2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander Diesel vs Mazda CX-9 Azami AWD comparability

Big SUVs keep coming thick and fast. You only have to blink and there’s a new or updated seven-seater rampaging into a blazing hot market full of buyers keen on hoovering up these five-metre machines.

The Kluger is fresh off the boat, the Sorento is going along very nicely, people are still buying Prados for reasons that continue to escape me and even Lexus is in on the game.

Here we have two large SUVs, both of them grey (giving me a great opportunity to badger my sub-editor to entitle this review “Shades of Grey”) and both of them extremely well-matched both on paper and on the road.

It’s easy to say that they’re much the same, but they’re not. We have one that’s diesel, the other petrol. One with a slick new eight-speed dual-clutch, the other with a soldiering-on six-speed torque converter. Both all-wheel drive, both with seven seats.

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Actually, these two particular cars aren’t both seven-seaters. Mazda has tossed a pebble into the pool by adding the Azami LE into the mix with its comfort-focused six-seater cabin, grabbing a bit of attention in the process. Hyundai has bet the farm on a new gearbox and the Palisade’s flying console.

Splitting these two is going to be hard enough, let alone choosing a winner. But, because I love all of you and I’ve taken an oath (not really, but if there was one, I would) to do the hard yards for you, I will. 

Pricing and Features

Which Car Car Reviews 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander Diesel Vs Mazda CX 9 Azami AWD Comparison Side Profile

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Out of the gate, the CX-9 Azami is $66,190 and it’s flippin’ loaded. Big 20-inch alloys, LED headlights that do everything for you, buckets of safety gear (including a curtain airbag that protects all three rows), a handsome and well-trimmed cabin (if a little dark) and seven seats.

You pay more for all-wheel drive, which I reckon you just have to have. Then another few grand for the LE option, which ditches the three-seat middle row for a vaguely absurd two-seat middle row with captain’s chairs that are ventilated and heated. It brings a touch of Range Rover (if not airline-style) accommodation to the middle row and it’s great fun to ride back there. It goes without ridiculous screens and stuff like, say, the Kluger, but so does the Santa Fe.

The new Mazda Connect screen is a nice upgrade but loses the touch capability its predecessor had when the car wasn’t moving. The rotary controller on the console is good but it’s really set up to navigate the Mazda menus rather than Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, neither of which are wireless. 

Which Car Car Reviews 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander Diesel Vs Mazda CX 9 Azami AWD Interior Comparison

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The Santa Fe throws a lot of new technology at you; shift-by-wire button selectors for the new transmission, a big 10.25-inch touchscreen and a 12.3-inch digital dashboard.

While both cars are packed with safety gear, the Hyundai’s curtain airbag doesn’t reach the third row. There is a nifty blind-spot camera system that pops up in the digital dash, though. It’s devilishly clever and reminds me a bit of Honda’s LaneWatch, but with better resolution and on both sides of the car.

Apart from the airbag thing and the blind spot system on the Santa Fe, they’re both very close on safety, with front and rear AEB, forward collision warning, rear cross-traffic alert, lane keep assist and blind-spot monitoring.

Although you can carry four children in seats requiring either ISOFIX or top-tether anchors in the Mazda, the Santa Fe wisely restricts them to the middle row with two ISOFIX and three-top-tether points.

Comfort and Space

Which Car Car Reviews 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander Diesel Vs Mazda CX 9 Azami AWD Front Seat Comparison

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Passenger comfort is pretty high in both, of course, as long as you’re not stuffed into the third row. The Azami LE’s middle row is obviously a clear winner if you only need to drag two people along with you. The heating, the cooling, the big centre console, it will absolutely be a pleasure to ride along.

The Santa Fe returns fire with extremely comfortable rear seats with the middle still in place and plenty of room. Without the LE option, the Mazda is probably not quite as comfortable, but rear row access is about the same, which is to say pretty good if needing a bit of heaving and huffing.

The Azami LE has an electrically-operated process that takes forever but won’t tax your arms. The Santa Fe also has a huge panoramic sunroof (and strong air-conditioning) to flood the cabin with light and make it feel even bigger than it really is.

Which Car Car Reviews 2021 Mazda CX 9 Azami LE Rear Seat Captain Chairs

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If you’re unlucky enough to ride in the back row, both cars look after you with cupholders, a tray for your stuff (or maybe your feet if you can remove them).

The CX-9 offers two USB-A ports to keep devices charged while the Santa Fe’s are electrically-operated for folding and there’s a temperature control for the air-con.

The poor CX-9 third rowers will have to negotiate with the middle row passengers on the temperature. Oh, the humanity.

Either way, there’s tons of space for four people in both cars, which is pretty much how most SUVs are used as far as I can tell.

