KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - After crossing the Henley Street Bridge which spans the Tennessee River in Knoxville, we steer toward the entry ramp of I-40 and head into the hills of Tennessee for a day of tests driving the latest iteration of CX-9, Mazda's souped-up and sporty-driving crossover utility vehicle.
Looking quite distinctive as dressed in a restyled shell, the CX-9 of 2010 rides on the stretched-wheelbase chassis of a front-wheel-drive (FWD) car and forges a generous passenger compartment with three rows of seats for up to seven riders.
It's equipped 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, the CX-9 tracks through a set of curves with precise control and at times evokes the traits of a sporty car.
Leave it to Mazda, that "Zoom-Zoom" brand from Japan steeped in the production of fun-to-drive cars like the MX-5 Miata roadster and slinky RX-8 coupe, to take a sporty tack on the seemingly mundane concept of a people-hauling five-door crossover wagon.
Our tester CX-9, in top-grade Grand Touring trim, feels spry and athletic in action with all of the engine's power sent to the wheels in front -- the ones which also steer.
This ability of the wheels to both turn and steer the wagon makes it quite agile, and entirely predictable.
The rigid monocoque platform with a long wheelbase of 113 inches fosters the smooth ride quality while a generous wheel track of 65.1 inches in front and 64.7 inches in back bring stability for turning.
Independent suspension components include a front subframe to mount the MacPherson struts with coil springs and a multi-link design in back with one trailing arm and two lateral members for each rear wheel.
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.
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 the 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. Mazda also provides a roll stability control (RSC) system.
Muscle for CX-9 is derived from a forceful V6 engine which displaces 3.7 liters and has a high compression ratio of 10.3:1. The aluminum plant employs electronic throttle control with chain-driven dual overhead camshafts, four valves-per-cylinder and variable intake valve timing.
The V6 develops 273 hp at 6250 rpm with the torque pushed up to 270 lb-ft at 4250 rpm.
Transmission is the impressive Aisin six-speed electronic automatic and it comes with a sport-shift manual mode.
With the six-speed shifter in play, the 2010 CX-9 earns EPA fuel economy scores up to 22 mpg for highway cruising in the FWD edition, or 21 mpg with AWD equipment.
This is really a sizable vehicle in all measures -- the body stretches for 16.68 feet long and 6.35 feet wide by 5.6 feet high.
Yet the package styling, with rippled skin stretched tautly like flexed muscles over the long and broad structure, seems to diminish the big-ness.
The design incorporates handsome curves -- bulbous arched fenders which protrude laterally well beyond a curt roll of the front hood to articulate large low-profile tires 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.
A windswept face houses twin monochromatic creases which flow up from the five-point grille over a crimped nose to corners of the severely canted windshield.
At the tail there's a definite bulge in the top-hinged liftgate to carve out more storage space in the cargo bay, while below a smooth bumper two trapezoid-shaped exhaust pipes carry chrome caps.
Layout of the CX-9 cabin holds three rows of seats and the aft 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 the wagon's cargo capacity.
With the rear bench raised, the bay contains 17.2 cubic feet of stow room. With third bench folded, space expands to 48.3 cubic feet, and with both back rows folded down, the cavernous bay measures to 100.7 cubic feet.
Trims for CX-9 consist of Sport, Touring and Grand Touring, each available in FWD or AWD traction mode.
Stock gear for all models ranges from air conditioning and power controls for windows and door locks and exterior mirrors to a remote keyless entry device, cruise control, variable-speed front wipers plus a rear-window wiper, and Bluetooth phone connectivity for hands-free calling.
CX-9 Touring gains leather seat trim and power controls for front seats, as Grand Touring gets rain-sensing wipers, Blind Spot Monitoring, a push-button starter, simulated wood trim on dash and doors, exterior mirrors with built-in turn indicators, and 20-inch aluminum wheels with 245/50 tires.
Options include a Bose audio system, DVD entertainment kit and DVD navigation with voice commands and touch screen.
Mazda's MSRP figures for 2010 CX-9 models extend from $28,685 for a Sport FWD to $34,045 for the Grand Touring AWD.