The 2021 Mazda CX-8 AWD Exclusive is one distinctive midsize SUV

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When Mazda Philippines launched the CX-8 midsize SUV, it served as an alternative to the typical pickup-based midsize SUV choices in the market. Priced at P 2.290-million, there is the entry-level CX-8 2WD Signature. But for those who want something more; something with all the bells-and-whistles, well, for P160,000 more, there’s this: the CX-8 AWD Exclusive.

Let’s put things into perspective first. At P 2.450-million, the CX-8 AWD Exclusive actually sits between the other CX-8 variant, and top-of-the-line CX-9 (P 2.950-million). It’s more expensive than the bigger and more powerful, but less equipped entry-level CX-9 2WD Touring (P 2.380-million). The close price gap between these two models presents a problem to would-be buyers, who may just get more confused on which three-row Mazda SUV to get.

Ultimately though, Filipinos gravitated towards the CX-8, likely realizing that this SUV offers much better value thanks to similar (in some cases, better equipment) than the larger CX-9, while staying under the psychological P 2.5 million barrier. Indeed, it has become Mazda’s third bestselling model in 2020 after the Mazda3 and CX-5.

Style-wise, there’s almost no way to tell the two CX-8 variants apart. Since Filipinos care a lot about looks, it’s brilliant that Mazda offered essentially a complete package—from the full gamut of color choices, exterior LED lighting, to the same 19-inch alloy wheels. In fact, the only exclusive AWD features? An additional badge on the tailgate and standard roof rails.

Open the doors, and you’ll revel in the same sort of luxury Mazdas have come up of late. Nice, plush plastics, solid-feeling switchgear, genuine wood trim, and Nappa leather seats. Simply put, it doesn’t fall short of expectations.

That said, the two CX-8 variants also reveal their biggest difference inside: the AWD Exclusive’s second-row captain’s seats. Initially, Mazda’s decision to swap the traditional bench for individual buckets may seem counterintuitive, but in the end, it’s the very reason why it stands out in the segment. It enables this SUV to play the role of several vehicles. Need a practical self-driven family car? Get the 2WD. Are you more chauffer driven? Get the AWD.

Unlike other captain’s seats, its application in the CX-8 doesn’t diminish its cargo capacity greatly. Apart from being able to move fore and aft and recline, the individual seats also fold flat forming a long, continuous cargo space from the cargo hold all the way to the back of the front seats. If there are shortcomings, there are just two: one, is a missed opportunity to fit ventilated seats like in the CX-9 and Mazda6 (heated seats for the first two rows are standard though), and two, is that the second-row console box protrudes even with the second row folded. This can potentially limit its ability to haul large things like a flat-screen TV.

Now for those who’ll end up being driven most of the time in the CX-8, you’ll be pleased to know that its ride is one of the comfiest, if not the comfiest in the midsize SUV category. Even if Mazdas are known more for their enthusiast-centric handling, this one is extremely pliant—going through all sorts of road cracks and potholes—small and big with poise and grace. Moreover, it’s got none of the float—a typical cause of car sickness. The cabin is extremely quiet, too.

For those who prefer to do their own driving, not much separates the front- and all-wheel drive CX-8, subjectively. Having the added security of one more driven axle is helpful in low-grip situations such as heavy rain, but as a daily driver, they feel same. Even more surprising, the fuel economy penalty isn’t much with the AWD version registering 7.1 km/L to the 2WD’s 7.5 km/L in similar traffic and driving conditions.

Now what truly sets the AWD apart is its added suite of driver-assist features which Mazda calls i-Activsense. The CX-8 2WD already has features such as Lane Departure Warning (LDW), Lane Keep Assist (LKA), Blindspot Monitoring, and Rear Cross Traffic Alert, but the AWD goes one step further—adding Smart City Brake Support, Driver-Attention Alert, and a radar-based Active Cruise Control into the mix. Shame only that the 360-degree camera’s resolution is pretty low rent.

On the flipside, Mazda used the added radar system in the CX-8 to add a functionality called Distance Recognition Support System or DRSS. Something not even found in the Mazda6, it automatically turns on once speeds reach 30 km/h. After that, it continuously scans the road ahead for other vehicles—yes including bicycles and motorcycles—and actively warns the driver to maintain a safe distance via the heads-up display. It is, in other words, an unobtrusive yet effective anti-tailgating measure. Neat.

Initially, the CX-8’s market positioning is a bit fuzzy; after all, playing as the in-betweener is never easy. Being the family’s middle child, you’re often the “forgotten” one. However, as you get to know it more, this one brings a lot to the table. Mazda’s decision to offer two distinct seating arrangements is pure genius, offering a level of distinction in this overcrowded segment. In particular, this AWD Exclusive’s second-row captain’s seats brings a truly business-class feel that make it a genuine and even better alternative to the usual executive sedans, or even some luxury MPVs.

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