Not winning the space race. You can forgive the CX-9 for not being the biggest seven-seater on the market when you consider two things. To begin with, this is Mazda’s largest ever car, so a degree of trial-and-error is only to be expected. Secondly, as we explain below, its swoopy body is attractive but hardly optimized for third-row adults. The Toyota Sequoia offers far more space, albeit at the expense of looking decidedly ungainly. There are no such pseudo-truck pretensions with this svelte SUV.

Inside, front-row occupants are impressively catered for, with firmly-bolstered seats including heated and cooled leather on higher trims. The reclining middle bench isn’t too bad either, but accessing the third row is almost as claustrophobic as actually sitting in it. Don’t think you’ll fit much in the back, either; at 14.4 cu ft behind the third-row seats, it’s pretty cramped.

Quality permeates everything. Wherever you sit in the CX-9’s cabin, it’s clear that this is a quality product. Mazda has spent over a century refining its build quality to meticulous levels, and you’ll look long and hard for rattles or squeaks. Everything has symmetrical fit lines, soft-touch fabrics, and that intangible yet appealing sense of quality – the kind Volkswagen used to deliver before they took their eye off the ball.

Assuming you avoid the third-row seats, the CX-9 is a pleasant place to be. The dashboard is minimalist and practical, with upper trims sporting soft leather and wooden trim. It looks tasteful and elegant from the outside as well, with an assertive front grille and Mercedes-style sloping rear. There’s a fluidity to the design even at a standstill, evoking design elements from smaller models like the Mazda3 and CX-5. Indeed, it’s high praise to say that this lithe SUV doesn’t really look like a seven-seater from any angle, despite its high second-row doors and roofline. Mazda also offers some outstanding paint colors, which lift the shape even further.

Drives like a car. It’s impressive that the CX-9 doesn’t look like a seven-seat SUV, and it doesn’t drive like one, either. Mazdas generally offer an involving drive nowadays, and the responsive, communicative steering found on smaller models has percolated into the CX-9. It’s genuinely fun to hustle this car through a sweeping series of bends, and it won’t punish your spine, either. The ride is comfortable and composed, avoiding vertical bounce particularly well, while standard all-wheel drive ensures impressive grip. We’d recommend sticking with the smaller 18-inch wheels since the alternative is 20s, which stiffens the ride and generate more road noise without significantly improving the already impressive road-holding. Gas mileage of 20 MPG city and 26 highway is unremarkable but acceptable.

This car’s Achilles heel is the fairly lackluster performance delivered by a 2.5-liter turbocharged gas engine that feels like it generates less than 227 horsepower. There’s a degree of turbo lag; the six-speed automatic transmission is smooth but perhaps a gear short of being optimal; performance is relaxed rather than engaging. Passengers will probably thank you for a slow and steady journey, but you’ll struggle to make swift progress once you’re seven-up.

Packing a technological punch. Considering even the flagship model costs less than $50,000 and entry-level models can be yours for around $35,000, the CX-9 is impressively equipped. Our preferred Sport trim has a power-heated driver’s seat, a 10.3-inch smartphone-compatible infotainment system powered by a BMW iDrive-style control knob, and a keyless start. Touring has a 12-speaker Bose audio, wireless smartphone charging, and power for everything from the sunroof to the tailgate. However, the greatest luxuries are saved for flagship Signature trim – a panoramic sunroof, Nappa leather, and wooden trim are among its highlights.

Whichever CX-9 you choose, safety is outstanding. As well as all-wheel drive, standard features include blind-spot monitoring, adaptive radar-guided cruise control, and active lane control. The CX-9 scored five stars overall in NHTSA testing, while the IIHS gave every model a Top Safety Pick+ rating. There are few safer ways to transport half a dozen passengers.

Final thoughts. If you want to transport a large family around without advertising the fact, the CX-9 is a stylish SUV that looks good at rest or in motion. It’s impressively equipped and extremely safe, good to drive or be driven in, and assembled with bombproof build quality across both the cabin and mechanicals.

On the flipside, lethargic performance and cramped third-row seats might be major drawbacks for keen drivers or extended families. At least everyone will travel in comfort, even if takes them a bit longer than normal to reach their destination.

Check prices for the 2022 Mazda CX-9 »