Performance remains admirable. The loaded, 4532-pound Grand Touring trim we tested reached 60 mph in 7.3 seconds and the quarter mile in 15.6 seconds at 89.5 mph, a front-pack result in the three-row SUV realm. Going beyond that realm are the brakes; taking a scant 116 feet to stop from 60 mph, the CX-9's braking matches the last BMW 550i we tested. Around our figure eight, the CX-9's 27.5-second lap time is 0.2 second behind the much lighter Nissan Juke. Altogether, the 2011's results boast substantial improvements over the 2008 model (that one reached 60 mph in 7.8 seconds and the quarter mile in 16.0 seconds; stopped from 60 mph in 125 feet; lapped the figure eight in 28.0 seconds).

These performance results only back up the driving prowess the CX-9 offers. Every editor who took time behind the wheel came away with the same impression. "Easily the best driver and clearly one of the best packages," said Edward Loh. "Feels fast, light, and sporty."

The fun factor is undeniable, but how's its functionality? It is sport and utility, after all. To this end, the CX-9 offers an impressive 48.3 cubic feet behind the second row, more than the Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, and Honda Pilot, but falls short of the Chevrolet Traverse, which, thanks to its removable third row, has 68.8 cubic feet. Fold everything flat in the Mazda and 100.7 cubic feet is ready for your furniture, the Costco haul, pets, or some freak combination of the three. With the third row up, full-size adults will find their heads bumping the roof and knees touching the second row, but the preteen set should be comfortable. They'll enjoy the plush leather seating, too. The driver and front passenger have access to a suite of simple and intuitive controls, and won't get lost navigating through pages of touch screen nonsense. The only disappointments we can find are a low-resolution navigation screen and the lack of iPod integration.

Such complaints stand as trifles against the CX-9's attributes. In the past three years, as the competition progressed rapidly around it, Mazda only added light improvements, because that's all the CX-9 needed. Trans-dimensional jerks be damned.