2017 Drive Car of the Year: Best Family SUV

by Stephen Ottley

It’s old news that SUVs have replaced the traditional family car. But that doesn’t mean car makers aren’t pushing new limits in the quest for a better Family SUV.

Our three contenders in this year’s Best Family SUV category prove that no manufacturer is resting on its laurels. All three finalists offer more car-like driving dynamics than SUVs of years gone by, while still boasting more practicality and, just as importantly, SUV styling that appeals to the modern family.

Winner: Mazda CX-9 Touring

The new CX-9 made a big impact in 2016, not only winning this category but becoming a finalist in our overall Car of the Year award. Despite the new competition the defending champion was impressive enough to hold onto its title.

And it’s not hard to see why, Mazda has produced the benchmark for the family SUV market – spacious, stylish, well equipped and nice to drive.

One of the stand-out elements of the CX-9 is the 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol engine, with judges calling it ‘awesome’ and praising it for its performance and refinement. What makes it impressive is, as a petrol engine in a class usually dominated by turbo diesels, it has the best of both kinds.

With 420Nm of torque available from just 2000rpm, it has the low-rev range power of a diesel and’yet still has 170kW of power to call on when you get it higher in the revs. It’s smooth and quiet too, with none of the lag or rattling soundtrack so often found with a turbo diesel.

Fuel economy is rated at 8.8-litres per 100km, which isn’t a match for a turbo diesel, but is still a respectable return given the size of the CX-9.

The only negative point for the engine highlighted by the judges was the occasional tendency to torque steer (the sensation of the steering wheel tugging in your hands) under hard acceleration.

Dynamically it stands out with a comfortable and quiet ride. The latter is a big deal for Mazda, a brand that has struggled with reducing cabin noise on most of its recent models.

But it’s not perfect, with some judges singling out its slow steering’- a symptom of its sheer size – as a slight drawback.

Inside, the CX-9 found favour with the judges for its spacious cabin that includes one of the biggest third row seats on the market.

There are comfortable and supportive seats in all three rows, but in this family focused class that extra room in the rear is a big bonus. Judges specifically like the easy access to the rear, which can be completed by one-hand in a single action.

While the cabin is roomy it doesn’t make the best use of its space up front as there’s not as much small item storage as you’d expect. When lined-up against the likes of the Skoda and Toyota it feels as though style, rather than function, was the designers’ first priority.

Value is another strong point for the CX-9 with 18-inch alloys, auto LED headlights and fog lamps, auto wipers, tri-zone air-conditioning, black leather seat trim, 8-inch infotainment screen, six-speaker sound system, navigation, Bluetooth and keyless ignition all included in the $54,290 price.

In addition to that it boasts a comprehensive safety package that includes Smart City Brake Support (Mazda’s name for forward and rear autonomous braking that works between speeds of 4-30km/h), blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert and reversing camera.

Numbers that matter:

  • 230-litre boot with all three rows up.
  • 810-litres with the third row stowed.
  • 8.6sec 0-100km/h

Verbatim: ‘It’s easy to drive for a car that size.’ – Daniela Intili

What we liked: Good engine; quiet cabin; spacious interior.

What we didn’t like: Susceptible to torque steer; slow steering; limited small item storage.

Mazda CX-9 Touring AWD price and specifications

Price: From $54,290 plus on-road costs

Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol

Power: 170kW at 5000rpm

Torque: 420Nm at 2000rpm

Transmission: Six-speed automatic, all-wheel drive

Fuel use: 8.8L/100km

Finalist: Skoda Kodiaq 132TSI 4x4

The Volkswagen-owned Czech brand has taken its first step into the booming large SUV market. The Kodiaq is based on the same underpinnings as the forthcoming VW Tiguan Allspace, so while it’s new for the brand it has plenty of pedigree in its shared mechanical DNA.

As it has done with so many cars, including the Best Family Car winning Superb wagon, Skoda has produced a polished, almost premium, offering that stands out in a crowded market.

A big part of that is its size. The Kodiaq isn’t as small as the regular Tiguan but not as big as the CX-9 and Kluger, creating a space for itself in between – which has both pros and cons.

On the plus side, it is a nice SUV to drive, with strong dynamic ability and agility on display during our road and track testing.

