Sharp looks, good handling adds to appeal of full-size SUV

by: MAZDA NORTH AMERICA - 2013 styling revisions improve the looks of the already sporty CX-9.Mazda has gotten a lot of mileage out of its Zoom-Zoom slogan, suggesting that its cars are more fun to drive than those of its competitors. For the most part, this is true, especially the compact Madza3 sedan and compact CX-5 compact crossover. But what about Mazda's largest vehicle, the seven-passenger CX-9 crossover?

Surprisingly, Mazda has done a pretty job making the CX-9 feel sporty, considering how large it is. The suspension is taut and the steering is precise and responsive, encouraging more aggressive driving on sweeping roads than most other large SUVs.

Just about the only place the CX-9 comes up short is the 3.7-liter V6, its only available engine. The 273-horsepower is adequate but not much more, even with the standard six-speed transmission in the manual shift mode. Acceleration is not bad, just not up to the expectations set by the suspension and steering.

But that shortfall is more than offset by the styling, which features flowing lines and muscular fenders. A mid-cycle facelife includes a smaller, more attractive front grill and cleaner rear facia, improving the good looks even more. The well-designed interior get the next-generation infotainment and audio package with a 5.8-inch touch-screen display well integrated into the contemporary dash. Metal and wood-like accents give it a touch of class.

Seven-passenger crossovers are a little hard to market these days. Smaller crossovers can combine respectable interior room for five and reasonable mileage, as Mazda is proving with its Skyactiv technology in the CX-5. But crossovers have to be so much larger (and, therefore, heavier) to accomodate the third row of seats that saving much fuel is unrealistic. Mazda deserves credit for at least making the CX-9 attractive and relatively fun to drive, considering it could do double duty as an airport shuttle.

As usual, our test vehicle was a fully-loaded, top-of-the-line version, which in this case meant a Grand Touring model equipped with Mazda's Active Torque Split All-Wheel Drive system and just about every comfort, entertainment and safety option imaginable. They included electric heated front leather seats, an upgraded stereo system with full connectivity, and blind spot warning alarms for lane changes. The navigation system included a rear back up camera, which was much appreciated, considering the length of the CX-9. It and the precise steering made parallel parking a breeze, however.

On the road, our CX-9 felt remarkable stable, more like a high end German SUV that a Japanese crossover. The AWD system worked very well in heavy rains, adding to the solid feel. This is worth noting, since the price was just under $40,000, thousands less than similar-size European vehicles. Anyone looking for a large people hauler should keep that in mind.

Access to the third row of seats was excellent. The second row slides forward on long tracks in the floor when the seat back folds down, allowing even adults to easily step in. The tracks also allow the second row to be adjusted to maximize leg room for third row passengers. Headroom is a but compromised, but children will easily fit in.

Obvious shortcomings were few. The brakes work well enough but lacked much feel. Cargo space was limited with the third row up by plentiful with it down. The third row is best for children, but that's true of all seven-passenger crossovers. And gas mileage isn't great, but once again, large crossover's aren't economy cars. You need a diesel engine to get impressive figures, and that adds to the initial cost.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: 2013 CX-9.

• Manufacturer: Mazda.

• Class: Fullsize crossover.

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

• Style: Five-door SUV.

• Engines: 3.7-liter V6 (273 hp).

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

• EPA estimated AWD city/highway/mileage: 16/22/18.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $29,785 ($39,605 as tested).

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