2018 Kia Sorento vs 2018 Mazda CX-9 - Pack Leaders

 

Not all large SUVs are created equal but it’s hard to separate these two, the Sorento and CX-9. Kia has just launched a revised version of the Big Guy. Is it good enough to beat the award-winning Mazda?

Words: Kyle Cassidy   |   Photos Tom Gasnier
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When people ask what’s a good seven seater, Mazda CX-9 or Kia Sorento is usually the answer we give. The large SUV market continues to grow and most offerings tend to be American-centric; they are big, a little flashy and come with lots of cupholders. Prices vary from the low fifties to the seventies, and some even nudge close to eighty, in the case of the Highlander, for example.

Some midsized SUVs now offer a pair of extra seats in the boot but we reckon something bigger is the way to go if you’re using those rearmost pews often. While traditionalists and pragmatists fail to see the appeal, big SUVs do everything those old sedans did and more; they offer more luggage space, more seats, more tow, more go off road and a raised ride height that eases entry.

Kia has given Sorento a mid-cycle spruce up and here we measure its worth against the Mazda CX-9.

More gears and glitz

Sorento has undergone the usual midlife once over with new front and rear bumpers; the light clusters at each end feature alluring LED tech and the big grille dons a dark metallic finish. New wheel designs round out the look. The seats get improved lumbar support, always appreciated, there’s a new four-spoke wheel, rejigged instrument cluster and the dash incorporates a better readout for the AC controls. The infotainment system now features smartphone integration for both Apple and Android.

The powertrain gets a fillip with a new eight-speed auto. Kia’s own design, it’s said to offer more precise gear control, quicker shifting and improved fuel economy over the outgoing six-stage ’box. Kia offers up four drive modes for Sorento, the usual Eco, Comfort and Sport tempering transmission, throttle and steering responses, and adds a setting called Smart. This anticipates the driver’s needs and switches between the various modes to best suit the situation. Kia has also tweaked the range with all models featuring AWD and diesel power; the V6 2WD models are now indent only, while the 2.4 has been dropped.

Both utilise a blower to ramp up torque production from their two-point-something fours and get similar numbers despite each combusting a different type of fuel.

There are four model grades ranging in price from $56k to $74k. Mazda is now in the habit of constantly tweaking its range and so it has quietly added to CX-9 its G-Vectoring Control software to the steering set-up, auto power fold mirrors, the auto door locking feature (you walk away from the car and it auto locks, if you set it to do so), another tether point for a kid’s seat in the third row, and seat warmers now feature on the second row of the Limited model.

Meantime, the autonomous braking system has been upgraded with pedestrian detection and a greater operational speed range while the Limited now recognises traffic signs. There are still three models: GSX 2WD and AWD, and the Limited, with prices ranging from $55k to $65k.

Sevens masters

There’s not much point in buying one of these big SUVs unless you’re going to utilise all three rows. Some detest these vehicles, too big and cumbersome for their needs, but if you have bods to haul, they are handy as both have versatile, accommodating interiors. There’s a fraction more passenger space in the back of the Mazda, and its seat are comfier.

Each has a slide and recline middle row and access to the rearmost seats is straightforward; pull a lever and the seat tilts and slides forward. There’s not masses of space back there, doable for an adult but not recommended for long haul travel. The Sorento is a little tight for leg room back there while the Mazda lacks headspace. With the rear seats stowed into the floor, the boots are similar in length and width, though the Sorento’s roofline is a little higher whereas the CX-9’s tailgate is quite raked, impacting the overall load space.

There’s really not much between them for overall space, the Mazda with a mite more room inside but then it’s 200mm longer overall so should be bigger. There is more stowage in the CX-9 when all seats are in use, and it has five tether points for child restraints. God forbid you need to use them all at once.


Sorento has the more spacious cabin up front and better storage for life’s bits. The Mazda’s driving position is lower but feels hemmed in with its high-set centre console. Its seat is comfier, more supportive, if a bit narrow. Sorento’s seats aren’t bad but could do with some more padding. The Kia is well finished and though plastics are soft, the surfaces look harsh. The infotainment system is straightforward in operation but then you need to plug a phone in for it to do anything meaningful.

Mazda’s finishing and quality is second to none in this class however; it’s an impressive interior. And in Limited trim it is festooned with features, including an excellent head-up display and all manner of safety systems that work in a non-invasive fashion, with very few false alerts.

