If there's one automaker that literally thinks outside the box, it's Mazda.
All Mazda crossovers follow the company's Kodo "Soul of Motion" design language, which makes them look like works of modern art. Indeed, they are the opposite of boxy.
Or, as the car-maker says: "A car isn't simply a mass of metal. Mazda believes it's more like a living creature. Creating an emotional bond between a driver and his car is comparable with the relationship between horse and rider."
So, let's saddle up in this week's tester: A 2018 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring model with all-wheel-drive and an MSRP of $43,905. Pricing for the CX-9 starts at $32,130 for a Sport trim model, $34,960 for a Touring model and $40,470 for a Grand Touring model such as our tester.
Mazdas are available locally at Tim Short Mazda on International Drive. Late this week, the dealership had seven 2018 models in digital inventory. Some stores have 2017s still in stock. Updates for 2018 are limited to some added safety-tech features on the basic model, a couple of mechanical tweaks and the addition of a gorgeous Soul Red Crystal metallic paint color to the line.
-Model: 2018 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring AWD
-Exterior color: Soul Red Crystal Metallic
-Interior color: Sand
-Engine: 2.5-liter, four-cylinder turbo
-Horsepower: 227 horsepower
-Transmission: six-speed automatic
-Fuel economy: 26 mpg highway, 20 mpg city
-Local Dealer: Tim Short Mazda, International Drive
-Price (as tested): $43,905
At base, the CX-9 is one of the most posh, three-row SUVs on the road. Mazda offers only one engine option on the CX-9, a stout, 227- horsepower, four-cylinder engine that excels at producing torque (310 pound-feet) and highway fuel economy (26 mpg).
The CX-9 competes in the hot midsize SUV segment alongside such stalwarts as the Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot. It seats seven, although passengers No. 6 and No. 7 need to be on the small side to fit in the third row.
STYLING AND FEATURES
Since it was introduced as a 2016 model, the CX-9 has been our favorite mass-market family SUV. There's something about the flowing design that makes it look classy. To be fair, some may think the prominent grille treatment looks a bit like a bird's beak.
With a long hood, side panels designed from molded clay and a rounded derriere, the CX-9 has elegant lines that trump some luxury models. Inside, the story is much the same, with a tasteful layout and high-quality materials. The leather seats hug your body and the dials and switches don't have the confounding complexity common in some of today's new vehicles.
Rarely has one paint color come to dominate a fleet the way Mazda's Soul Red hue has stormed into its showrooms. Its deep luster and light-bending metallic flecks, have a way of showcasing all Mazdas models in their best light. Our tester seemed to attract admiring glances everywhere we went.
Standard features on our Grand Touring model include 20-inch alloy wheels, power moon-roof, leather upholstery, heated front- and second-row seats, heated steering wheel, LED headlights, navigation and power lift-gate. The only notable option on our tester is a $595 upcharge for the special red paint, which is totally worth the money.
We got to test drive the CX-9 on icy Chattanooga-area roads, and the optional all-wheel-drive system was confidence-inspiring. The AWD feature is a worthwhile $1,800 upgrade, available on every trim level.
When Mazda chucked the V-6 in the previous-generation CX-9 it gambled that buyers would appreciate the added fuel economy of the turbocharged, four-cylinder replacement engine. No worries, though, the new power-plant is extremely potent, making a remarkable 310 pound-feet of torque.
We didn't test the acceleration due to the aforementioned icy roads, but in previous test drives we have noted the brute strength of this powerplant. We reconfirmed how incredibly quiet the CX-9 remains while cruising down Highway 127 on our commute to work. Typically, four-cylinder engines strain to carry this much weight (more than two tons), but the 2.5-liter turbo in the CX-9 does not feel taxed, at all.
Steering is Mazda-sharp, which means best in class. Body roll is nicely dampened and the suspension is firm, not spongy. For those who have avoided SUVs because of their sometimes soul-crushing driving dynamics, the CX-9 at least has a little flavor.
The CX-9 has all the safety-tech systems you would expect at this price point, but our 2018 model had not yet been safety tested by the government.
The CX-9 proves that beauty and handling don't have to be surrendered when you purchase an SUV. To the contrary, its elegant styling and energetic turbo-charged engine make driving to work in the morning a pleasure.
Contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.