Mazda, the car company that gave the world the nimble, two-seat Miata roadster, makes a commendable seven-seat crossover sport utility vehicle, too.
And like the Miata, the 2014 Mazda CX-9 is a nimble handler that drives as if it's smaller than it is.
The nearly 17-foot-long CX-9 also is attractively styled with a raked windshield and well-proportioned shape and comes with strong V-6 power and comfortable interior room. The five-door CX-9 is rated by Consumer Reports magazine as above average in reliability as well.
Additionally, pricing is competitive with better known family SUVs.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for a 2014 CX-9 with 270-horsepower V-6, six-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive is $30,815. The lowest starting retail price, including destination charge, for a 2014 CX-9 with all-wheel drive is $32,405.
Among the standard features on every CX-9 are three-zone climate control, tilt and telescoping steering wheel with cruise control and audio buttons on the wheel, power windows, door locks and outside mirrors, three 12-volt power outlets and 5.8-inch color display touch screen.
2014 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring AWD
Base price: $29,985 for Sport FWD; $31,575 for Sport AWD; $32,480 for Touring FWD; $34,070 for Touring AWD; $35,035 for Grand Touring FWD; $36,625 for Grand Touring AWD
Price as tested: $40,040
Type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, seven-passenger, mid-size, sport utility vehicle
Engine: 3.7-liter, double overhead cam V-6 with VVT
Mileage: 16 mpg (city), 22 mpg (highway)
Top speed: 118 mph
Length: 200.6 inches
Wheelbase: 113.2 inches
Curb weight: 4,558 pounds
Built at: Japan
Options: Technology package (includes power moonroof with interior sun shade, Bose surround sound audio with AM/FM/CD/MP3-compatible players and 10 speakers, navigation system) $2,435; stainless steel rear bumper guard $150
Destination charge: $830
The CX-9 prices compare with the starting retail price of $30,775 for a front-wheel drive, 2014 Hyundai Santa Fe that has a 290-horsepower V-6, six-speed automatic and three rows of seats.
Meantime, the base, 2014 Toyota Highlander with front-wheel drive, a 185-horsepower four cylinder and six-speed automatic starts at $30,075. A 2014 Highlander with uplevel, 270-horsepower V-6 has a starting retail price of $31,380, or $565 more than the starting price of the V-6-powered CX-9.
Japan-based Mazda doesn't have the advertising budget that bigger car companies do, so many shoppers aren't aware of the CX-9.
CX-9 sales in the U.S. through the first five months of this calendar year total just 7,812 compared with 60,583 Highlanders.
But the CX-9 is worth a look, especially for families that would prefer something a bit different than what the neighbors have.
The test CX-9 — an all-wheel-drive model in top, Grand Touring trim — was a stalwart people carrier. Both front and second-row seats moved forward and back on tracks easily, so tall and short passengers always found a way to apportion legroom to make everyone comfortable. Plus, the large and right-height lever on each side of the second-row seats that quickly unlocked them and moved them out of the way for quick entry to the third row was simpler to use than those in some other SUVs.
Even the two seats in the third row of the test CX-9 could accommodate adults if the second-row seats were moved up a ways on their tracks, though third-row seats sat close to the floor.
Indeed, Mazda reports the CX-9 has more second- and third-row legroom than the Highlander, Honda Pilot and even the luxury Acura MDX.
Specifically, Mazda measures 40.9 inches of front-seat legroom, another 39.8 inches for second-row passengers and 32.4 inches for the third row. These numbers compare with the Pilot's 38.5 inches in the second row and 32.1 inches in the third row and the Highlander's 38.4 inches in the second row and 27.7 inches in the third row.
But the CX-9's 5.7-foot height makes for less headroom than is found in some competitors. As an example, the taller Honda Pilot provides up to 40 inches of front-seat headroom compared to the CX-9's 38.4 inches, and the Pilot offers 38.2 inches of third-row headroom vs. the CX-9's 35.4 inches.
But driving the CX-9 is a sportier experience. The test CX-9 rode on 20-inch tires and hewed close to the pavement, even though it sat up a good ways.
Via the front MacPherson strut suspension and rear multilink configuration, the driver of the test vehicle felt a constant connection to the road, much as one would in a sporty sedan. This affected the ride by transmitting road bumps to passengers as mostly mild vibrations. But some passengers also noticed the noises that the tires conveyed as they traveled over the bumps.
There was some feeling of tippiness in the CX-9, but it was not as noticeable as in softer-riding SUVs and overall, the CX-9 had good road manners and maneuvered without fuss. The only handling complaint for the tester was a light feel to the rack-and-pinion steering.
The 3.7-liter, double overhead cam V-6 produced strong power for acceleration and never lacked for extra "oomph" during the test drive. Torque peaks at 270 foot-pounds at 4,250 rpm, and most gear shifts in the transmission were smooth.
Fuel economy for the test CX-9 with all-wheel drive averaged 19.6 miles per gallon, which was better than the federal government's estimate of 18 mpg because the majority of the miles driven were on highways.
This mileage, combined with the CX-9's generous, 20.1-gallon fuel tank, meant the tester could travel nearly 400 miles before needing a fill-up. Regular gasoline is all that's needed, so the cost of a tank full was $80.
Though it carried a sticker price of more than $40,000, the CX-9 Grand Touring model didn't keep out all road noises.
The bi-Xenon headlamps in low and high beam made an odd light shape that looked like parentheses at each side.
Bluetooth for hands-free calling was on the top-level test vehicle, but the CX-9 system did not work with a just-purchased HTC One M8 cell phone.
The CX-9 earned four out of five stars in overall federal government crash testing, with the vehicle getting only three out of five stars in frontal crash tests.
Maximum towing capacity is 3,500 pounds if the CX-9 is fitted with a towing prep package.