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Roseville, Calif. – The V6 engine is gone and the horsepower has been reduced, which leaves one wondering just what the heck Mazda was thinking when it put together the redesigned CX-9 sport utility vehicle that’s supposed to be a family hauler.

Well, apparently the Mazda braintrust was thinking very clearly. After one week of driving the 2016 Mazda CX-9, we became pretty big fans. The turbocharged four-cylinder not only delivers enough performance, it also has significantly increased the fuel efficiency in comparison to the old V6 model.

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Mazda’s most expensive and largest SUV remains a midsize crossover that has three-rows and can transport seven people (many rivals carry eight). It also retains its reputation for being the most athletic and fun to drive model in its class, which includes heavy hitters in the Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer and Toyota Highlander.

Introduced in 2007 along with the CX-7, 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 sport utility vehicles in its class.

 Mazda CX-9

* Performance: turbocharged 2.4-liter, four-cylinder, 227 horsepower
* Mileage estimate: 21-28 mpg   
* Estimated Price: $31,520 to $44,015
* Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles; drivetrain: 5 years/60,000 miles; roadside assistance: 3 years/36,000; corrosion: 5 years/unlimited

The latest version of the CX-9 is lighter and has sharper styling that includes a sleek roofline and angular front grille. The interior is much improved with higher end materials, and the vehicle comes equipped with more safety features.

We’re still no fan of the third-row seating. But if forced to reside in the CX-9’s third row, it’s better than some competitors. Adults won’t feel too uncomfortable for short-term trips, yet any sizable journey probably won’t cut it.

There’s only one engine, but it’s a good one, a turbocharged 2.5-liter, four-cylinder that generates 227 horsepower and 310 pounds-feet of torque. Utilizing premium 93-octane gas, the horsepower will reportedly climb to 250. When properly equipped, the CX-9 can tow up to 3,500 pounds.

Mazda has earned a reputation for producing vehicles that are fun to drive. It’s a stretch to assume a midsize SUV will have a fun factor, but the CX-9 has good performance and the ride quality is smooth and makes the driving easy. It has a refined feel and there’s very little noise.

Previous CX-9 models were lacking of any interior sophistication. However, that has been addressed in the redesign that was thoughtfully done. It’s nice to see that Mazda’s Connect infotainment system has a display that matches the eye of the driver and is also intuitive to operate.

On the comfort side, the seating is spacious and relaxing for both front and second row occupants. Note that the second row is a bench and there is no optional captain’s chairs. But the standard three-zone automatic climate control is a nice touch that second-row passengers can monitor. The storage remains a bit small at 14.4 cubic feet. With the rear seats folded, the space grows to 38.2 cubic feet.

If the goal is purchasing a three-row SUV that has a pleasing overall ride and good performance, the Mazda CX-9 is the best of the bunch. But it doesn’t haul eight people like most of the completion and the base price is a little steeper.

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