Mazda Australia clearly believes there’s big business in catering for large families.

Having successfully lobbied in 2007 to grab a right-hand-drive version of the US-focused CX-9 seven-seater SUV, the company has now diverted the new CX-8 seven-seater from the Japanese brand’s domestic market. It makes Australia and New Zealand the only countries in the world to feature two Mazda seven-seater SUVs.

In case the word ‘overkill’ has popped into your head, there is some logic to the two-prong approach: the CX-9 is petrol only; the CX-8 is exclusively a diesel. The CX-8 is also a bit shorter and narrower – and is essentially a long-wheelbase CX-5. From the door pillar forwards, the two models are virtually identical.

It’s not the only new seven-seater SUV in town. Volkswagen Australia has its first ever seven-seater SUV – and its first multi-passenger vehicle that isn’t derived from the Transporter van – in the form of the Tiguan Allspace.

In the German tradition of calling a spade a spade, this is very much a Tiguan that’s been stretched to create room for more passengers and more cargo.

Price and equipment

The CX-8, again logically, is positioned between the CX-5 and CX-9 – though much closer to the latter in terms of pricing. Whereas the CX-5 range starts from $28,690 and the CX-9 begins at $43,890, the CX-8 kicks off at $42,490.

That’s for a front-wheel-drive Sport variant, which can be switched to all-wheel drive for a $4000 premium. Our featured grade here is the range-topping $61,490 Asaki AWD.

The Allspace gets underway from $40,490, working its way up to the $54,590 Highline 140TDI we have here for (near) parity. This was a $4600 premium over the regular Tiguan 140TDI before that diesel variant was dropped in August 2018 for a more streamlined line-up.

More pertinently here, the Allspace Highline offers a $6900 saving over the CX-8 Asaki. Can the Mazda justify its extra money beyond its larger dimensions?

The Asaki is certainly loaded with kit, and equipment exclusives over the VW run into double figures: full Nappa-leather seats (part-leather in the VW), adaptive/anti-dazzling LED headlights, LED foglights, head-up display, surround-view camera, heated steering wheel, window blinds for the second row, Bose audio system, Traffic Sign Recognition, and Trailer Stability Assist.

Metallic paint is included; it’s a $700 option on the VW.

The Tiguan Allspace, however, has some of its own advantages. There’s LED ambient cabin lighting, tyre pressure monitoring, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto interfacing, hands-free tailgate operation (just automatic on the Mazda), and an adaptive chassis plus off-road drivetrain mode.

There’s also some semi-autonomous action with self-steering systems for both parking (Park Assist) and low-speed commuting (Traffic Jam Assist, which will also control speed between 0–60km/h).

Both models share adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning and assist, rear cross-traffic alert, front/rear sensors, forward collision alert, fatigue monitoring, autonomous emergency braking (both directions), keyless entry/go, rain sensor, LED headlights/tail-lamps, electric front seats, three-zone climate control, and 19-inch alloy wheels.

No options for the Mazda; three for the Volkswagen.

Spending $3000 on the Sound and Vision Package adds a Dynaudio system and bird’s-eye camera, as well as a digital instrument panel. A sportier look inside and out is possible with the $2900 R-Line package, and there’s a panoramic sunroof at $2000.

Up front

Whereas the CX-9 presents a distinctive interior, any CX-5 owner would recognise the CX-8’s dash. Differences are virtually imperceptible. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the current CX-5 is among the models Mazda’s showcasing improved levels of interior quality/presentation.

That perception is aided by the Asaki’s beautifully supple leather seats, while good ergonomics are epitomised by the iDrive-style MZD Connect rotary dial/joystick. In conjunction with an encirclement of shortcut buttons, it makes control of the infotainment display ridiculously easy.

The touchscreen is arguably redundant – and strangely is when on the move, when the Mazda blocks its use (for safety, yes, but it ignores the front passenger). The 7.0-inch display also seems undersized, especially when considering the 8.0-inch display CX-9 owners enjoy and the 9.2-inch touchscreen sitting in the Allspace.

VW’s Discover Pro system has set the mainstream-brand infotainment benchmark since it debuted on the Golf 7.5 in 2017.

With its darkened glass, pin-sharp graphics and intuitive functionality that includes gesture control (for swiping pages) and proximity sensors to add extra functions when your hand approaches the display, it gives the Tiguan Allspace a focal point of sophistication not found in every luxury vehicle. That’s extended, and complemented, if you choose the optional Active Info Display digital instrument panel.

Dark-grey plastic trim inserts and surrounds look a touch bland, though, and switchgear tactility is mixed: good for the window switches, so-so for the heating-ventilation dials.

Plenty of comfort from the VW’s posh pews as well, though, and plenty of storage spots.

In addition to the usual-suspect areas such as wide door bins, console bin and a usefully sized glovebox, there’s a mini driver’s side pull-down compartment and a roof console with twin compartments (the latter lost, inevitably, if the optional sunroof is chosen).