I think you’re all mad buying seven seat SUVs for that mythical/occasional need that we somehow managed to deal with back in the old days. When our parents just turfed us kids into the boot of a station wagon (how I’m still alive is anyone’s guess).

Which Car Car Reviews 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander Rear Seat Legroom Space

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The Santa Fe starts off with a smaller boot than the CX-9’s when all the seats are in use. With just 130 litres, everyone will have to keep their luggage to a minimum or you’ll have to tow it. This is because the Santa Fe is significantly shorter than the Mazda, which does deliver benefits elsewhere.

The Mazda’s is much more useful with 230 litres from the start, rising as high as 810 litres with the third row folded. With the same configuration, the Santa Fe will deliver between 571 and 782 litres. Both of those higher figures rely on the middle row being slid all the way forward, which isn’t going to be very comfortable for passengers. 

The Mazda stops there, though, as in LE form because the captain’s chairs don’t fold out of the way whereas smug Santa Fe owners can fold it for a huge, flat floor fit for camping in or moving quite a lot of stuff.

Hyundai doesn’t offer a total cargo figure, but it’s going to be huge. The pre-facelift figure was 1625 litres which is, shall we say, a lot.

One important difference between the two is that the Santa Fe’s spare is slung underneath the car rather than under the boot floor, which is handy if your boot is full when you get a puncture.

On the Road

Which Car Car Reviews 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander Diesel Vs Mazda CX 9 Azami AWD On Road Comparison

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When the 2018 Santa Fe dropped with its all-new everything, it felt a lot more like the CX-9’s balanced chassis, with ever-so-slightly more emphasis on handling than even the Mazda.

The Santa Fe was famously fettled by Hyundai’s storied chassis tuning team – and boy they are good – with the usual sign-off from the Korean HQ.

It was great in the corners and plenty of fun but there were some downsides to that and the ride was perhaps more firm than the market was after.

For its 2021 iteration, the Santa Fe’s suspension comes with a world tune. World tunes are the kind of thing GM do, where different parts of the world had input to the way a car went, stopped and took corners.

Plenty of Hyundai’s global development work is done here in Australia, so while the team still had a say, it was blended into the feedback from the rest of the world.

The result is a more compliant, softer riding car with a slightly less responsive front end. That’s not a terrible thing in a large SUV – and it’s certainly handier than the plush US-spec tune of the Palisade – but it’s worth knowing.

Which Car Car Reviews 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander Ride And Handling

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The new 2.2-litre diesel engine and all-wheel drive are a package. If you want petrol, you have to go for the front-wheel-drive V6 that has a lot less torque and isn’t much lighter.

Like the CX-9, a two-wheel driven Santa Fe easily lights up its front tyres but also drinks more fuel while doing it, so it’s not a hard sell to move up to the diesel.

Hyundai says the 2.2-litre diesel is new, delivering 148kW at 3800rpm and a hefty 440Nm that outpunches even the Mazda’s impressive number.

On top of that, you have Hyundai-Kia’s excellent eight-speed dual-clutch auto, the all-new design with the wet clutch setup. The Mazda has a six-speed SkyActiv-branded torque converter automatic.

They’re both very good and are very well matched to their engines, so from a driving perspective, they’re very, very close.

Plenty of Hyundai’s global development work is done here in Australia, so while the team still had a say, it was blended into the feedback from the rest of the world

Which Car Car Reviews 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander Diesel Vs Mazda CX 9 Azami AWD Centre Console Controls Comparison

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Neither has a particularly charismatic engine but both are very smooth and with the huge slab of torque on offer, it’s all very relaxed and easygoing. If you had to pick between the two, the Hyundai’s is the calmer, but yeah, it’s close.

With a small flex of the right foot, you’ll find yourself moving pretty quickly in not much time. Both waft along on the torque and neither will bother you on a long cruise with any histrionics. It’s still quite something to think a four-cylinder turbo can push along so much metal with so little fuss.

The two cars’ 0-100km/h times are separated by about a second-and-a-half, with the Mazda coming out on top at just under eight seconds, while the Hyundai is over nine.

The latter is a demon overtaker compared to the Mazda, however, the eight-speed firing down through the gears when you punch it and launching you at a surprising clip.

Which Car Car Reviews 2021 Mazda CX 9 Azami LE Performance Test

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It’s when you get to the actual driving that you’ll notice the bigger differences. The Mazda rides more firmly and the steering is weightier than the Korean’s.

Both are easy to place on the road but the Mazda will chase the apex of a corner, something most owners will never, ever do. Both are terrific in the wet and I guess the point is, the 20-inch wheels are great for the looks and don’t do the ride much, if any harm at all.