On boost

Both utilise a blower to ramp up torque production from their two-point-something fours and get similar numbers despite each combusting a different type of fuel. Mazda’s CX-9 uses a 2.5-litre turbopetrol to great effect and this blitzes the V6-powered competition by offering plentiful low down torque with minimal turbolag. It’s better at summoning its pull than the Sorento as petrols tend to rev quicker and Mazda’s turbo valve sure helps.

The ‘flow control valve’ in the exhaust manifold directs the gas through smaller ports at low engine speeds to increase the force of the flow and get the turbo cranking smartly. It works well, and the Mazda has plenty on tap from just above idle and challenges its AWD system at times with a minor torque reaction and the occasional moment of wheelslip. The Sorento’s 2.2 diesel isn’t quite as reactive but the way the eight-speed auto sorts itself, it doesn’t get so caught up in a lag hole as it used to. And its AWD is better at harnessing its power with no torque steer or spin apparent.

Both autos work well - no need to bother with shifting them manually - while the Sorento functions best in its Smart mode, the driveline adapting quickly to your wants, both in town and on the highway. It’s quick to kickdown and holds gears just long enough before hooking higher ratios to lower consumption. Both have stop-start systems, the Mazda’s quicker to refire, the Sorento’s a little laboured. You can manage idle-stop operation in the CX-9 easily via the pressure on the brake pedal so it doesn’t konk out right when you don’t want it to.

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Quoted fuel use sees the Kia claim 6.5L/100km and Mazda 8.8 whereas we saw 8.7 from the Kia during testing, (though this came down to 7.1 after covering a lot of highway miles) and the Mazda was on 10.6. Against the clock the petrol wins with its extra revs and power. Both are rated to tow a maximum of 2000kg.

On road

Progress in each is refined, the suspenders dealing effectively with big bumps in a quiet and smooth fashion but the Mazda is more hushed with less engine, wind and road noise. The Sorento’s diesel isn’t too intrusive but at times road rumble is. Both have a pleasant progress about them, the ride supple and neither feels cumbersome for what are big vehicles; they don’t surrender to corners in unrelenting understeer and tyre squeal. Pushing it, the Mazda holds its cornering line a little longer before the tyres protest, and it’s a little easier to direct with a better connection at the wheel.

The Sorento feels lighter on the move, and the overall weight indeed favours the Korean but that added feel at the wheel helps place the Mazda with more precision. Of more importance perhaps is turning circle, the Sorento better in this regard and its lighter steering at slow speeds lets you whip the wheel around more quickly. Each is easy on commute duty with good outward vision and little helpers like wide angle reversing cameras, blind spot monitors and smart keys.

Spec and price the key

You may have noticed the models on test don’t exactly align on spec and price. We have the mid-spec Sorento EX and a Limited CX-9. They are $60k and $65k respectively. Going on RRPs, the CX-9 walks this one; it’s slightly better in most regards and its extra specification is easily worth the $5k premium. However the EX currently carries a special price of $48,990. This does make you think all Sorentos could easily have $11k wiped off the sticker if you pushed the issue.

Looking at the CX-9 GSX AWD at $57,495, we’d be swayed towards the Sorento EX. The GSX has a slightly superior specification, but it’s not $8500 better. This EX is a sound package with everything you want, although it does lack vital safety gear with Kia omitting AEB from all but the top model.

If the Sorento were re-tested under current ANCAP rules, this EX model would no longer be a five-star vehicle. But if you’re more interested in the high-end models, the Limited CX-9 is far better value than the Limited Sorento ($64k) and Premium ($74k), with superior features to boot.

A note on servicing; conventional thinking says diesels are more expensive to maintain but the Sorento is available at present with a three-year/45,000km service plan, while CX-9 is covered by Mazda’s usual three-year/100,000km deal. Mazda’s warranty is superior with five year/unlimited kay cover to Kia’s five year/100,000km deal.

So it depends what you’re looking for here but it seems the answer is still the same; with either CX-9 or Sorento, you can’t really go wrong.

The Stats

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Model Kia Sorento EX 2.2  Price $48,990

Engine 2199cc, IL4, TDI, 147kW/441Nm

Transmission 8-speed auto, on-demand AWD

Vitals 10.21sec 0-100km/h, 6.5L/100km, 170g/km, 1926kg

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Model Mazda CX-9 Limited   Price $62,995

Engine 2488cc, IL4, T/DI, 170kW/420Nm

Transmission 6-speed auto, on-demand AWD

Vitals 8.12sec 0-100km/h, 8.8L/100km, 206g/km, 1975kg

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