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Lumped into the generous offerings of large sport utility vehicles, the initial thought here regarding the 2012 Mazda CX-9 is why does it get categorized in this segment? Frankly, it doesn’t seem that large.

The CX-9 has gained appeal over the years because it’s always been considered refined, stylist, and from this vantage point, never as luminous in appearance as some other models in its class.

However, with that said, a further look into the CX-9 reveals it does belong in the large SUV class as a legitimate seven-seat passenger vehicle.

Third-row seating is always a not-so-appealing place to sit for anyone other than kids. Who wants to be there – Nobody! But if forced to reside in the CX-9’s third row, it’s better than many competitors. Adults won’t feel uncomfortable for short-term trips, yet any sizable journey probably won’t cut it.

More positive news regarding the CX-9’s third-row seating is that entry and exit are not a struggle, thanks to the large openings for the rear doors and a second row that slides up with ease. Note that seating in the CX-9 is above average in the front and second row. And the second row conveniently reclines, so comfort is not a concern.

In regards to cargo space, when the third row is folded down there’s ample room for storage – ranking among the highest in this segment. However, when the second row of the CX-9 is folded down it gets raised slightly, which can be annoying when carrying large items. The good news is it creates 101 cubic feet of cargo space.

Mazda introduced both the five-seat CX-7 and its larger brother, the CX-9, in 2007. There have been no significant changes for either since a 2010 redesign.

Most drivers will have no problem with the performance of the CX-9, which comes in three trims – Sport, Touring and Grand Touring. All three have a choice of front-wheel or all-wheel drive. The CX-9’s only powertrain is a high performing 3.7-liter, V6 that produces 273 horsepower and goes 0-60 mph in 7.4 seconds. That’s pretty good acceleration for an SUV that can still tow up to 3,500 pounds.

It’s mostly good news in the driving impression department. The CX-9 handles with agility and feels like a midsize SUV, providing good steering and the ability to handle corners adroitly. Yet it doesn’t offer a smooth ride over bumpy road surfaces when the ride can get choppy.

The CX-9 could use a redesign for 2013, but thanks to its appealing looks, driving acumen, and passenger and cargo capability, it remains a good buy for 2012.

2012 Mazda CX-9

Performance: 3.7-liter, V6, 273 horsepower
Mileage estimate: 16-22 mpg
Price: $29,725-$34,785

Standard features include: three-zone automatic climate control; leather-wrapped tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel; six-speaker sound system, CD player, auxiliary audio jack, Bluetooth; stability control with a rollover sensor; automatic headlights; heated mirrors

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