Around our 15-mile Lake Arrowhead handling loop, the CX-9 was arguably the most enjoyable sport 'ute to pilot, a reminder that SUVs ought to be exciting to drive. The steering, a Mazda hallmark, didn't disappoint, displaying a solid, on-center feel with zero play off-center and superb, linear response throughout the turning range. For clipping apexes and placing a vehicle within the inch, the CX-9, with its heavenly helm, is first-rate. Naturally, swallowing a set of esses is no fun without a composed chassis, and here, again, the Mazda excels. Based on modified Ford Edge architecture-the two share an engine box, some floor stampings, and basic front MacPherson strut and rear multilink suspension designs-the CX-9 provided a compliant, taut ride as well as best-in-field lateral acceleration (0.77 g) and figure-eight time (28.4 seconds at 0.58 g), testaments to its brilliant tuning. Much credit goes to the CX-9's transparent Active Torque Split all-wheel-drive system that can route up to 50 percent of available torque to the rear wheels depending on wheel speed, steering angle yaw rate, throttle opening, and lateral acceleration, but some due goes to the weight-saving measures, which include extensive use of high- and ultra-high-strength steel in such places as the front and rear frames, B-pillars, and sidesills. At 4633 pounds, the Mazda's no light weight, but compared with the two-row Edge (4511) and the cumbersome Enclave (5077), its dietary tactics are noticeable. Under braking, when fewer pounds equal fewer feet, the midweight Mazda, which slots between the 4268-pound Subaru and the Buick, posted a respectable 60-to-0 distance of 127 feet, a byproduct of four-wheel vented disc brakes and excellent pedal feel.

Firm believers in the best type of crash is the avoidable kind, we appreciate that the Mazda comes standard with an anti-lock brake system, electronic brake-force distribution, traction control, dynamic-stability control, and roll-stability control, which analyzes body-roll rate and wheel speed to determine if a momentary torque reduction and brake application are necessary to maintain the shiny side up. There's even a Blind Spot Monitoring system available for 2008. But should the sublime chassis and electronic aids not prevent the unavoidable, the CX-9 offers ample protection in the form of front, side, and side-curtain airbags as well as seatbelt pretensioners and load limiters. According to NHTSA, the safety net works, as the CX-9 received the highest scores (five stars) for front and side impacts, along with a four-star rollover rating.

If you're taken aback by the thought of a $40,000 Mazda, don't be. Over 50 percent of CX-9 buyers have opted for a $33,950-$35,250 Grand Touring, which, when equipped as was our all-wheel-drive tester with satellite radio, navigation, moonroof, backup camera, power tailgate, Bose audio system, and a towing package, can often touch the $40-grand level. This territory, surprisingly, is not uncommon today among three-row crossovers, evidenced by this year's comparably equipped challengers, which range in price from $37,196 (Veracruz) to $44,245 (Enclave). The beauty of the CX-9 is that for just under 30 large, the core elements can be had in a front-drive $29,995 Sport version ($31,295 with AWD), which, among a few extraneous features, lacks only leather, 20-inch wheels, foglamps, Xenon headlamps, rain-sensing wipers, some chrome exterior bits, and a Smart Card key system compared with the GT. Roughly one-quarter of shoppers have snatched up a Sport-and for good reason. For a bit more luxury, the midlevel $32,210-$33,510 Touring has garnered the remaining quarter and perhaps offers the optimal compromise with standard leather, heated sideview mirrors, and Bluetooth. While all-wheel drive is a $1300 option across the range, front-drive versions still deliver the trademark dynamics, according to Mazda, thanks to special suspension tuning that provides that critical ride, handling, and steering combination.

Manufactured at the Ujina Plant No. 1 near Mazda's global headquarters in Hiroshima, the CX-9 was designed specifically for the North American market. It shows. Not only did Mazda do its research, creating an SUV with the ideal balance of sport, utility, and style, but it built the benchmark of the three-row crossover class. Move the needle like that, in the most important, competitive SUV segment, and you take home the calipers.