A large three-row crossover is the last thing I would typically want to drive in thick, Friday night Los Angeles traffic. I would imagine changing lanes to be more difficult, as smaller cars have a tendency to hide in a crossover's blind spots. All the stop-and-go is also more than likely to take a hard hit on the gas tank. But the Mazda CX-9 disproved my theory. Not just in traffic, but on the open road as well.

When you first approach the CX-9 from the front, it vaguely resembles a minivan, with its rather long 42.4-inch front overhang ending in that Mazda smiley face. But walk around it, and what you see is a sleek SUV dressed up with chrome-lined windows, substantial chrome door handles, and 20-inch wheels completing the CX-9 Grand Touring edition's upscale look.

Step inside the 2012 CX-9 Grand Touring (the model was just refreshed for the 2011 model year) and it's like entering a hip, leather-swathed downtown L.A. loft. Its soft-to-the-touch leather seats feel like they're made from the same pressure-absorbing material as a Tempur-Pedic mattress. The steeply raked and ample windshield provides a clear view of the road, helped by the high seating position that will fool you each time you exit the car, because the CX-9 rides low for a big crossover, with an 8-inch ground clearance. Road noise and other outside clatter is well-isolated inside the CX-9, further enhancing the overall cabin experience.

When not sitting in traffic, the Mazda ute's 3.7-liter V-6 with 273 horsepower provides plenty of pull and purrs melodically at speed, while a manumatic mode allows for even more engaging drive if you desire. The fuel gauge needle doesn't take a nose dive out of the blue either, as the 2012 CX-9 is EPA-rated at 17/24 mpg city/highway -- respectable for its class. Comfort wasn't sacrificed at the altar of sportiness, as the CX-9's overall road feel is plenty smooth during normal commuting.

At the test track, the front-drive 2012 CX-9 (which is about 200 pounds lighter than its AWD counterpart) hit the 60-mph mark in 7.1 seconds, two ticks faster than the 2011 AWD model we had in for testing earlier this year. As for the quarter mile, both the AWD and FWD passed the mark in 15.6 seconds, but at different speeds. The FWD model got there at 90.2 mph, while the AWD CX-9 did it at a slightly slower 89.5 mph speed. By comparison, the lighter Toyota Highlander also reached the quarter-mile mark in 15.6 seconds, but at a lower trap speed.

Stomp on the brakes from 60 mph and the FWD CX-9 halts in 120 feet -- not as good as the AWD's 116 feet, but better than the Subaru Tribeca and Highlander, which take 126 and 125 feet to stop, respectively. Around our figure eight, the CX-9's 28.3-second lap time is a hair slower than that of its AWD sibling and the more expensive Buick Enclave. Despite its 4330-pound curb weight, our test team reported that the CX-9 glides around corners with surprisingly little body roll for a large crossover a little of that Zoom-Zoom magic. If slick roads or rocky terrain are a normal part of your commute, the AWD version is probably the way to go, but if not, we'd advise saving that extra $1400 as there's little performance penalty.

Loading up for a trip is easy in any CX-9, with split 60/40 rear seats that fold down by gently tugging a strap. With the third row folded down, you have a relatively impressive 48.3 cubic feet of space, more than the Honda Pilot and Ford Explorer, but not quite as generous as the Nissan Pathfinder's 48.8 cubic feet. Fold the second row flat, and cargo room increases to a spacious 110.6 cubic feet. When the passenger count grows to more than five, the third row offers 32.4 inches of legroom and 35.4 inches of headroom. That's decent, but less than competitors like the Chevrolet Traverse. While easy to operate, Mazda's navigation/entertainment setup could use a sprucing-up, and the voice recognition's dizzying array of commands can be a lot to digest, but those are minor quibbles given the entire package.

So the CX-9 looks good inside and out, performs well, and is fun to drive given its size -- all attributes that helped it earn our 2008 Sport/Utility of the Year award and continue to hold true today. And when I finally broke out of the traffic choke hold that Friday night and hit the throttle, the CX-9 put a smile on my face that didn't come off until I hit my driveway.


2012 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring
BASE PRICE $34,190
PRICE AS TESTED $38,760
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 (F/R DIST) 4330 lb (57/43%)
WHEELBASE 113.2 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 200.2 x 76.2 x 68.0 in
0-60 MPH 7.1 sec
QUARTER MILE 15.6 sec @ 90.2 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 120 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.79 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 28.3 sec @ 0.61 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 17/24 mpg
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 198/140 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS 0.99 lb/mile