Here’s a phrase you’ve probably read or heard of – nice to drive. Sounds pretty straightforward and yet if you delve into it a little deeper, some confusion may arise. For example, both the Mazda CX-8 and Volkswagen Tiguan Allspace R-Line are nice to drive, but both feel worlds apart in terms of driving experience.
The confusion stems from the rather vague description of the phrase “nice to drive” and every individual may have a slightly different interpretation of it. Some use the phrase to describe a car when it delivers a refined experience, a smooth and relaxing drive. Others may use it when the car possesses good handling.
On the topic of handling, even the term itself is often misinterpreted. What exactly constitutes to a good handling car? Is it a quick steering rack that gives sharp steering responses? Is it the outright grip and how fast it can go around corners? These characteristics aren’t mutually exclusive, so all of them?
Apologies for the bombardment of questions and digression, but the point here is this – context matters. In the context of everyday driving, the Mazda CX-8 is indeed nice to drive and in the context of large SUVs, it does handles well. But we’ll talk about the driving experience a little later.
Exterior – Easily mistaken for a CX-5
Think of the Mazda CX-8 as a Mazda CX-5 stretched and draped onto the Mazda CX-9’s underpinnings. The Mazda CX-8 and CX-9 have identical wheelbase at 2,930 mm, significantly longer than the CX-5’s wheelbase at 2,700 mm.
The difference between the Mazda CX-5 and CX-8 can be clearly seen from the side profile. The rear door appears stretched and the rear quarter window is noticeably larger. Speaking of door, the keyless function on the door handles is button-operated. For a RM 200k car, I would prefer the sensor type.
From the front, only Mazda connoisseurs are able to tell the difference between the CX-5 and CX-8. The most prominent difference would be the front grille; the Mazda CX-8 features horizontal slats compared to the diamond-like pattern on the CX-5. The rest of the front fascia is nigh on identical.
It’s easier to distinguish the CX-8 from the rear. There’s a chrome strip that runs across horizontally on the boot lid that joins the taillamps, which have slightly different design than on the CX-5. Elsewhere like the rear bumper and number plate cutout are tweaked ever so slightly, but you’d have to put them side by side to notice the difference.
The Mazda CX-8 faired commendably in terms of exterior build and finishing quality. Panel gaps deviated by no more than 0.5 mm from each side and paint thickness averaged in the 80s of µm, with no outliers.
Interior – Again, like the CX-5
The dashboard is pretty much ripped out from the CX-5, which has its pros and cons. Let’s talk about the good stuff first.
Selection of material and build quality are top notch. All touch points are either covered in supple leather or soft plastics. Seats are upholstered in Nappa leather, so it’s as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Interestingly, the seats have heating function. Personally, I would’ve much preferred seat ventilation in our scorching climate.
Moving on to the CX-8’s highlight, the second- and third-row seats. In this variant, the 2.2D High, it gets a 6-seater layout with a centre console between the second-row seats.
The 2.5L Mid Plus variant has an aisle for passengers to easily get into the third-row seats. Without the aisle, one would have to push the second-row seats forwards to access the third-row seats.
Space in the second row is generous in Mazda’s context, with 3 tennis ball of kneeroom and slightly less than 2 tennis balls of headroom. This is with the second-row seats pushed all the way back.
As for the third-row seats with the front and second-row seats set at 25 cm apart - which is our set distance for “normal legroom” – there’s one tennis ball of kneeroom and my 177 cm stature is just about touching the headliner.
Now onto the not-so-good stuff, it’s the infotainment screen. The screen itself is rather small in size and while the interface is easy to use and understand, it looks dated compared to the newer systems seen in the Mazda 3 and CX-30. Also, the resolution of the 360-degree camera is quite poor.
Apart from those, I have no qualms with the CX-8’s interior.
Driving Experience – Easygoing and relaxing
Well, let’s pick up where we left off. As mentioned earlier, the Mazda CX-8 is nice to drive. But what do I really mean by that?
For starters, the driving position. The steering wheel perfectly centered and pedal positioning is spot on. No surprises here from a Mazda. There’s enough adjustment on the seat height and steering for individual of all sizes to enjoy the highly-praised Mazda driving position.
I’ve always harped on about the importance of calibration of controls - the steering, throttle response, and braking sensitivity - and how Mazda always nails the calibration exercise. The Mazda CX-8 is no exception. There’s no adjustment period when you get in and drive a Mazda, it just feels natural.
Compared to the Mazda CX-5, the CX-8 exudes a more matured character. The additional heft and length can be felt as the CX-8 doesn't feel as lightfooted. Steering ratio is slower, meaning it doesn’t turn in as sharply and requires more steering input.
