- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2008

The emphasis in the Mazda lineup is on cars that are fun to drive. That’s most noticeable in the Miata — the benchmark setting roadster sports car.

It’s far easier to build a sporty, small car than it is something bigger. When you’re talking about a seven-passenger crossover, the challenge is far larger. How do you keep the “zoom” as you add more room? Easily it turns out, when it comes to the Mazda CX-9.

The CX-9 is offered in Sport, Touring or Grand Touring models, available with front- or all-wheel drive. Prices start at $30,050.

Mazda’s AWD system is delivered on-demand. Under normal driving conditions, 100 percent of available engine torque is directed to the front wheels. However, when you start to lose your grip, up to 50 percent of the power can be channeled to the rear wheels. The system monitors several factors (wheel slip, lateral acceleration, steering angle, yaw rate) and adjusts accordingly.

Four-wheel traction is reassuring, particularly for drivers who live in parts of the country where winter weather arrives early and stays late. But, what’s most surprising about the CX-9 is the fun-to-drive factor. No, you won’t confuse the big crossover for the little Miata. But, the CX-9 has a sporty feel that is rarely found in the crossover ranks. At 4,546 pounds, the CX-9 is no lightweight. It’s a very drivable package - composed, car-like and comfortable. The suspension is nicely tuned, and steering is responsive.

A host of hardware and electronics (ABS, traction control, dynamic stability control, roll-stability control) help keep the driver in control in changing road conditions. A blind spot monitor alerts the driver with an audible cue.

One powertrain combination is offered: a 3.7-liter V-6, linked to a six-speed automatic transmission. The motor is rated at 273 horsepower and 270 pounds-feet of torque. The combination delivers a smooth power flow and class-typical fuel economy. The EPA estimates the fuel economy of the 2008 CX-9 AWD at 15 miles per gallon city, 21 highway, 17 combined. FWD versions fare slightly better with estimates of 16/22/18.

Equipped with the optional towing package, the Mazda can tow up to 3,500 pounds. The trip from 0-60 mph is completed in a shade less than 8 seconds. The CX-9 is Mazda’s largest people mover, but its styling belies its size. The sloping nose gives way to a steeply raked windshield. A high waistline and narrow side glass combine to give the Mazda a sleek, side-on look. This is a new age station wagon that would enhance any driveway.

The Mazda has a handsome interior that’s thoughtfully arranged. Easy to use rheostats operate the HVAC functions. Raise your sights a notch and you’ll find many of the controls for other functions, also located on the center stack. An interior ding is the parking brake’s location. Located in the lower left foot well, it will bark your shin, if you’re not careful.

The CX-9 will seat up to seven in three rows of seating. Row three is suitable for kids or smaller adults. Row two seats slide forward and back about 5 inches, accommodating adults comfortably, and allowing easy access to the ‘way back’ row.

The optional, rear seat entertainment system offers an impressively large, 9-inch screen, 5.1 Surround Sound and 11 speakers. The entertainment system is so good you may have a hard time prying your passengers out when the trip is done.

Cargo capacity is 17.2 cubic feet behind the third row, 48.4 with the third row folded, and 100.7 with rows two and three down. Access to the cargo bay is via the one-piece, top-hinged liftgate. Those over 6 feet tall will have to duck slightly to get under the door.

The CX-9 is an impressive, all ‘round performer in the large crossover class. It’s big enough to be useful for larger families, yet stylish enough to appeal to those who shy away from the traditional people movers: minivans or sport utility vehicles. It’s also more fun to drive than most of the vehicles it competes with. All in all, room and zoom make an appealing combination.

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