Imagine this scenario: At the end of our 2008 Sport/Utility of the Year program, a small crew of trans-dimensional beings suddenly materialize and capture the winner, the Mazda CX-9. Search parties go out. The National Enquirer does an exposé. But of course, no one listens. The poor Mazda sits in isolated stasis.

In 2011, these beings, whom you may understandably now refer to as jerks, release the CX-9, allowing it to rejoin the automotive landscape. How would it fare in this brave new(ish) world?

You'd assume that with the large number of new or significantly revised SUVs released since 2008, the competition might've caught up with and bested the CX-9's benchmarks. The full-size, three-row class should be refreshed and updated in ways that would make the Mazda feel, well, 3 years old.

You'd assume wrong.
Enter the 2011 Mazda CX-9, which, aside from a few minor tweaks, is very much the same as the 2008 Mazda CX-9. Those tweaks are key and tidy, the most significant being an exterior refresh in 2010 that brought a new fascia and side mirrors, and in 2011 better fuel economy and different wheels.

The qualities that made the CX-9 our SUOTY in 2008 -- smart interior packaging, and actually delivering the "sport" part of SUV, to name a few -- haven't been diminished one bit by time. The CX-9 still delivers an eye-pleasing interior with comfortable trimmings and generous interior space. Drivers will appreciate the well-bolstered seat, which provides ample view of the road (and corners) ahead, pedals that always fall right where you expect, a push-to-downshift, pull-to-upshift manumatic mode, and genuinely fun driving dynamics.

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.


2011 Mazda CX-9 AWD (Grand Touring)
POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS
DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT Front engine, AWD
ENGINE TYPE 60-deg V-6, alum block/heads
VALVETRAIN DOHC, 4 valves/cyl
DISPLACEMENT 227.4 cu in/3726 cc
COMPRESSION RATIO 10.3:1
POWER (SAE NET) 273 hp @ 6250 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 270 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm
REDLINE 6500 rpm
WEIGHT TO POWER 16.6 lb/hp
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic
AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE RATIO 3.46:1/2.37:1
SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar
STEERING RATIO 16.3:1
TURNS LOCK-TO-LOCK 3.0
BRAKES, F;R 12.6-in vented disc; 12.8-in vented disc, ABS
WHEELS 7.5 x 20-in, cast aluminum
TIRES 245/50R20 102V M+S Bridgestone Dueler H/L
DIMENSIONS
WHEELBASE 113.2 in
TRACK, F/R 65.1/64.7 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 200.2 x 76.2 x 68.0 in
GROUND CLEARANCE 8.0 in
APPRCH/DEPEART ANGLE 16.0/21.1 deg
TURNING CIRCLE 37.4 ft
CURB WEIGHT 4532 lb
WEIGHT DIST., F/R 56/44 %
TOWING CAPACITY 3500 lb
SEATING CAPACITY 7
HEADROOM, F/M/R 39.6/39.0/35.4 in
LEGROOM, F/M/R 40.9/39.8/32.4 in
SHOULDER ROOM, F/M/R 59.4/58.7/56.9 in
CARGO VOLUME, F/M/R 100.7/48.3/17.2 cu ft
TEST DATA
ACCELERATION TO MPH
0-30 2.5 sec
0-40 3.8
0-50 5.5
0-60 7.3
0-70 9.6
0-80 12.5
0-90 15.8
PASSING, 45-65 MPH 3.7
QUARTER MILE 15.6 sec @ 89.5 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 116 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.81 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.5 sec @ 0.61 g (avg)
TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH 1700 rpm
CONSUMER INFO
BASE PRICE $31,320
PRICE AS TESTED $40,800
STABILITY/TRACTION CONTROL Yes/Yes
AIRBAGS Dual front, front side, f/r curtain
BASIC WARRANTY 3 yrs/36,000 miles
POWERTRAIN WARRANTY 5 yrs/60,000 miles
ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE 3 yrs/36,000 miles
FUEL CAPACITY 20.1 gal
EPA CITY/HWY ECON 16/22 mpg
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 211/153 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS 1.06 lb/mile
MT FUEL ECONOMY 14.8 mpg
RECOMMENDED FUEL Unleaded regular
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