Personally, I think this perfectly suits the relaxed nature of the CX-8 as it goes around bends a little more gracefully. The GVC+ system helps keep body movements in check.
The Volkswagen Tiguan Allspace R-Line feels nimbler around corners, with sharper steering and more mechanical grip from the wider tyres. It’s also significantly quicker in a straight line. But do these really matter in daily driving scenarios?
Let's talk a bit about the engine. The 2.2-litre Skyactiv D engine is supremely flexible in its power band by diesel standards. If you’re expecting the punch-in-the-gut acceleration from say, a BMW 320d, then you might be disappointed because this engine delivers power and torque in a progressive manner.
It pulls healthily from about 1,500 rpm onwards all the way to the un-diesel-like 5,000 rpm redline. We recorded its 0-100 km/h at 9.5 seconds, which is quite respectable for a 1.9 tonne SUV.
Vibration is minimal and the diesel clatter is only noticeable from the outside. Once you step into the cabin, it fades far into the background. At higher revs, say above 3,000 rpm, it even sounds like its petrol-powered counterpart. Well, to my ears at least. So as far as refinement goes, it’s superb.
As with most new Mazdas, braking requires more effort if you’re used to highly-assisted braking feel. It’s just how Mazda calibrates its brake booster for progressiveness. But even with that in mind, braking performance is average at best. With 6 passengers on board, I suspect it would struggle to stop its mass.
Ride Comfort – Rather wafty for a Mazda
With its 1.9 tonne kerb weight and near-3-metre wheelbase, the Mazda CX-8 rides with a composure that’s absent in other Mazdas save for the CX-9. At highway speeds, the Mazda CX-8 simply wafts along and glides over any undulations, making this a comfortable cruiser.
Here comes the inevitable but – low-speed ride could be more accomplished. Over sharp edges, bumps, or potholes, the slight jiggles can still be felt. Though it’s definitely a cut above the CX-5, it would’ve been ideal if the edges are rounded off better.
That being said, it’s far from a deal breaker and in the grand scheme of things, the Mazda CX-8 still rides pretty well.
In terms of seat support, the front seats aren’t the cozy type that hugs your body snugly. They provide just enough side support and the backrest supports the natural shape of the human spine. And yes, there’s lumbar adjustment on the driver seat.
The second-row seats are practically as comfortable as the ones in front, with a decent length seat base to enhance thigh support. There are 5 steps adjustment on the reclining function, up to 40 degrees as measured, that’s probably sufficient for a good night’s sleep.
As for the third-row seats, thigh support is unavoidably sacrificed. But as far as third-row seats go, these are one of the most comfortable ones in an SUV. Far superior to the Volkswagen Tiguan Allspace, which feels more like an afterthought.
Cabin insulation is exceptional. The front windows are laminated, which significantly reduces exterior noises and wind noise at high speeds. Engine noise is present when accelerating, but quickly fades into the background at a cruise.
At 110 km/h, the sound level meter recorded an average of 67 dB, which is just a tad quieter than the Volkswagen Tiguan Allspace R-Line that achieved 68 dB.
Fuel Consumption – Not exceptional for a diesel
After a 95.9 km journey broken down into 60% highway and 40% city driving, the Mazda CX-8 required 8.77 litres to be fully refuelled once again. This translates to a real-world fuel consumption figure of 9.1-litre/100 km.
Bear in mind that this test was done with only one driver on board. With more passengers, expect the fuel consumption to rise.
Judging the Mazda CX-8 alone, it’s definitely a great option for a 6/7-seater SUV, especially in this diesel guise. It suits the relaxed nature of the CX-8 better than the rev-happy petrol engine. While some aspects of the interior appear dated, it feels properly premium. The third-row seats are some of the most comfortable ones in an SUV.
But back to the theme of cars that are nice to drive. We’ve established that context is important and in everyday driving situations, the Mazda CX-8 is nice to drive.
Is it nicer to drive than the Volkswagen Tiguan Allspace R-Line? In some ways, yes. The Mazda CX-8 doesn’t goad you into driving like a boy racer, it soothes you after a long day of work and tries to make you feel relaxed. The Tiguan R-Line on the other hand, brings out the teenager in you once you’ve dropped them off at school.
However, if you’re regularly ferrying more than 5 individuals on board, then the Mazda CX-8 is the better option due to the superior third-row seats. The Volkswagen Tiguan Allspace R-Line is more like a 5+2-seater, where the third-row seats are there when you need them, rather than something you’d utilitze frequently.
In short, the Mazda CX-8 is the better people carrier while the Volkswagen Tiguan Allspace R-Line is the sharper steer. Both are nice to drive in their own right. One entertains, one relaxes. Choosing between the two is a first-world problem I’m glad to not be facing.