Over the years, we have enjoyed the CX-7 because it was a nice personal size, had two-row seating, agile handling and a spirited turbocharged engine, plus it looked good. When the CX-5 debuted last year, it was about the same size as the CX-7, but it was the first Mazda to integrate the company’s innovative new engineering philosophy called Skyactiv® technology. After our first drive in the CX-5, it became obvious, that newer was better and we had a new favorite. (Watch this space in a few weeks; we’ll have a new review on the CX-5 that is sitting in our garage right now.)

For 2013, the flagship three-row Mazda CX-9 received a major refresh and the result is a very good seven-passenger crossover/SUV. The largest model in the Mazda lineup got a makeover including a dose of KODO “Soul in Motion” design enhancements. While the original version still looks good, the new version has a more sophisticated and elegant demeanor that sets it apart.

The KODO is one of those obscure Japanese design languages that are difficult to describe. Mazda uses references to “fluidity of movement” and several other Zen-like descriptions we don’t totally understand, but when applied to a vehicle design, it looks great, especially on the CX-9!

At 200-inches long, the CX-9 is about the same length as the Chevrolet Tahoe and a few inches longer than the Ford Explorer. The KODO styling makes it look more streamline and not boxy like more traditionally styled crossovers and SUVs. It also has a sportier feel behind the wheel – more like a sport wagon than a truck.

The interior is spacious with room for real size people in the first two rows, and more petite individuals in the ‘way back’, which is what we call a vehicle’s third row. With all three rows in place the 17.2 cubic feet of cargo space is about the equivalent of a large sedan. When the second and third row seat backs are folded, there is 100.7 cubic feet of space, which is a couple of large suitcases (8.2 cubic feet) less than the boxy Tahoe carries.

Controls are well placed, easily identified and have a good positive feel. We like that the transmission has an extra shiftgate for manual shifting, but it does take a while to adapt, because the Mazda engineers, like BMW, subscribe to the pattern of shifting forward to shift down and pulling the shifter to the rear to shift up. The system actually makes sense when you think about the vehicle motions, but when most vehicles are just the opposite, it takes a few days to adjust.

Under the hood is a powerful 273-hp, 3.7-liter V-6 engine attached to an Aisin six-speed automatic transmission driving the front wheels. For $1,590 more, it’s available in all-wheel drive. We were surprised that the 2013 CX-9 didn’t get the Skyactiv technology, but we understand a full redesign of the drivetrain and suspension is required. The combination feels responsive and powerful underfoot and accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds. Like larger crossovers, fuel economy is not its best feature. EPA estimates say the CX-9 AWD gets 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway. We averaged 18.7 mpg in mixed driving conditions.

The big Mazda will tow up to 3,500 pounds when equipped with the optional ($425) towing package.

The new CX-9 comes available in three trim levels, Sport, Touring and Grand Touring and in front or all-wheel drive. Prices range from $30,580, including the $795 destination charge, for the FWD Sport to $37,170 for the Grand Touring model with AWD. With all the options and accessories, the GT top price is about $42,000.

Like most top-level models the GT has a long equipment list with all the convenience and comfort features we expect at this price point. It also has some important safety features we think should be on all cars including blind spot monitoring, roll stability control and rain sensor wipers.

The CX-9 is not a big seller, but it wears a Consumer Reports “Recommended” rating and ranks a “must drive’ from us on the list of full size crossover/SUVs. When you buy a CX-9, you’ll be looking good and you won’t be seeing them all over the place.

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