The inimitable Mazda has worked hard to cultivate a solid reputation for its offerings, though - like Subaru - it's had to struggle as a little brother compared to Japanese biggies like Toyota, Nissan and Honda.And while the bulk of Mazda's creations fall into the smaller-sized end of the spectrum - the super-long-lasting MX-5 Miata, the small but cool Mazda2 and even the newish CX-5 crossover - there's also the CX-9.CX-9, which has been on the market since 2007, is in fact so large that it seems like two CX-5s stuck together. You might be able to park a Mazda2 in the back. But if you're looking for both full-family comfort and a modicum of Mazda's sporty heritage - that Zoom-Zoom they keep talking about - CX-9 is a much more car-like, ground-centered offering than one of those domestic SUV galoots.In fact, even getting into the CX-9 is easy. No leaping, clambering or crawling involved. And second-row passengers get so much leg room (the 60/40 split seats slide an obscenely long distance, giving you up to 39.8 inches) that you'll never look at a regular car again.You can also have a reasonably good time driving the car. Power is provided by a naturally aspirated 24-valve 3.7-liter V6 and that's good for a decent whallop of 273 horsepower and 270 lb.-ft. of torque. Even with optional all-wheel drive, the CX-9 is still rated for 22 highway mpg, meaning it's not bad, considering the size and scope of the vehicle.If you upgrade to the top-of-the-heap Grand Touring model, you can also roll around on some impressive 20-inch alloy wheels that look like they were forged out of Katana swords, giving the car an even grander look.I set out to see if the Zoom-Zoom business was true or horse-hockey and, believe it or not, the CX-9 still has a reasonably playful character, despite its size. You can customize your gear changes using a fast-acting six-speed automatic sequential shifter - car racers always like to note that the up-and-down nature of the Mazda's shifting is more natural than most automobiles.And being lower to the ground than many of its competitors means it doesn't toss around like an old pirate ship when you're rambling along at Interstate speed.The leather seats even come with suede inserts to hold you and the family's bottoms in place when you head out auto-crossing on the weekend. As I'm sure you will do.Two dedicated, fold-flat third-row seats do provide extra room for smaller passengers; alternately, the CX-9 offers 100.7 cubic feet when you flatten all the seats, so the most ambitious of Costco trips will be no problem.I mostly marveled to the absolutely gigantic porthole windows in the third row - some crossover SUVs seem like they've set out to make things claustrophobic for rear passengers, but Mazda seems to have been very generous.Mazda's 2013 makeover for the CX-9 has given the car a considerably more aggressive look - a nose that's so angular and headlamps that are flattened enough to make them seem like they came off the RX-8 sports car - plus a new black plastic grille and fog lamps like giant eyeballs.Tail lamps also wrap around the body and ... when you look at it, the car's now got the detail points to make you think you're looking at an Acura MDX or even a Volvo XC60, which is quite the accomplishment for little ol' Mazda.The inside details have also received some new attention, though the predominant theme here is definitely black on black. My tester had some dramatic vertical slashes of wood-colored trim to help offset that blackness, plus a small dose of aluminum-colored plastic to brighten things up a bit.The deep-set instruments also get the aluminum-esque treatment and have been updated with blockier, easier-to-read numbers.Somewhat problematic is a super-gigantic center console that's extraordinarily tall and wide - not quite like a Porsche Panamera's, but getting there - though it does provide full second-row heating and cooling, as a result.
Mountain Wheels: Mazda's improved CX-9 goes big on space & style
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