Pros: Sporty handling; smooth ride; confident V6; usable third-row seat

Cons: Limited cargo room behind the third-row seat; limited information and entertainment system (no USB for iPod integration); tow rating is a low 3,500 pounds

There are numerous family transporters out there. Some come in minivan form, some are full-blown SUVs and some are an ungainly combination of the two. However, very few seven-passenger vehicles offer the level of styling and overall performance delivered by the Mazda CX-9. Sure, you can point to vehicles like the Audi Q7 or the Mercedes-Benz GL, but factor in the CX-9's $30,000 starting price, and the small list of possible competitors evaporates faster than shallow water in the summer sun.

The CX-9 is appealing on a number of levels, beginning with its styling. Its sharply raked windshield, flowing side lines and low roofline give it the appearance of a slightly oversize sport wagon. Add to the design an elegant set of 18- or 20-inch wheels, tasteful chrome trim and the option of all-wheel drive, and the CX-9's popularity becomes easy to understand. We'd be remiss not to mention the adept handling Mazda is famous for, and an interior that is fresh and sophisticated yet amazingly practical in its execution. Finally, there is the CX-9's excellent repair and resale record coupled with its family-friendly price structure, which starts just under $30,000 for the front-wheel-drive Sport and climbs to about $40,000 for a fully loaded Grand Touring with AWD.

Comfort & Utility

It goes without saying that most crossovers offer plenty of room and comfort for passengers in the front and middle rows. But it's that third-row seat that always seems to trip up the promise of seven-passenger comfort. Happily, this is not the case with the CX-9, which has a well-designed split folding third-row seat that can actually fit average-size adults, although we think kids are still the best candidates for the narrow perch. Accessing the third row is made easy by the sliding second-row seat and the long rear doors. The price of the third-row seat is diminished cargo space: just 17.2 cubic feet. A cargo bay that modest may be fine for a small load of groceries or a few duffel bags, but if you're traveling with seven people, the only way to bring along their luggage is going to be a roof-mounted cargo carrier. When the third-row seat is not occupied, it folds flush into the floor to create a more accommodating 48.3 cubic feet of space; fold the second row flat, and that number increases to 100.7 cubic feet.

The CX-9's generous standard equipment includes power windows, locks and mirrors, front and rear air conditioning, cruise control and a tilt wheel. The Touring version adds leather seating, heated side mirrors and front seats and an eight-way power driver's and four-way power passenger's seat. Moving into the Grand Touring adds HID headlamps, rain-sensing windshield wipers, 20-inch wheels and Mazda's Advanced keyless entry and start and blind spot monitoring systems.

Technology

The CX-9's high-tech roster includes an available 10-speaker Bose Centerpoint surround sound audio system, voice-activated DVD navigation with Sirius traffic updates and standard Bluetooth hands-free cell phone connectivity with streaming audio capability. Also available is a backup camera with a 4.3-inch screen concealed in the rear-view mirror and a blind spot monitoring system that warns of vehicles traveling in the CX-9's blind spot. A power liftgate is optional on Touring and Grand Touring versions, as is Mazda's Advanced keyless smart entry and start system. For the kids, there is an available rear-seat DVD entertainment system, which routes sound through the Bose audio. Unfortunately, this roof-mounted option negates the ability to order the power sunroof, so you can have sun on your face or contented kids, but not both.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The 2012 Mazda CX-9 offers only one engine and transmission: a 3.7-liter V6 rated at 273 horsepower and 270 lb-ft of torque, mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. This is one of the most refined and efficient V6 engines in this price segment. From its use of strong but lightweight aluminum heads to the impressive 10.3:1 compression ratio, which helps deliver power for accelerating and passing without the need for premium gasoline, the 3.7-liter is a model engine. Fuel economy for the front-wheel-drive CX-9 is rated at 17 mpg city and 24 mpg highway, with the AWD version earning a slightly lower 16/22 mpg.

Two-wheel-drive models are pulled by their front wheels, while the available AWD versions use Mazda's Active Torque Split to route power to the rear wheels, but only when needed. Under normal driving conditions, the AWD models revert to front-wheel drive, helping save on fuel and tire wear.

Safety

Mazda understands that occupants are the most important cargo its drivers will ever carry. Therefore, the automaker has equipped the CX-9 with a plethora of standard safety and assist features. Airbag protection is provided to the front and front side, while side curtain airbags cover all three rows. To help the driver maintain control in emergency maneuver situations, the CX-9 is equipped with electronic traction control, dynamic stability control (when skidding or fishtailing, this system helps keep the vehicle moving in the direction the driver originally intended) and roll stability control, which intervenes when an imminent rollover is detected to slow and stabilize the vehicle.

Driving Impressions

With four passengers on board, the CX-9 demonstrates strong acceleration and controlled handling. Push the occupant number to seven and add a bunch of cargo, however, and the performance diminishes noticeably. The added weight seems to compact the rear suspension, taking away its ability to respond as quickly as when lightly burdened. In fairness, this is the case for any vehicle pushed to its weight limit, but it is worth mentioning here since the CX-9 is more likely to be carrying its maximum weight on a regular basis than something like a BMW 3 Series. Despite the CX-9's size and weight, though, it is still amazingly spry when rounding corners or darting through traffic. Credit the car's rigid frame, MacPherson strut front suspension and independent multi-link rear suspension for the sports-car-like ride and handling.

At highway speeds, the CX-9's interior remains quiet and free of rattles or road noise, and the ride is smooth and controlled. The big V6 hums along with little fuss or commotion, delivering its power in a smooth, linear fashion without hesitation or strain.

Other Cars to Consider

GMC Acadia - The Acadia may not be as sporty as the CX-9, but it offers more room for its third-row occupants and a much larger cargo area behind the third-row seat.

Honda Pilot - The Pilot is not as powerful as the CX-9, nor can it handle as well, but it does get slightly better fuel economy when equipped with the five-speed automatic transmission and 2WD and has a little more cargo space (18.0 cubic feet) behind the third row of seats.

Ford Explorer - The Explorer offers more engine choices, and its 3.5-liter V6 has more power at 290 hp and better highway fuel economy at 17/25 mpg. It also has a higher tow rating (5,000 pounds versus the Mazda's 3,500 pounds) and the availability of a more sophisticated AWD system with variable settings. What's more, it offers Ford's SYNC information and entertainment system. However, you'll pay more for a comparably equipped Explorer, and you won't get as much maximum cargo volume.

AutoTrader Recommends

If you can live without rain-sensing wipers and HID headlamps, we'd say go for the front-wheel-drive Touring. This nicely equipped CX-9 starts just over $31,000, yet it can be equipped with many of the Grand Touring's high-end options such as the Bose audio system, a power rear liftgate and a power sunroof. Even with AWD, the Touring is still priced well under $35,000.

author photo

Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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