A quick first drive of the new Mazda CX-8

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The story of the CX-8 is a rather unremarkable one. Mazda once had an MPV, the Mazda8, which was actually marketed with the tagline, “the idea of a sportscar – inherited by a minivan.” It was, in every sense of the word, a mom mobile with that very tagline was delivered by a middle-aged woman in Japan. But as the company shifted its attention to all things Kodo and Skyactiv, they found themselves with an opportunity: Should they make something pleasing to soccer moms or should they make a three-row SUV? Focus group studies and likely, simpler engineering costs, dictated the latter — and thus, the CX-8 was born.

Initially, the CX-8 feels like a compromise in values, especially when you see it in the flesh. There’s a hint of déjà vu because it clearly mixes styling elements found on both the smaller CX-5 and the larger CX-9. Sure, it’s handsome and elegant, but also largely unoriginal. Nonetheless, put it next to other mid-sized SUVs it’s going up against and it still stands out as the best-looking one out there.

The story continues to the cabin. The CX-8 basically follows the CX-5’s, down to the air vents that seemingly jut out of the dashboard and even the strong horizontal theme. Yet it throws in some CX-9 pieces too like the butterfly-opening center console and even the position of the cup holders. It also gets its bigger brother’s black-and-brown motif; only here, the upper dash is pure black, while the lower dash is dark brown.

Highly functional and clean-looking dashboard of the right-hand drive test unit we tested in Japan

Cabin quality is typical Mazda with well-damped switchgear and impressively high premium pieces including the use of real wood trim and Nappa leather on the highest-end variant. Atypical of Mazdas though is that the CX-8 is spacious across all three rows. Ensuring this, Mazda opted to go straight for the CX-9’s platform, down to the 2,930 mm wheelbase. The goal here was to fit a person of any size in front while still being able to comfortably fit adults in both the second and third rows. After sampling it, it’s job done for the engineers. But more than just space, the CX-8 refuses to compromise comfort. Remember the ultra-ergonomic design that promotes the spine’s natural S-shape? It’s here—on all three rows.

The features found in the CX-8 closely mirror those found in the more luxurious CX-9: power adjustable front seats, triple-zone climate control with rear vents, standard Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, and a 12-speaker Bose sound system. Unlike the larger Mazda though, this one is offered with two seating configurations: a seven-seater with a traditional second-row bench (2+3+2) for the 2WD variant, and a more luxurious 6-seater version with second-row captain’s seats (2+2+2) for the AWD variant. In both cases, the wide rear doors open 80 degrees resulting in easy entry/exit and installation/removal of child seats. It’s also highly flexible with a second row that slides.

Second-row captain’s chairs for the 6-seater version.

As you may have guessed by now, dynamically, the CX-8 is a mix between the CX-5 and the CX-9 as well. While the Malaysian-made CX-8 is available in both diesel and gasoline flavors, this drive was spent purely with the gasoline-powered 2.5 Skyactiv-G. Unlike the CX-9, the CX-8 doesn’t have a turbocharger and with that, it makes 192 horsepower and 258Nm of torque. They’re healthy numbers typically, but it’s something of a worry given this SUV’s a portly 1,781 kilograms. True enough, it doesn’t feel as fast or light as the CX-5, but it nonetheless obliges with every press of the accelerator. Power delivery is smooth and is never lacking, no doubt influenced by the revised final gearing. Staying mostly on the highway, the fuel economy rested at 9.1km/L, but this figure is surely to be lower in stop-and-go traffic.

Mazda engineers kept on emphasizing comfort and refinement over the usual talk of fun-to-drive and corner carving. True enough, the CX-8 will never be mistaken for a sports car. Yet, it delivers much more than what the average SUV needs to. In most situations, it masks its heft well with minimal body roll.  The steering is closer to the CX-5’s in that there’s a feeling of agility near the center without being darty or nervous. However, its ride is pliant or even more so than the CX-9’s especially over big bumps and potholes. The most impressive aspect though is its extremely hushed cabin. Measures have been made to quell outside noise and as a result, holding a conversation between those in the front and last rows are actually possible.

From a car company that defies convention, the CX-8 may come across initially as something unimaginative. It may seem like a quick cash grab move in the same way Mercedes-Benz and BMW would come up with never ending vehicle derivatives based on the same platform. Yet, the Mazda CX-8 isn’t that. It’s a worthy and a very important addition to the Mazda range. By combining the traits of the CX-5 and the CX-9, the CX-8 ends up as an impeccably presented three-row SUV with solid performance and more than enough room to fill the role of a family hauler.

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