On the down side, judges were critical of its third row seating. Not only is access difficult, once in the back the third row lacks space. So much so even children will struggle to be comfortable in the cramped back row.

Considered as a seven-seater, it’s simply too small, but if you look at the Kodiaq as a ‘5+2’ seater it will hold more appeal to families who only need the extra people carrying option occasionally.

The rest of the cabin, however, earned high praise from all the judges for both its quality presentation and practical touches.

The materials used and its overall design border on a luxury car, with the partially Alcantara-trimmed seats earning specific acclaim.

Skoda’s marketing tagline ‘Simply Clever’ is impressively accurate with the Kodiaq offering a variety of smart items that add to its appeal. There are umbrellas hidden in both front doors, built-in mechanical sunblinds in the rear, a device (smartphone or small tablet) holders for the rear seats, a torch in the boot and unique door protectors (small plastic lips that automatically fold out when the door is opened to avoid chipping the paint).

On the road the Kodiaq’s relatively small 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine did an admirable job, which, while lacking the outright grunt of its competitors, has more than enough performance for its size.

The Kodiaq earned plenty of praise but its in-between size ultimately played against it when the judges measured it against our Best Family SUV criteria.

Numbers that matter:

  • 5-year warranty.
  • 2 umbrellas in the front doors.
  • 630-litre boot with third row stowed.

Verbatim: ‘It doesn’t feel like an entry-level model at all.’ – David Morley

What we liked: ‘Simply clever’ touches like the door protectors; punchy engine; premium cabin presentation.

What we didn’t like: Cramped third row seating; no third row ventilation; transmission can be hesitant away from the lights

Skoda Kodiaq 132TSI 4x4 price and specifications

Price: From $42,990 plus on-road costs

Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol

Power: 132kW at 3900-6000rpm

Torque: 320Nm at 1400-3940rpm

Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, all-wheel drive

Fuel use: 7.6L/100km

Finalist: Toyota Kluger GXL

If popularity was a factor in our judging, the Kluger would have its rivals beat. The big Toyota is the second best-selling large SUV in the country, beaten only by its bigger sibling – the Prado.

Despite that, Toyota has reacted to threat of the new competition, giving the Kluger a significant mid-life upgrade for 2017 that includes a fresh look and eight-speed automatic transmission.

Under the bonnet it’s an updated version of the 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine that now produces 218kW and 350Nm. While the judges concurred it provides plenty of grunt, it lacks refinement, and our front-wheel drive test car often struggled with torque steer.

While it doesn’t lack for performance, and the eight-speed gearbox has reduced fuel economy, it’s still rather thirsty with a claimed average of 9.1L/100km, so unlike the CX-9 you miss the diesel in the Toyota.

However, as hard as Toyota has tried to improve the Kluger, the judges felt it simply doesn’t feel as modern as its two rivals in terms of on-road dynamics and in-car presentation.

During our track activities the Kluger failed to win over many judges with its clumsy stability control calibration and slow response to inputs.

Where it won points back was inside, with a well thought out and cavernous cabin. In an opposite situation to the CX-9, function has dictated form with loads of small item storage. And not just for phones, wallets and such, but the lidded console box between the front seats is so big one judge joked ‘you could fit a bowling ball’ inside it.

As for family duties, its third row seating is almost as spacious as the Mazda, making it big enough to be used as a full-time seven-seater, but accessing it wasn’t as simple.

The Kluger has’some imperfections, but it’s easy to understand why this humble but spacious hauler is a family favourite.

Numbers that matter:

  • $180 per service for the first three years.
  • 6 month service intervals.
  • 529-litre boot with third row stowed.

Verbatim: ‘It’s the new Tarago.’ – David McCowen

What we liked: Spacious interior; powerful V6 with new eight-speed auto; air-con for all three rows.

What we didn’t like: Torque steer; V6 still thirsty and no diesel option; feels slow to react in dynamic situations.

Toyota Kluger GXL 2WD price and specifications

Price: From $53,650 plus on-road costs

Engine: 3.5-litre V6 petrol

Power: 218kW at 6600rpm

Torque: 350Nm at 4700rpm

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, front-wheel drive

Fuel use: 9.1L/100km

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