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Mazda CX-9: Three-row virtuoso

LIke seeing an old friend after a long absence, it was good having Mazda’s CX-9 back in my driveway.

The CX-9 is Mazda’s largest vehicle, a midsize, three-row crossover with all the expected virtues — a comfortable, high-tech cabin, abundant cargo capacity, available all-wheel-drive. 

What distinguishes the CX-9, though, is the best ride and handling package in the class. It’s a big crossover with Mazda’s trademark small-car feel. Underway, it feels taut and sturdy. Steering is sharp and precise. Just-so suspension damping limits body roll without going harsh on city streets. 

Other crossovers may appeal to those who enjoy driving, but only a handful can challenge the CX-9‘s $31,000 cost of entry. 

The big rig looks good, too. A 2013 makeover tamed the excesses of its grinning-grill front facia and left it with a trim, but still distinctive, nose. With 20-inch alloys filling its flared wheel wells, my loaded Grand Touring AWD tester bore a vigorous, youthful air that photos don’t do justice. 

On the inside, the CX-9 is comfortable and spaciousness, though casual cabin storage is limited. Woodgrain and matte-finish metallic trim frame a handsome waterfall instrument panel. Leather wraps the steering wheel and shift knob, and soft-touch materials cover the touch points. 

Hard plastics are attractively textured. Seats are comfortable and well bolstered. The center console houses a large bin, partial compensation for the shortfall of storage opportunities. 

The second-row seat reclines and slides fore and aft to allow easy third-row access. Large rear doors assist ingress and egress.

Simpler access or no, the third row is the kid zone, roomy enough for ‘tweens but in no more that short doses for everyone else. 

The CX-9’s standard audio system includes Bluetooth connectivity, a USB port and Pandora radio compatibility. A 5.8-inch multi-information display debuted last year as standard equipment. A new smartphone-based message system can receive and read text messages out loud. The user can reply using a set of fixed phrases. 

The available TomTom-based, voice-activate navigation system allows consumers to input custom maps as well as regularly update mapping content and software via their home computer.

Powered by a 273-horsepower V-6 mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, the 4,500-pound crossover provides satisfactory acceleration. The gearbox makes quick, clean shifts and in manual-shift mode gives the driver near-complete control.

The available AWD system monitors wheel slippage, steering angle, yaw rate, lateral acceleration and available torque in deciding how much power to send to the rear wheels when the front wheels begin to slip.

One assumes Mazda engineers are working overtime on the next-gen CX-9, which will incorporate the company’s SkyActiv efficiency technology. Doubtless, a new engine and transmission are in the works. As it stands, 2014 front-drive models are rated at 17 mpg city/24 mpg highway/17 mpg combined, AWD models at 16/22/18.

Whenever it comes, the new CX-9 will be welcome in my driveway.

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com

2014 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring AWD

Vehicle base price: $29,985
Trim level base price: $36,625
As tested: $40,005
Optional equipment included navigation, Bose premium audio and moonroof.
EPA rating: 16 city/22 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Mazda3: Fun at 40 mpg

How much fun is there to be had at 40 mpg?
Plenty, as I discovered out on SR 14 last week. Sitting high on the North side of the Columbia River, the sparsely traveled, two-lane road blends river-gorge scenery, winding roads and relaxing stretches of string-straight asphalt.
Though it makes just 155 horsepower, the four-cylinder engine powering my 2014 Mazda3 hatchback was potent enough to easily overtake slower traffic while delivering fuel efficiency numbers in the mid-30s.
Equipped with a 6-speed manual transmission, as my tester was, the 3 earns EPA ratings of 29 mpg city/40 mpg highway and 33 mpg combined. With the optional six-speed automatic — which, by all accounts is a very good one — city mileage improves by 1 mpg.
An optional 2.5-liter four makes 185 hp. It can be matched only with the automatic and is rated at 28/38/32.
Since the 2011 introduction its SkyActiv efficiency initiative, Mazda has been on a mission to prove that thrift and enthusiasm can coexist peacefully.
In the third-generation Mazda3, the dream survives reality. Available in sedan ($17,740, including destination) and five-door hatchback ($19,740) styles, the new 3 is easily the best compact Mazda has ever built, an accomplished little corner-carver with room for four, contemporary cabin tech and available class-leading safety features.
Third-gen suspension updates and a longer wheelbase smooth out rough patches and lend the new 3 a mature, large-car composure. Out in the eastern reaches of the gorge, where the road unkinks and speeds escalate, we flew through fast sweepers with minimal body lean and a reassuring feel of connectedness. 
The 3’s front seats are revised this year for greater thigh and lower-back support. Bolsters kept me in place when the g forces grew. Assorted seat-height and steering-column controls allowed me to tweak my driving position as the mood struck.
Sight lines are very good in all directions, no small feat in a small hatchback.
The newly revised electrically assisted steering system felt settled and responsive under hand, with no hint of twitchiness. On-center feel is very good, but little road feel makes its way to the driver’s hands.
The 3’s all-new chassis makes liberal use of high-strength steel to cut weight by an average of 100 pounds per model and increase body rigidity by 30 percent.
With its long hood, upright A pillars and setback cabin, the hatchback’s proportions recall BMW’s turn-of-the-century Z m coupe, but with better lines. Overall length is down a bit on both body styles, but new seats and better packaging boost livability. Four six-footers can seat themselves comfortably.
The redesigned cabin is dressed up in high-quality materials and the driver-centric dashboard puts controls within easy reach. A new generation of lightweight insulation cuts cabin noise substantially.
With its redundant controls, Mazda’s Connect infotainment/navigation system is one of the easiest of its kind to operate. The dash-mounted 7-inch display sits high, where it’s easily seen at a glance. 
As a practical matter, probing the 3’s deep reserves makes a fiction of its EPA ratings fiction. Still, the fun remains affordable.
Contact Don Adair at don@dadair.com.
2014 Mazda3 5-door Grand Touring
Vehicle base price: 
Trim level base price: $23,245
As tested: $24,635
Optional equipment included Soul Red metallic paint; rear bumper guard; scuff plates/door sill trim plates.
EPA ratings: 29 city/40 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified