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FAMILY RIDE THAT'S A TREAT FOR THE DRIVER

"Crossover utility vehicle" is 21st century newspeak for "station wagon." But behind the wheel of the Mazda CX-9 you may think you're driving a sports sedan - until you glance at the five people sitting behind you. This is a practical family car that is actually sort of fun to drive. Riding in the third-row seat - not so much.

CAR AND DRIVER SAYS: "The CX-9's external size means a spacious interior for the front five passengers, while third-row detainees will beg those in the second to please slide their seat forward. This is done easily enough; the second-row seats have over 5 inches of travel. The seat rails have three positions within those 5 inches. The rearmost allows even 99th percentile testers to fit comfortably in the second row, but leaves no room for anyone much over 5 feet tall in the third seat."

WHAT'S SPECIAL: Yes, the interior is built to haul seven people, but it is designed to fit the driver. The deep center console and dash create a driver-centric cocoon. Adding to the illusion you're in a sports sedan is the car's agility, a product of precise speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion power steering.

WHAT WE LIKE: Even people older than 10 can easily get into the third-row seats.

YOU OUGHTA KNOW: The 263-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission combine to get this family rig up to freeway speeds quite smartly. For slowing down, there are four-wheel disc antilock brakes. There is electronic stability control with rollover control. The CX-9 is available with all-wheel drive.

AND ANOTHER THING: The side-curtain air bags, which cover all three rows, deploy in a rollover crash and stay inflated for six seconds to protect passengers.

About the vehicle

Body style: four-door crossover

Trim lines: Sport, Tour, Grand Touring

Price: Base $29,035-$33,875

Drive: front-wheel, all-wheel

Seating: two in front, three in second row, two in third row

Engine: 3.5-liter V-6

Transmission: six-speed automatic

Miles per gallon: 16 city/22 highway

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