WASHINGTON -- I know a seven-seat SUV doesn't sound like a sporty ride, but Mazda has made a three-row SUV that's really fun to drive.
The CX-9 is a true three-row SUV, where actual adults can use the third row of seats. It has versatility in function and price, is available in front-wheel drive, and starts at around $30,000 or in AWD for less than $32,000. There are three trim levels from which buyers can choose.
I spent a week with the 2014 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring hauling people, using the AWD in the snow and even as my commuter car. My loaded ride stickered near $40,000, and it seems to be a real value compared to some of the competition in its class.
The Mazda CX-9 matches up well, with its roomy interior and strong V6 that makes it a pleasure to drive. This large SUV drives much smaller than it really is. The six-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly and fits the sporty character well.
It was a solid performer that ranged from effortless highway cruising and stop- and-go traffic. Its AWD system kept the SUV tracking though the snow without a complaint. For a larger SUV, the CX-9 handles very well and the sharp-looking 20- inch rims help out in the turns. But maybe the standard 18-inch rims with a taller tire might be a little better at handling the larger bumps that this area has after this long, hard winter.
One drawback of having fun on the back roads or the extra stop-and-go of winter driving is the havoc it plays on gas mileage. I managed 17 mpg in 395 miles of driving. The AWD CX-9 mpg is rated 16 city and 22 highway and combined 18 mpg. You can burn some regular fuel fast if you're not careful with your right foot.
That large interior is also a nice place, with leather heated seats for the front row and plenty of room in the second row for three people. The third row can handle adults or children for a long haul. Getting into the third row of seats is easy with large rear doors and an easy to use sliding and tilting second row of seats makes it a very usable three-row SUV.
But there is one downside to having large rear doors: You need a good amount of space to open them fully, so watch the car parked next to you. The materials used and the design of the interior are nice as well. I like how the dash and the doors flow; it looks really sleek.
My CX-9 came with the GT tech package, which includes a power sunroof, touch screen NAV and a great sounding 10-speaker Bose sound system.
The power lift gate is a welcome feature. I was a chauffeur for a trip to the American Girl store with six people and a stroller and the ease of not having to fumble with a hand opening the hatch with bags, and a child may make it worth the extra cost of the Grand touring trim level.
Another neat feature was the cross traffic alert system. It made it easy to exit a busy mall parking lot without any fuss or battle scars. The CX-9 has plenty of room for people, or you can fold down both rows of rear seats and have a cargo hauling machine.
So if you're in the market for a seven-seat SUV that is actually fun to drive, the Mazda CX-9 deserves a look. With its comfortable, quiet ride and the ability to haul people, this makes for a very versatile ride.
After a week with the 2014 Mazda CX-9 Grand touring, I now see why I have been seeing more of the handsome SUVs on the road. You get a lot of utility for a reasonable price.
Editor's Note: Mike Parris is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association. The vehicles are provided by STI ,FMI or Event Solutions for the purpose of this review.
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