The Mazda CX-9, the CX-7's big brother, is the latest member of the crossover-SUV juggernaut. It has a full three rows of seats and room for seven passengers. The optional tow package allows the CX-9 to pull trailers weighing as much as 3500 pounds in front- and all-wheel-drive variants. It features the typical receiver hitch, trailer wiring, and transmission cooler, but also adds a towing module to the computer program that'll watch and respond to various temperature parameters. Without the towing package, the CX-9 is only rated to pull 2000 pounds.

Mazda's Active Torque Split All-Wheel-Drive system is ideal for slippery road conditions, diverting power to the rear wheels as needed in response to front-wheel slip. Brisk driving on a winding country road showed the system works as well in the CX-9 as it does in the CX-7, with sure-footed traction and little understeer.

This version of the Ford corporate 3.5-liter V-6 (seen in the Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX) is rated at 263 horsepower thanks to the reduced backpressure of its three large-volume mufflers. The Mazda engine also has its own intake track, and the two combine to give what is otherwise the same engine a much smoother, rev-happy character than its Blue Oval cousins.

In addition, Mazda uses an Aisin six-speed automatic rather than the Ford-GM joint-venture transmission seen in the Edge and MKX. Mazda's engineers have calibrated the shift controller on the CX-9 to respond quickly and more smoothly than the Ford in Drive--but it's in manual mode the Mazda transmission really shines. Push the 3.5 into the higher rpm range and the transmission is quick to respond to fast up- and downshifts as the road turns wild.

While the CX-9 doesn't share a complete platform with any other vehicle, there are bits and pieces it has in common with its siblings. The CX-7 and CX-9 use the same floorpan stamping and front suspension, but the CX-9's rear suspension was derived from the Mazda6 and the CX-7 uses Mazda3-based suspension parts. Our fully loaded test unit had 20-inch rims; 18-inch wheels are standard. Also standard are four-wheel ABS, electronic stability control, rollover stability control, and front, side, and three-row head airbags.

Inside, there's a surprising amount of cargo room when the second and third rows are folded flat (100 cubic feet, in fact). The second row slides forward and back and offers two separate latches for passengers climbing into the third row. Third-row seatbacks can be lifted or folded flat with one hand.

Mazda engineers sweat thoughtful details, like mounting the second row's sliding tracks flush with the floor rather than on top of it, so that passengers scrambling to and from the back row don't catch their shoes on the track.

The CX-9 is available in three trim levels--Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring. Touring adds power leather seats and special cabin lighting, and Grand Touring models also include an alarm, keyless start, rain-sensing wipers, and some chrome. Bose stereo, rear-seat DVD system, navigation, backup camera, 110-volt AC power outlet, and power liftgate are among the optional luxury items.

A lavishly equipped CX-9 is competitive with a new Acura MDX, but at a price that's about $10,000 lower. And although Acura, like many luxury brands, has cache, dealer support, and residual value that Mazda can't match, the CX-9 will be a formidable competitor and a strong value when compared with other luxury and midlevel crossovers.

Base price range $29,835-$34,275
Price as tested $38,125
Layout Front engine, 4-door, 7-pass, AWD
Engine 3.5L/263-hp/249 lb-ft DOHC 24-valve all-alum V-6
Transmission 6-speed auto
Wheelbase, in 113.2
Length x width x height, in 199.8 x 76.2 x 68.0
Curb weight, lb 4546 (AWD)
GVWR, lb 6025 (AWD)
Payload capacity, lb 1450
Max towing capacity, lb 3500
Max cargo capacity, cu ft 100.7
0-60 mph, sec 7.8 (est)
EPA fuel econ, city/hwy 18/24 (FWD); 16/22 (AWD)
On sale Currently