Vicious is the only way to describe competition in the seven-passenger crossover segment, especially at the price level of the 2010 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring.

Spend nearly 40 grand on a large crossover and you're presented with more than 10 vehicles. Thankfully for Mazda, though, the CX-9 still has what it takes to stay competitive.

The original CX-9 was our 2008 Sport/Utility of the Year. Introduced as a 2007 model, the CX-9 was refreshed for 2010, adopting the aggressively designed grille of the controversial Mazda3. Complain all you want about the nagare styling on the CX-9, but at least you can distinguish the crossover as a Mazda in a Costco parking lot. Cover the badge of a Toyota Highlander or GMC Acadia and we're not sure most consumers could say the same.

Move beyond the CX-9's face and you'll see this is an attractive SUV. A rising beltline like the smaller CX-7 crossover adds a dash of style as do chrome-lined windows. Twenty-inch wheels (18s are standard) and chrome door handles remind you that this is the top-line Grand Touring trim.

Where the CX-9 excels is its ride. Even on the 20-inch wheels, the suspension is compliant and smooth enough to make long freeway journeys a breeze. The CX-9 is very manageable despite its 199.8-inch length. Steering is overly light, though we imagine that's how most large crossover drivers prefer it. For its size, the CX-9's wind noise is also kept to a minimum. A luxury crossover for less? Well, not quite, but the CX-9 gets close.

Speaking of luxuries, our $38,135 tester was fitted with plenty of upscale touches including two-tone leather seats, a 10-speaker Bose sound system, touchscreen navigation system, and a power-operated rear hatch. HID headlights and the Blind Spot Monitoring system are part of the Grand Touring trim's extra features.

Mazda's version of blind spot alert technology has visual alerts that light up in each rear view mirror when it's unsafe to pass, plus an audible alert that sounds when you use your turn signal and are about to veer into an unseen obstruction. We found the feature to be helpful -- for those who actually use turn signals -- but if you'd rather go without the aid, a button by the driver's left knee turns it off.

An expansive interior is standard on all CX-9s. With the third-row seats in place, cargo volume is a sizable 17.2 cu-ft. A Honda Pilot can carry 18.0 cu-ft of stuff behind the third row seats while the Toyota Highlander manages 10.3 cu-ft. Fold the third row seats down and space jumps to 48.4 cu-ft.

Second-row passengers should appreciate seats that slide forward and backward, and access to the third row isn't too difficult. If you're looking for truly spacious third row seats and loads of cargo volume, get a minivan.

Mazda loyalists in need of a seven-passenger vehicle have only the CX-9 as an option, however, and one area of improvement is power. For most situations, the 3.7-liter V-6 performs well, staying muted until the driver slams the accelerator pedal. Throttle tip-in is responsive and not overly aggressive, but high-speed passing requires a little advanced planning. Producing 273 horsepower and 270 lb-ft of torque, the V-6 is a solid engine and that's good since it's the only one offered.

Fuel economy figures are at the bottom of the class. Front-wheel drive CX-9s have lower ratings than the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot and Chevrolet Traverse. The all-wheel drive CX-9 is $1400 more on any trim level and one mpg lower in the city and on the highway than the front-wheel drive's 16/22 mpg rating.

Even so, the Mazda's hint of sportiness wins us back. A six-speed automatic transmission has a manumatic feature that actually holds gears without automatically upshifting at redline. This and the gear indicator in the instrument cluster are special touches you're most likely to find in a Mazda.

Mazda's focus on high-quality dynamics and design is probably why the seven-passenger crossover is on track to match its best sales years in the face of more competitors than ever before -- even in its fourth year on the market.


2010 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring
Base Price $33,565
Price as Tested $38,135
Vehicle Layout Front engine, FWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 3.7L/273-hp/270 lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Curb Weight 4350 lb
Wheelbase 113.2 in
Length x Width x Height 199.8 x 76.2 x 68.0 in
Cargo Volume, Behind f/m/r 100.7/48.4/17.2 cu ft
EPA City/Hwy Fuel Econ 16/22 mpg
CO2 Emissions 1.06 lb/mile

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