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

Cons: Limited cargo room behind the third-row seat; so-so fuel economy; tow rating is a low 3,500 pounds

What's New: The 2013 Mazda CX-9 receives a new front fascia and revised rear styling, as well as new wheel designs. A 5.8-inch multi-information display (MID) is standard on all trims, and a new audio system offers HD and Pandora radio, USB and iPod control. There is also an updated Bluetooth program that can now display and read text messages, and reply with fixed phrases, all via voice command. Mazda's blind spot monitoring system is added to the Touring trim, while rear backup sensors are made standard on the Touring and Grand Touring.

In the 2013 CX-9, Mazda offers a family friendly vehicle that is both sporty and sophisticated. Far from the boring minivan model, the 7-passenger CX-9 gives off a racy vibe, enhanced this year by its new KODO show-car-inspired grille and front end. Unlike any minivan we've driven, the CX-9 is actually quite fun to drive, with excellent road manners, communicative steering and strong brakes. Some owners even compare it to more luxurious makes like the Audi Q7 and Mercedes-Benz GL--except the CX-9's $31,000 starting price undercuts both luxury makes by wide margins.

Beyond its sleek styling and firm suspension, the CX-9's popularity is bolstered by its reasonable price, extensive list of comfort and safety features and strong reputation for reliability and resale. Its sharply raked windshield, flowing side lines and low roofline give the CX-9 the appearance of a slightly oversized sport wagon. Add to the design an elegant set of 18- or 20-in wheels, tasteful chrome trim and the option of all-wheel drive and the CX-9's popularity becomes easy to understand. If the CX-9 has one shortfall, it might be the somewhat limited cargo space offered when the third-row seat is in use. But this is a problem that plagues many three-row SUVs, so we can't really ding Mazda for it.

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 7-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--though 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 cu ft. 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 cu ft of space. Fold the second row flat and that number increases to 100.7 cu ft.

The CX-9's generous standard equipment includes power windows, locks and mirrors, front and rear air conditioning, 8-way power driver's seat, cruise control and a tilt wheel. The Touring version adds leather seating, heated side mirrors and front seats, Blind Spot Monitoring system with rear backup camera, driver's seat power lumbar and 4-way power passenger's seat. Moving into the Grand Touring adds HID headlamps, rain-sensing windshield wipers, 20-in wheels, a power liftgate and Mazda's Advanced keyless entry and start.

Technology

The CX-9's high-tech roster includes an available 10-speaker Bose Centerpoint surround sound audio system, voice-activated Tom-Tom 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-in screen concealed in the rearview mirror and Mazda's Blind Spot Monitoring system, which warns of vehicles traveling in the CX-9's blind spot. A power liftgate is optional on Touring and standard 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 2013 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 6-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--helping to 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. But if you push the occupant number to seven and add a bunch of cargo, the performance diminishes noticeably. The added weight seems to compact the rear suspension, taking away its ability to respond as quickly as when it's lightly burdened. To be fair, 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, 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 5-speed automatic transmission and 2WD, and has a little more cargo space (18.0 cu ft) 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 $33,000, but 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 still starts 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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