelRRP (incl GST, plus ORC)PowerTorqueFuel EconomyCO2Towing Capacity
Mazda CX-8 GSX 6AT (2WD)$53,495140kW450Nm6.0 l/100km158 g/km2,000 kg (braked)
Mazda CX-8 GSX 6AT (AWD)$55,995140kW450Nm6.0 l/100km158 g/km2,000 kg (braked)
Mazda CX-8 Limited 6AT (AWD)$62,495140kW450Nm6.0 l/100km158 g/km2,000 kg (braked)

* The Mazda CX-8 will be available in New Zealand from June 20.

2018 Mazda6

But first, MNZ wanted to give us an update on the new Mazda6.

This has been upgraded with new styling, and while the ‘old’ Mazda6 looked pretty sharp, the new model certainly looks even better.

Both diesel and petrol versions of the 6 have been upgraded to the latest SkyActiv technology, and there’s also a new top-spec model that sits above the Limited, the Takami. This model is the only one to have the CX-9’s petrol 2.5-litre turbo motor. It also has other additional options, like real wood panelling, ultrasuede trim, and nappa leather seating.

The seats in all Mazda6s have been redesigned with real thought going into the way people sit and their posture.

There’s also the same enhanced 2.2 diesel turbo as the CX-8, and the 2.5-litre petrol engine has been upgraded to include things like active cylinder deactivation. The suspension has better steering and handling, and NVH has been improved.

Like the CX-8, the Mazda6 has a HUD as standard (yay!) and also now includes an auto-hold function for the electric park brake.

Most of us were interested in the 2.5 petrol turbo model of course. A shame this engine is only available in the top spec model, but it does put out 170kW of power and 420Nm of torque at 2000rpm – that’s diesel figures, right there.

Adaptive cruise control is standard, and the Takami also has a 360-degree camera system.

Satnav is also standard, and so is GVC. The Limited model gets heated front and rear seats.

ModelRRP (incl GST, plus ORC)PowerTorqueFuel EconomyCO2Towing Capacity
Mazda6 2.5L Sedan GSX 6AT Petrol$45,995140kW252Nm7.0 l/100km172 g/km1,500 kg (braked)
Mazda6 2.5L Sedan Limited 6AT Petrol$51,195140kW252Nm7.0 l/100km172 g/km1,500 kg (braked)
Mazda6 2.5T Sedan Takami 6AT Petrol Turbo$56,995170kW420Nm7.6 l/100km184 g/km1,600 kg (braked)
Mazda6 2.5L Wagon GSX 6AT Petrol$46,995140kW252Nm7.0 l/100km172 g/km1,500 kg (braked)
Mazda6 2.2L Wagon GSX 6AT Diesel$49,295140kW450Nm5.3 l/100km139 g/km1,600 kg (braked)
Mazda6 2.2L Wagon Limited 6AT Diesel$54,495140kW450Nm5.3 l/100km139 g/km1,600 kg (braked)

We’ll have a full review of the new Mazda6 soon.

But wait, there’s more!

The ever-popular CX-5 didn’t get left out of the day. This ‘Medium SUV’ is the largest segment in passenger market, and the CX-5 leads this segment in sales when you exclude rentals.

This model now has the same new upgraded engines (petrol and diesel) as the Mazda and even better the ‘proper’ HUD is now standard too.

There’s been other improvements too, and the list of standard features seems to match the CX-5, especially around all the standard safety features.

ModelRRP (incl GST, plus ORC)PowerTorqueFuel EconomyCO2Towing Capacity
CX-5 FWD 2.0L GLX 6AT Petrol$39,995115kW200Nm6.9 l/100km161 g/km1,800 kg (braked)
CX-5 FWD 2.0L GSX 6AT Petrol$42,995115kW200Nm6.9 l/100km161 g/km1,800 kg (braked)
CX-5 AWD 2.5L GSX 6AT Petrol$46,245140kW252Nm7.4 l/100km172 g/km1,800 kg (braked)
CX-5 AWD 2.2L GSX 6AT Diesel$48,495140kW450Nm5.7 l/100km148 g/km2,000 kg (braked)
CX-5 AWD 2.5L Limited 6AT Petrol$55,745140kW252Nm7.4 l/100km172 g/km1,800 kg (braked)
CX-5 AWD 2.2L Limited 6AT Diesel$57,995140kW450Nm5.7 l/100km148 g/km2,000 kg (braked)

The Drive

Enough of the talk of the CX-8 – I joined the group that was taking off for an hour’s drive around the backroads of Mercer. By now it was a bit drizzly, and the road damp in places. Perfect, in other words.