The Santa Fe’s lane-keep assist is typically Hyundai in that it’s a bit pesky and wants to either slap you about for not having your hands on the wheel when you do or gently prise it from your hands to show you how to do it better, like a man tugging on a video game controller in his girlfriend’s hand. It’s annoying in town but good on the motorway.

Mazda’s safety gear is a bit less fussy and trusts you a little more. 

It’s when you get to the actual driving that you’ll notice the bigger differences. The Mazda rides more firmly and the steering is weightier than the Korean’s.

Which Car Car Reviews 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander Diesel Vs Mazda CX 9 Azami AWD Instrument Cluster Comparison

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The Mazda doesn’t have much to offer in the way of driving modes, whereas the Hyundai’s drive select offers Eco, Comfort, Sport and Smart as well as terrain selections for the slippery or sandy stuff, and a diff lock. But with 20-inch wheels and Continental Sport Contact tyres, you won’t be getting too far off the beaten track. Good for the snow, though. 

Both have excellent head-up displays but the Hyundai’s provides more information and is more expansive.

So the choice here is do you want the Mazda with the sharper drive and the petrol engine or the ever-so-slightly more relaxed but still good handling package, smooth diesel and smoother eight-speed of the Hyundai? Again, super-close.

The Santa Fe’s diesel is predictably more frugal. I got an indicated 7.5L/100km in the week I had it, compared to the 10.3L/100km for the Mazda. The Hyundai’s was a repeat performance, but when I had this exact Azami earlier in 2021, where it spent most of its time in the city, I got a more common 11.4L/100km.

Ownership

Which Car Car Reviews 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander Diesel Vs Mazda CX 9 Azami AWD Comparison Grille Design

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Mazda and Hyundai match each other with five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranties. The Mazda comes with the same duration of roadside assist while the Santa Fe comes with 12 months, but servicing with Hyundai grants you a 12-month extension for up to ten years.

Service pricing is separated by nearly $60 per service for the first five services. If you cover less than 10,000km per year, the Mazda will be slightly cheaper at around $400 per service.

Hyundai’s more generous 15,000km per year allowance comes at a cost of $459 per service, with diesels traditionally more expensive to maintain anyway. But a few extra miles is worthwhile, particularly given many owners will be packing these cars up for road trips.

Which Car Car Reviews 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander Diesel Vs Mazda CX 9 Azami AWD Comparison Front Fascia

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VERDICT

If it comes down to cost, the Hyundai wins. If you’re after ultimate comfort and a less aggressive-looking car, it’s the Mazda. I can go on for thousands of words like this.

They’re extremely closely matched and for everything that might convince you one way, there’s something on the other car to sway you back. 

This is a tough one. A scientific approach is, as I’ve already said, a nightmare unless your garage can’t fit the five-and-a-bit metre Mazda or you have a philosophical objection to diesel.

So I’ll tell you the one I would choose: The Santa Fe. It’s comfortable, roomy and performs well in all conditions. The drivetrain is great, the specification is tech-heavy and the car just feels great.

You can say plenty of those things about the CX-9, but with both of them out front for a week, my wife and I found ourselves grabbing the Santa Fe keys more often than we did the Mazda.

Which Car Car Reviews 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander Diesel Vs Mazda CX 9 Azami AWD Comparison Specifications

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2021 Hyundai Santa Fe and Mazda CX-9 specification comparison

  Hyundai Santa Fe
Highlander
Mazda CX-9
Azami LE
Body five-door large SUV
Drive AWD
Engine 2.2-litre four-cylinder
turbodiesel
2.5-litre four-cylinder
Transmission  eight-speed
dual-clutch
six-speed
automatic
Power 148kW @ 3800rpm 170kW @ 5000rpm
Torque 440Nm @
1750-2750rpm
420Nm @ 2000rpm
Bore/Stroke 83mm x 99.4mm 89mm x 100mm
Compression ratio 16.0 : 1.0 10.5 : 1.0
0-100km/h 9.3 sec (est) 7.9 sec (est)
Fuel consumption 6.1L/100km
(combined)
9.0L/100km
(combined)
Weight 1943kg 2010kg
Suspension MacPherson strut (front)
multi-link (rear)
L/W/h 4785/1900/1710mm 5075/1969/1747mm
Wheelbase 2765mm 2930mm
Brakes 325mm ventilated disc (front)
305mm solid disc (rear)
320mm ventilated disc (front)
325mm solid disc (rear)
Tyres 255/45 R20 255/50 R20
Wheels 20-inch alloy wheels
(full-size alloy spare)
20-inch alloy wheels
(17-inch space-saver spare)
Price $65,200 + ORC $73,875+ ORC

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