The mid-centre console section is also clever. Featuring a sliding cover, it can be used as a deep tray or press two buttons to flick out two cupholder grabs.

And with a storage area, with 12V socket and USB, under the centre stack to stick your smartphone, the VW has the more practical front cabin.

On the mention of smartphones, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on the VW, but not available for the Mazda until late 2018 (when they can be added retrospectively, for a likely fee).

In the middle

The 4.9m CX-8 is 35cm longer than a CX-5; the 4.7m Allspace extends the Tiguan’s body by 21.5cm. (As a styling aside, the Allspace manages to look simply like an enlarged Tiguan, whereas the CX-8’s long and narrow proportions are a touch awkward in our view.)

Their longer bodies include wider rear doors that allow more convenient access to the second and third rows. The Mazda’s doors open widest – to nearly 90 degrees.

Neither disappoints for second-row space or comfort. The slidable seats – 40-20-40 in the VW, 60-40 in the Mazda – don’t necessarily have to be placed in their rearmost position to accommodate tall passengers, with plenty of room all round.

The seats share adjustable recline, excellent under-thigh support, centre armrest, and the outer seats with heating function. Vents and cupholders are further commonalities.

The VW is alone in providing flip-up (adjustable) mini tables on the back of the front seats – only the Mazda provides window blinds.

Down the back

There’s a more decisive difference between the third rows. Even adults of average height will fail to get comfortable in the back of the Allspace – unless contorting legs brings some perverse satisfaction.

Forget even short trips – the two extra seats are strictly for kids only. To be fair to Volkswagen, the German carmaker doesn’t pretend otherwise. It describes the Allspace as a 5+2 with “occasional seats”.

Buyers keen on a proper Volkswagen seven-seater SUV are in luck, though. The third-generation Touareg is due in late 2018, and for the first time in the nameplate’s history it will offer an extra row of seats.

Both models employ tip-and-slide second-row seats for access to the rear, with the Mazda combining a bigger gap with its wider-opening doors for the easiest ingress/egress.

As with the CX-9 with which the CX-8 shares its 2930mm wheelbase, there’s genuine leg room for adults, even if short journeys would be their preference – especially as this is another seven-seater Mazda that omits rearmost vents.

Yet so does the Allspace.

Booted

A common downside of seven-seater SUVs is that despite the ability to carry multiple passengers, boot space behind the third row is typically limited.

The CX-8 and Allspace, with longer rear overhangs than their donor vehicles, are better than average, though.

The Mazda’s 242 litres (including an underfloor compartment) and VW’s 230L compare favourably with other rivals, including the new Hyundai Santa Fe (130L) and Kia Sorento (142L).

The VW’s Skoda twin, the Kodiaq, beats all with 270L.

Sticking to our two contestants here, the VW allows you to hide gear with a cargo blind, which is stored under the floor. The Allspace also provides auto release levers for the second-row seat backs.

Mazda edges the space race with the third-row seats folded if you compare the spec sheets, though it’s even closer than the 42L difference suggests (742L v 700L).

Neither extended cargo area is perfect. The Mazda’s second-row seats don’t fold completely flat, and the Volkswagen has to employ flaps to cover the gap between the folded third-row seats and cargo floor.

Ride and handling

Unexpectedly, the Allspace 140TDI doesn’t ride as well as a regular Tiguan 140TDI. The longer wheelbase should have been to its advantage, yet the suspension – particularly in Comfort or Sport modes – can be jarring over prominent bumps, becoming choppy on particularly rough stretches of bitumen. Normal is a happier, if not perfect, medium.

The Allspace Highline’s standard adaptive dampers aren’t the cause, as they were also a fitted option on our Tiguan test car. There seems to be a trend, though, as there’s a similar disparity between Skoda’s related twins. A Kodiaq Sportline seven-seater variant we tested recently rode poorly compared with the brand’s new (smaller) Karoq.

The rest of the Allspace’s dynamic package is more in keeping with the standard Tiguan. The steering is super-smooth and precise, and the Allspace exhibits a similar enthusiasm for corners. Here, the suspension is more effective, minimising body lean and containing excessive bounce across fast bumpy sections.

The CX-8, bigger and heavier than the Allspace, let alone the CX-5, doesn’t share the VW’s level of enthusiasm for corners, and is less engaging to drive than its smaller sibling. However, its plentiful grip and composure along windier roads provides no shortage of confidence for the driver.

There’s just a lack of on-centre accuracy at higher speeds compared to either a CX-5 or CX-9. It results in regular, mini steering movements when guiding the CX-8 leisurely along country roads, and even in a relatively straight line.

Around town, we also found the Lane Assist feature could intrude on the steering, even when the vehicle was seemingly centred in its lane. We switched it off. That allows a fuller appreciation of the CX-8’s pleasant ride. While not as magically compliant as a CX-9 Azami on even bigger (20-inch) wheels, Mazda’s supersized CX-5 is consistently comfortable regardless of surface quality.

