The three-row family hauling arena isn't exactly the sexiest automotive category. It is, however, where bread is buttered and the midsize and full-sized crossover segments are where manufacturers bring some of their toughest competition to bear. In a market full of not too shabby designs and attempts to sportify the unsporty, the 2017 CX-9 stands out for its excellent styling, solid mixture of versatility for growing families, and excellent drive dynamics.

When Mazda debuted the CX-9's new look a couple of years ago, major updates to the engine's turbocharging were included. Since then, the CX-9 has seen little change under the hood, but change isn't really necessary as the 2017 is one of the most nimble three-row crossovers you'll find. It's comparable to luxury models in its handling and power delivery and far outclasses the norm in its market segment.

Powering the 2017 Mazda CX-9 is a 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that outputs 227 hp (169 kW) and 310 lb-ft (420 Nm) of torque. That doesn't seem like much, but the CX-9 is a pretty lightweight vehicle thanks to some smart frame engineering for this new generation. The weight loss from the previous gen was almost 200 lb (90 kg) in the all-wheel drive and 287 lb (130 kg) for the front-wheel drive option. The engine is also the latest in higher-compression "Skyactive" engines from Mazda.

The CX-9's powerplant uses a lag-destroying valve system that changes the exhaust pulsation across the revolution range by reducing exhaust port volume at lower RPM. This keeps the turbine spinning when it would otherwise be slowing or dragging on the engine, which reduces turbo lag by keeping it spooled up.

A cooled-gas recirculation system lowers the temperature of the exhaust gases before it's returned to the intake for re-burn, which lowers the operating temperature of the engine to improve high-compression performance. That system's 20 percent reduction in exhaust gas recirculation temperatures allows the turbocharged gasoline engine to operate at a 10.5:1 compression ratio.

Mazda is also well-known for its fuel economy and real-world delivery of good MPG numbers and the CX-9 holds to that promise. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rates the 2017 Mazda CX-9 at 25 mpg (9.4 l/100km) combined in its front-wheel drive model and 23 mpg (10.2 l/100km) combined in its all-wheel drive option. In the latter, we averaged just above that at about 23.5 mpg after a week of driving. Most of our time was with real-world scenarios as well, including multiple passengers, a lot of highway and suburban driving, and so forth. We feel most people will be surprised at the CX-9's better-than-expected fuel economy delivery.

In terms of performance, the CX-9 is not a race car and there are some crossovers in this competitive segment that are faster-paced off the line. That said, though, the CX-9 delivers good off-line performance and acceleration with 0-60 mph (0-52 km/h) sprints of about seven seconds, which is about average for the segment. Smooth shifting from its standard six-speed automatic transmission helps this along. Where the CX-9 shines is in everyday power delivery in passing, merging, and uphill pushes. The little 2.5-liter engine can deliver some serious oomph when required and is especially good at jumping forward in short bursts of energy. Add in the very nimble steering and excellent ride for the win.

The Mazda CX-9 competes with traditional best-sellers like the Honda Pilot and the Ford Explorer. Neither of those crossovers are well known for their head-turning looks or fun drive dynamic, but both are more spacious than the Mazda, exposing its Achilles heel.

The first and second rows in the 2017 Mazda CX-9 are extremely comfortable and spacious, with plenty of room for even the big and tall. Wards has given Mazda several awards for interiors found in the carmaker's lineup, and the CX-9 maintains the high standard. The driver's seat is very well done with all controls within easy reach and plenty of adjustment to make sure that's always the case.

The third row, however, is cramped and meant only for small children, with limited headroom, not much legroom, and not much comfort. Cargo space is also smaller in the CX-9 than in the aforementioned competitors, standing at only 72 cu ft (2,039 l) with the second and third rows folded. These are the tradeoffs for the CX-9's excellent handling and beautiful look.

Those looks are definitely a selling point in this segment. The CX-9 starts with the "smiling" grille that Mazda is known for, with horizontal chrome stripes and the lower "lip" of the smile coming up to merge with the tops of the headlamp LEDs. The fascia merges into the lower intake and bezels for optional fog lamps very well, smoothing around for a nice look. The hood is relatively flat and unadorned, but keeping it simple accentuates the simplicity and forward-moving dynamic of the body panels, raked windscreen, and bulged wheel wells. The overall design motif is "fun and dynamic," to synopsize it into two words.

The interior's premium materials are accented by the 2017 CX-9's impressive array of technology options. There are four trim levels, starting with the base Sport and running through the Touring, Grand Touring, and Signature models. The base model has a few more amenities than expected, including three-zone climate control and a rearview camera. The Touring adds leather seating and blind-spot warning with rear cross-traffic alerts as well as low-speed emergency braking and an 8-inch infotainment screen. The Grand Touring and Signature trims get much more luxurious and tech-laden.

The infotainment in the CX-9 is very well done, with plenty of features. It works similar to systems provided by some German brands in that it uses a control knob to move through menus rather than a touchscreen. The screen is sharp with fast output and an excellent placement in the car to reduce glare and aid visibility. We really like Mazda's simple and effective navigation system and the abundance of USB ports for plugging in. Those ports are found throughout the vehicle, with two or three available up front (depending on model). We recommend trying the infotainment's voice control for most uses as it simplifies menus and is very well done.

Safety systems like forward collision warning and mitigation, lane-keeping, and the like are also available in the CX-9. These work very well and can be "tuned" through the infotainment system to reduce false alarms and (just as importantly) annoyance. This allows drivers to lower thresholds so that the systems aren't setting off alarms or getting involved as often. Most other vehicles only allow the driver to toggle these safety systems on or off. Kudos to Mazda for being driver-aware there.

For our everyday use, which included two children (sometimes three) and one or two adults, the 2017 Mazda CX-9 was an excellent drive. It's ergonomic in everyday use for both kids and adults and allows expansion to add more passengers when needed. Packing kids in three-across in the second row is very doable, even with child safety seats in use, and access to the third row via the rear hatch is easy thanks to the CX-9's relatively low and level ride height.

The 2017 CX-9 is a great mix of looks, capability, and driving fun. The CX-9 is a bit more luxurious than most models at the base level in this segment, but starts at a US$31,520 price point. The model we drove was priced at about $42,000.

Product Page: 2017 Mazda CX-9

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