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2014 Mazda CX-9 Touring: The large SUV that's fun to drive

by: MAZDA NORTH AMERICAN OPERATIONS - The stylish 2014 Mazda CX-9 is unchanged from last year, which is a good thing.Mazda made few changes its the 2014 CX-9 crossover since last year's minor redesign. That's a good thing, since the redesigned fixed its biggest problem by replacing the large, goofy looking grill with the smaller Kodo "soul of motion" look now found on all of the company's other vehicles.

Leaving everything else alone was the right thing to do because most of it works so well. Although the CX-9 is definitely a large vehicle — it can hold seven passengers in three rows of seats — it drives like a much smaller one. Which means it's fun in the Zoom Zoom tradition. The 3.7-liter V6 offers plenty of power, the six-speed automatic transmission shifts smartly, the steering is precise and the suspension is athletic.

Add it all up, and the 2014 Mazda CX-9 is one of the best family haulers on the market.

OK, nobody's perfect. The entertainment/navigation system is not as good as those in some competitors. The screen is relatively small and the graphics are outdated. That's true of the available systems in all Mazdas these days. But thankfully it's mounted in the center of the dash and not sticking up on top of it, which mars the otherwise clean interior styling of the new Mazda6 sedan.

The exterior styling is graceful and subdued. The rounded edges and sharply angled rear end make it look like a large hatchback instead of a boxy SUV. The interior is simple and clean, especially compared to some of the dashes these days that seem meant for alien space ships. The mix of knobs and large buttons make the controls easy to use. And despite the limitations of the entertainment/navigations system, at least you don't have to stumble though multiple interfaces to adjust the stereo or temperature.

Our top-of-the-line test model was generously equipped, including heated front leather bucket sport seats and wood trim that actually looked like real wood. Although the side windows look narrow from the outside, they actually offer reasonably good visibility, aided by the ride height. Our tester had warning system that notified us of vehicles in blind spots just in case, however.

Once up a time, you had to practically buy a school bus to carry more than five passengers in comfort. Truck-based SUVs like the Chevy Suburban and Ford Expedition did the job, but they drove like, well, truck. Now there are a wide range of car-like crossovers with three rows of seats. The include the Chevy Transverse, GMC Arcadia, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer and Flex, and Nissan Pathfinder.

Even compact crossovers now offer three-row Seating. They include the Kia Sonota, this year's Huyndai Santa Fe (which is not to be confused with the five passenger Santa Fe Sport), and even the redesigned Nissan Rogue. The list goes on and on.

Obviously, the smaller ones don't offer as much room in the last row of seats, but they'll do in a pinch.

Although all of them are worth considering, depending on your needs, the CX-9 is still the sportiest of the bunch, even though it is getting a little old. In fact, aside from the MX-5 Miata sports car, the CX-9 is the only Mazda that hasn't been heavily redesigned with SkyActive technology to be lighter and get better mileage. But the basic design, drivetrain and underpinnings are so good, it can probably continue to be competitive for a couple more years, at least.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: 2014 CX-9.

• Manufacturer: Mazda.

• Class: Large luxury crossover.

• Layout: Front engine, front and all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five-door SUV.

• Engine: 3.7-liter V6 (273 hp, 270 lbs-ft).

• Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual shift mode.

• EPA estimated city/highway/mileage: 17/24/19 (FWD); 16/22/18 (AWD).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $30,000 ($48,335 as tested).