And quiet, if not quite to the Volkswagen’s extent. Good noise refinement isn’t something we’ve often been able to say about a Mazda in recent times, but the company’s determined efforts to improve NVH are clearly working.

Nearly 18cm shorter and 13cm narrower than the CX-9, the CX-8 will be welcomed by those who have an aversion to manoeuvring five-metre-plus vehicles. It’s still a big car, of course, and its 11.6-metre turning circle is more than half a metre wider than the CX-5’s (and not far off the CX-9’s 11.8m).

The Allspace needs even more space with an 11.9m turning circle – nearly half a metre wider than the regular Tiguan’s (11.5m).

Performance

Whereas the CX-9 debuted a new 2.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine, the CX-8 borrows the best engine currently available with the CX-5: a 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel.

If you’ll excuse a quick diversion to compare Mazda’s seven-seater SUVs, it’s worth noting the diesel’s persuasive fuel economy advantage over its in-house peer: 6.0 litres per 100km versus the CX-9’s 8.8L/100km. The Tiguan Allspace Highline’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel delivers an identical 6.0L/100km figure.

A 140kW power output is also shared; the CX-8’s 450Nm pips the Allspace’s 400Nm. Volkswagen has the quicker vehicle, however. Weighing in 135kg lower than its rival and featuring a quick-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox (with paddles), the Tiguan Allspace accelerates from standstill to 100km/h in 8.6 seconds – a full second quicker than the CX-8.

The Allspace’s acceleration feels a bit punchier when looking to overtake, too. The Volkswagen’s cruise control is also quicker to maintain speed downhill. The Mazda tended to go 5km/h over the set limit before brushing the brakes.

Braked towing capacity is also in the VW’s favour: 2500kg v 2000kg.

Overall, though, Mazda provides the better, all-round diesel.

It’s more refined (with less traditional diesel rattle), and it’s punchy and responsive from low revs with a more progressive delivery than the Allspace’s diesel. The drivetrain doesn’t have a sportier mode like the VW’s, but it doesn’t need it. And in tandem with an effective six-speed auto, the CX-8 is easier to drive in everyday motoring.

Lag is never far away around town in the Volkswagen, requiring a conscious push of the accelerator pedal to get things shifting – at which point the engine can sometimes give the driver too much.

Combined with a stop-start system that engages only with the first nudge of the accelerator pedal rather than when the driver lifts off the brake, it can make for tardy getaways from traffic lights or junctions.

Ownership

As of August 2018, Mazda Australia finally boarded the five-year-warranty train, with Volkswagen following in December.

Servicing the CX-8 over five years costs less – theoretically – than the Tiguan Allspace: $1737 versus $2795.

However, Mazda limits annual mileage to 10,000km between services, whereas Volkswagen gives customers up to 15,000km (the Australian average). The difference will shrink noticeably for owners who put more than five figures on their odo’ annually.

Volkswagen also includes roadside assistance as part of the warranty, whereas Mazda asks $99 per year (or $108.35 if you want additional conveniences).

Both brands traditionally perform well with resale.


VERDICT

The Allspace has all the technological goodness, thoughtful storage and appealing quality of the regular Tiguan, then extends its practicality with that extra row of seats (or bigger boot if/when you don’t need them).

And at 4.7m it doesn’t feel much less wieldy to pilot, while there’s still good performance from the 140TDI diesel despite the extra weight.

We prefer the $1500-cheaper 162TSI variant, though, with its punchier turbo petrol engine, similar towing ability, and a ride that fellow testers have suggested is more refined.

And if the VW badge isn’t essential, you can save $1600 and get a longer, five-year warranty by opting for Skoda’s twin, the Kodiaq Sportline 140TDI.

The CX-8 Asaki also sets up a debate about its pricing. It’s $12,000 more than a range-topping CX-5 Akera with the same engine, a hefty $15,000 extra over the next-variant-down CX-8 Sport AWD, and perhaps too close for comfort to the $64,790 CX-9 Azami AWD we rate as Mazda’s best seven-seater SUV.

The CX-8 Asaki is loaded with features, though – a baker’s dozen of notable additions over the lower-spec Sport, for example. And if its steering isn’t quite up to Mazda’s usual standards, the Mazda locks in victory here against the Volkswagen.

It provides greater ride comfort, its engine-auto combination delivers better everyday drivability, the standard warranty is two years longer, and there’s a set of more convincing standard features that bridges the price gap to the Allspace.

And while it’s still a fairly large vehicle at 4.9m, its size helps make the CX-8 a full-time seven-seater compared with the part-timer Tiguan Allspace.

For those with a liking for the Volkswagen brand and a need to shift multiple people regularly, it may well be worth the wait for the third-generation Touareg that arrives in late 2018 with its first-ever third row.

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