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2017 All-Stars Contender: Mazda CX-9

A zoom-zoom with room is a solid SUV option

In our first drive of the all-new 2016 Mazda CX-9, we concluded, "While Mazda will have a tough job ahead of it turning the heads of customers shopping for luxury vehicles in the three-row crossover segment, it's now not out of the realm for them to seriously consider the CX-9 as a viable option."

Given that bold proclamation, we had no choice but to invite Mazda's second-generation three-row crossover to our All-Stars shootout.

The first generation's V-6 is gone, its place taken by a 2.5-liter turbo-four good for 227 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque, which is mated to a six-speed automatic that sends power to all four wheels.

Mazda sent us a range-topping CX-9 Signature, which includes every luxury and tech feature the Japanese automaker has to offer. Active cruise control? Check. Rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keep assist, and blind-spot monitoring? Check. Nappa leather-trimmed upholstery? Check.

Despite the upmarket move, our judges felt the second-generation CX-9 was still a Mazda at heart.

"From throttle tip-in to steering response, it's quite the athlete — most responsive — and drives smaller than it looks," said contributor Ronald Ahrens.

"The four-banger surprised me, with plenty of pep for a big people mover, even at 8,500 feet," mused contributor Nelson Ireson, who also chimed in on the interior, which he found "both handsome and surprisingly premium, with spacious second and third-row seats — spacious enough, even, for my 6-foot-2-inch frame to ride comfortably."

Sounds like the recipe for an AUTOMOBILE All-Star, but you'll have to come back on March 11 to find out if the CX-9 will make the cut.

2016 Mazda CX-9 Signature Specifications

PRICE $44,915/$45,215 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 2.5L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4
227-hp @ 5,000 rpm, 310 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 7-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 21/27 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 199.4 x 77.2 x 67.6 in
WHEELBASE 115.3 in
WEIGHT 4,301 lb
0-60 MPH 7.4 sec