My first car was a blue Limited version, so AWD.

I looked into the rear-view mirror to see…headrests. Both the three in the second row and the two in the third row headrests use up most of your rear vision. Not a great start!

Still, that diesel is lovely. Quiet and refined – just like the CX-9. In fact that was one of my takeaways from the CX-8 – it’s a very similar car to the CX-9, I guess as it should be since they share the same chassis. That diesel – nice, quiet, torquey. I’ve got to say it doesn’t have the same punch as it does it the lighter CX-5, but I hammered the car around the backroads and it did everything I asked it to. Hard to believe it’s a diesel at times.

Even with G-Vectoring Control, there was more body roll than the CX-5, but about the same as the CX-9. Still very good, bordering on excellent – I really chucked that car around, and with the AWD and GVC it did extremely well.

There was more tyre noise than I’d expect, this is one of the CX-9’s major strengths, it’s almost silent, especially at cruising speeds.

Since it was cold, I turned on the heated steering wheel and the heated seats, so very comfy in the cabin.  Great to see brake auto-hold make an appearance, this is something I always use.

The HUD too is excellent, the only downside is that even in manual mode, you don’t see what gear you are in. This really was highlighted later in the day when I was taking the Mazdas around the race track.

It was time for a car change, so I grabbed a base model white AWD GSX. Straight away I noticed less tyre noise. I put this down to the 17” wheels on the GSX, while the Limited has 19” rims, and likely lower profile tyres. The tyre noise isn’t bad on the Limited, it’s just obvious at times – and most likely this is due to the quietness of every other part of the car.

Steering feedback was very good as I continued on those windy back roads. It was initially a surprise that there was only a diesel version, as other manufacturers trim down their diesel options to mostly petrol engines, but honestly, the CX-8 is a car that makes you wonder why. That 2.2 diesel is really that good.

Track Time

There’s no point in going to Hampton Downs if you aren’t going to get out on the track. Of course, since we had swapped with another group, they had all the CX-8s out on the road – so for us, it was going to be a mixture of the new Mazda6 and CX-5s – all with the new engines.

One of Mazda’s aims here was to demonstrate the new Intelligent Speed Assistance feature.

Some of the track cars had this, but simply put it uses traffic sign recognition to help you set the speed limiter of the car – to allow you to drive more safely and maybe fewer speeding tickets as you go a few km/h over the limit. Does it work? Yes. As the cameras recognise a speed limit sign and show you what that is, you hit the RES button on the steering wheel and the limiter is set to that speed. You can still overcome it if you floor the accelerator, but I can see how it could save you from going over the speed limit – although it won’t apply the brakes, you’ll need to use adaptive cruise control for that.

My first car out was a Mazda6 Wagon with the new diesel in it. I certainly felt the weight loss over the CX-8, as the engine punched it out of the corners nicely. Handling too was excellent, as I managed to get a few 4-wheel drifts in around the tighter corners, and even on the fast bend on to the main straight. It did manage to spin the inside front wheel a bit too often, but that was more my lack of driving skills than anything.

The red line on the diesel engine is set at 5,000rpm, and the car is just as happy at that as it is at 3,000rpm. It’s just so smooth, it puts some petrol engines to shame.

After a few laps, I switched to a CX-5 diesel. It felt slightly slower than the Mazda6, but still good. I love the CX-5 with the ‘old’ diesel engine, it’s always been the one model to buy. In this new version, it’s just better again. Not only that, but I was reminded on how well GVC works on the CX-5. I had this 4-wheel drifting too, and the grip coming out of the corners with the AWD was superb, even in the wet.

Body roll was more pronounced in the CX-5 than I remembered, but then we were pushing these cars along at a brisk pace, and I was trying to keep in the flow of the Mazda6s. It did well, and was fun to boot.

Next up was a CX-5 petrol. Still fun, redline at 6,000rpm, but just reinforced that the diesel is a far better option. I’d still be happy with the petrol CX-5, but even happier with the diesel.

Last car change, and I was finally getting behind the wheel of the 170kW Mazda6 Takami. What a shame I only had two laps to get a feel for this car. Did it impress in just two laps? Totally. While the Mazda6 diesel spun the inside front wheels some, the Takami did it with ease. It just wants to go. I’d love to drive both the Takami and the Kia Stinger together, it would be a very interesting comparison.

All too soon, track fun-uh, testing, was over.

We’ve said it so many times before – just one day with a car is not enough to claim success.

But if the CX-5 and the CX-9 are anything to go by, Mazda can’t help but to do very well with the CX-8.

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