STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. -- A flat asphalt expanse on a parking lot in the Colorado ski town of Steamboat Springs contained a snaky circuit of close-set orange plastic pylons, and we're borrowing this autocross course to push a souped-up crossover utility vehicle (CUV) through some hard-wrapped corners, twisty slalom esses and tight right-left-right chicanes simply to see how well it handles adverse pavement maneuvers.
Why run a CUV over an autocross route customarily reserved for sporty cars?
Well, it's not an exercise recommended for the usual wagon, but the CX-9 by Mazda -- that sporty "Zoom-Zoom" brand from Japan -- is not the typical utility box.
Designers from Mazda -- a company steeped in the production of sporty cars like the MX-5 Miata roadster and RX-8 sports coupe -- constructed this new wagon atop the chassis of a front-wheel-drive (FWD) car rather than the conventional wagon's rear-wheel-drive (RWD) truck platform, then equipped it with lively independent suspension elements and crisp rack and pinion steering to fashion a ride quality that's smooth and comfortable for passengers yet also nimble and responsive.
As a result, CX-9 behaves itself and shows us the nimble spirit of a sporty car.
Looking quite distinctive as wrapped in a sleek and curvy shell, the wagon provides a generous passenger compartment stocking seats for seven passengers.
Running the cones on that autocross course, we discover at the least that the CX-9 holds a firm line through all curves without undue sway or roll of the body.
Our CX-9, in taut Sport trim, dances around the parking-lot track, executing nimble maneuvers with all of the engine's power directed to the wheels in front -- the ones that also steer.
This ability of the wheels to both turn and steer the wagon makes it quite agile, and entirely predictable.
Front-wheel-drive orientation isn't the only reason the new Mazda scores as an agile CUV. Its monocoque platform -- a distinct departure from the normal wagon with the body bolted on top of a frame -- produces an integrated structure that's extremely rigid when set to the dynamics of motion.
A long wheelbase of 113 inches fosters a smooth ride quality while a generous wheel track of 65.1 inches in front and 64.7 inches in back adds stability for turning.
Independent suspension components include MacPherson struts up front with coil springs and a multi-link design in the rear with one trailing arm and two lateral members per side.
To minimize intrusion of the cargo-bay area, coil springs at the rear are located between the lower lateral member and the unibody frame.
Further, the CX-9 offers an optional all-wheel-drive (AWD) traction system, which Mazda labels ATS-AWD (Active Torque Split AWD).
With this electronically controlled system, various sensors at the wheels direct control modules to automatically distribute the engine's torque to whichever wheels are most capable of achieving a good grip.
The system can channel up to 50 percent of the engine's torque to rear wheels, if pavement conditions warrant.
Mazda's CUV also possesses nimble steering attributes from a power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering system, and the brakes pin a disc at every wheel with electronic link to an anti-lock brake system (ABS), plus electronic brake force distribution (EBD), a traction control system (TCS) and dynamic stability control (DSC) to check lateral skidding.
Passive safety systems are aboard including frontal and seat-mounted side-impact air bags for front seats and curtain-style air bags above outboard seats in all rows. Further, Mazda provides a roll stability control (RSC) system.
Muscle for CX-9 is derived from a V6 engine which displaces 3.5 liters and has a high compression ratio. It employs electronic throttle control with dual overhead cams and VVT (variable valve timing).
The plant develops a robust 263 hp at 6250 rpm with the torque pushed to 249 lb-ft at 4500 rpm.
Transmission is a fuel-saving six-speed automatic, and it comes with a sport-shift manual mode.
With the six-speed in play, CX-9 earns EPA fuel economy scores up to 24 mpg for highway cruising in the FWD edition, or 22 mpg with AWD equipment.
This is really a sizable vehicle in all measures -- the body stretches for 16.6 feet long and 6.3 feet wide by 5.5 feet high.
Yet the package styling, with rippled skin stretched tautly like flexed muscles over the long and broad structure, seems to diminish the vehicle's big-ness.
The design incorporates incredible curves -- bulbous arched fenders that protrude laterally well beyond a curt roll of the front hood to articulate large low-profile tires pinned on multi-spoke aluminum alloy wheels. Another prominent wheel arch appears on the rear quarter while above the beltline there's a graceful stroke of the superstructure styled in the manner of a rakish GT coupe.
The broad, tall and long structure coupled to mechanical components which intrude mimimally creates a passenger compartment with generous space.
Plan for the cabin shows three rows of seats and a rear bay for cargo.
On the first row two bolstered bucket seats flank a floor console. On the second row a bench-style seat for three with five inches of fore-and-aft slide travel splits 60-40 and has reclining backrests. On the third row, a split bench makes room even for adults.
Both the second-row bench and the third bench fold flat to the floor to expand cargo capacity.
With the back bench up, the cargo bay contains 17.2 cubic feet of stow room. With third bench folded, space expands to 48.4 cubic feet, and with both back rows folded, the cavernous bay measures to 100.7 cubic feet.
The luxurious cabin features top-quality materials and options for premium gear like a Bose audio system with 11 speakers and a ceiling-mounted DVD video entertainment system for backseat riders.
Trim grades for CX-9 list as Sport, Touring and Grand Touring, with each available in FWD and AWD traction mode.
Mazda sets MSRP figures for CX-9 as low as $29,400.