Paul A. Eisenstein: Mazda CX-9 a minivan alternative

Paul A. Eisenstein

When it comes to basic functionality, it’s hard to beat the classic minivan. But if you’re looking for something a bit more stylish and fun to drive, better figure on sacrificing space or utility. Until now, anyway.

The 2010 Mazda CX-9 is a seven-passenger crossover that’s likely to change your mind. It’s functional, fuel-efficient and surprisingly nimble – but it doesn’t scream “soccer mom,” even if you do use it to hustle your kids to practice after school.

Mazda has a history of doing things its own way, and the CX-9 is a great example, with a distinctive exterior design that is unusually appealing for something this size. It’s a pleasant contrast to the bulky full-sized sport-utility vehicles that, until recently, offered the only alternative for buyers who needed lots of space but couldn’t stomach a minivan.

The CX-9 went through a modest mid-cycle update for 2010, with the exterior lines freshened and some updating done to the interior. Particularly appealing is the surprisingly large and well-appointed cabin, which can now be ordered with a navigation system offering real-time traffic advisories. The three-row seating configuration has room for seven, though headroom is in slightly short supply for the back row. The good news is that it’s easy to get to any seat thanks to an easy-latch access system.

You do sacrifice the sliding doors that are one of the most appealing features of a traditional minivan, but the Mazda crossover does offer a power lift gate that makes it easy to handle cargo – something families always seem to have a lot of. And the CX-9 can hold plenty of it, with a total of about 100 cubic feet of space when the second and third rows are folded flat.

Mazda developed the CX-9 in cooperation with its American affiliate, Ford. The underlying platform is shared with the American maker’s five-passenger Edge crossover. Mazda has not only made more efficient use of the package but delivered a more nimble, fun-to-drive alternative.

Under the hood is a peppy V6 that makes a more than sufficient 273 horsepower. (Not all that long ago, that number would have put it into the muscle car category.)

The CX-9 carries a base price of $29,355 in front-drive Sport trim, and climbs to $34,795 with the all-wheel-drive Grand Touring package, which has pretty much everything possible built in.

For those looking for minivan flexibility in a more intriguing package, this is clearly something to consider.

Paul A. Eisenstein is an award-winning journalist who has spent more than 30 years covering the global auto industry. His work appears in a wide range of publications worldwide, and he is a frequent broadcast commentator on subjects automotive.

2010 Mazda CX-9

Miles per gallon: 16 city/22 highway for front-drive package, 15/21 with all-wheel-drive

Engine options: 3.7-liter V6, 273 horsepower

Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $29,355

Cost fully loaded: $38,000 (est.)