Driver's Seat: Crossover Mazda CX-9 is comfy gas guzzler

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2013 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring AWD: A nice bit of fun with room for the whole family.

Price: $39,755 as tested, $36,375 base. (A Sport front-wheel drive can be had for $29,785, although sightings of such base models are rare.)

Marketer's pitch: "The improbably engineered performance SUV. Looking for seven thrill-seekers."

Conventional wisdom: liked the "sporty performance; stylish cabin; easy access to spacious third row; solid build quality," but not the long rear doors or 20-inch wheels' stiff ride.

Reality: A lot of reasons to put the CX-9 on your list -- and one big reason not to.

Outside: I don't spend a lot of time commenting on car exteriors. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that. But I have to say the CX-9 is a handsome crossover.

Step inside: The CX-9 Grand Touring I tested came with black leather interior, which Edmunds might like but I think leaves an Amish feel. The understated dashboard and gauges are almost funereal. Silver trim dresses it up a bit, but I'm not crazy about Mazda's orange display type on its information panel. Still, better than overwrought.

Stuff storage: A crossover is all about taking it with you, and the CX-9 certainly allows for a lot of junk. The console next to the driver's seat is huge; a small eighth passenger could almost fit inside. (Disclaimer: No Sturgis Kids were harmed in the making of this review.) A decent-sized cubby makes room for cell phone and other assorted items in front of the gearshift.

Get comfy: Leather seats can often be a bit hard when new, but the CX-9 felt inviting every step of the way.

Make it move: Mazda made its name with its old "Zoom zoom" campaign, and the CX-9's 3.7-liter V-6 fits the bill. The 273 horses rocket through on-ramps and won't leave you feeling nervous when passing in a hurry.

Shifty: The shifting enjoyment in automatic transmissions tends to decrease as the vehicle size increases. The tiny Hyundai Accent and Mazda3 make the shifting experience as fun as a manual, while most trucks, SUVs and minivans offer the gears for downshifts only.

The CX-9 breaks away from the pack here, allowing gearhead dads (and moms) to still have some fun while hauling around the family. Sadly, the shifter and the armrest are not designed in unity, so that detracts from the experience a bit.

The right temperature: The heater controls are easy to operate, and the dual controls have a "sync" function so the driver can change the entire cabin temperature from one control.

Play some tunes: The Bose radio works wonderfully (which it should, as part of a $2,495 tech package, which also added touchscreen navigation and sunroof). The functions are intuitive and it's easy to move around from station to station and from CD to satellite to radio. The steering wheel controls operate easily and feel right.

Friends and family: Here's the real test of the crossover -- how does it fit the whole crew? Surprisingly, the smallish-looking CX-9 does a fairly nice job of keeping everyone happy together.

The middle row adjusts to cram everyone in. With the middle row the whole way back, 5 foot 10 inch Mr. Second Seat has plenty of room behind 5-foot, 10-inch Mr. Driver's Seat.

The rear seats are comfortable and offer plenty of legroom and foot room. Even the middle passenger won't suffer the indignities of a large hump.

I expected the rear seat would be pitiful, with much knee-in-the-face action, but I can actually type on a laptop while sitting back there.

In and out: Climbing Mount CX-9 should not cause any cramping or confusion. The middle seat bends and slides forward intuitively.

Night shift: The rear two rows have lights in the middle, which are nowhere near as good as the corner lights in most large vehicles.

Fuel economy: This is where the CX-9 came undone for me: 16 mpg in a highway-heavy mix of driving. Here's hoping the company can develop a large, fuel-efficient SkyActiv engine that doesn't compromise performance too much.

Where it's built: Hiroshima, Japan.

How it's built: Lots of good reliability data from Consumer Reports over the years, and a recommended rating for 2013.

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Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at First Published August 15, 2013 4:00 AM


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