So good you forget how big it is
by: ANNI TRACY, Mazda's big crossover SUV lives up to the company's Zoom-Zoom reputation.

Not too long ago, if you wanted to carry seven people in a motor vehicle, you had to settle for a boxy van or unwieldy land yacht like the Chevrolet Suburban or Ford Expedition.

But a remarkable thing has happened to large people haulers in recent years. Car-based crossovers have gotten bigger without sacrificing their more refined rides. Now several manufactures offer seven-passenger SUVs that don't look or drive like school buses.

In fact, the 2010 Mazda CX-9 looks and drives like a sporty fastback. A very big fastback, but sporty looking and driving nevertheless.

Of course, by seven passengers we really mean five adults and two children. Third row seats have always been small, including the original rear-facing versions in the full-size American station wagons of the 1960s and 1970s. But those in the CX-9 are relatively easy to access because the second row slides far forward.

On the road, it's easy to forget how big the 4,585-pound CX-9 really is. 'Quick' and 'agile' are two words that spring to mind when driving down the road. The 273-horsepower V6 is fast off the line, even without using the manual shift mode of the smooth six-speed automatic transmission. The ride is firm but comfortable, and the four-wheel-disc brakes are responsive and well-modulated.

It's only when you look in the rear view mirror and see all that space behind the front seats that you remember you're driving a full-size SUV.

The exterior is equally deceiving. The lines are sleek and clean, similar to Mazda's smaller CX-7 crossover. In fact, at a distance, you might confuse the two. But the CX-9 actually towers over almost everything else on the road, meaning outward visibility is great. The optional rear view camera is helpful for backing up, however, since the back window is so high.

Our test model was equipped with heated leather seats, a navigation system, Bose stereo, dual zone climate controls and wood trim. Unlike many other vehicles, these luxury features did not compromise the performance orientation of the CX-9. In large part that is because the dash and console design is so crisp and clean. The big analog gauges were helpful, too.

Our test model also came with Mazda's Active Torque Split All-Wheel-Drive system. Although we did not try any serious off-roading, It worked just fine during the unseasonably heavy May rainstorms.

Like practically all new cars today, the CX-9 is available with all kinds of high-tech features, including an auxiliary-audio input jack and Bluetooth capability. Unlike many new cars, the climate control adjustments are made by large dash-mounted knobs that are easy to find and use, even at night.

No seven-passenger vehicle is going to get great mileage and the CX-9 is no exception, with the two-wheel-drive version maxing out at an EPA estimated 22 miles per gallon on the highway. That's still better than the older Suburbans and Expeditions, however, which is another indication of how far such family-haulers have come in recent years.

Our test model cost around $40,000. You can spend more - much more - on a full-size SUV these days. Some of the extra money can get you features that aren't available on the CX-9, like a V8 engine or seven-speed automatic transmission. But you would be hard pressed to find a better-balanced seven-passenger crossover these days, regardless of price.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2010 CX-9

• Manufacturer: Mazda.

• Class: Full-size crossover

• Layout: Front engine, front or all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five-door, seven passenger hatchback.

• Engines: 3.7-liter V6 (273 hp, 270 ft-lbs).

• Transmissions: Six-speed automatic with manual shift mode.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 16/22; 15/21 (AWD as tested).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $30,000 ($39,000 as tested).

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