Entry Price: $31,520

Price as Tested: $45,645

This week, we’re driving the all-new and impressive 2017 Mazda CX-9, a three row SUV delivered in top class Signature dress. Categorized as a midsize SUV, the CX-9 competes with competitors Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Santa Fe and GMC Acadia to name just a few.

Now in its second generation, the CX-9 debuted in 2006 and went through 2015 in pretty much original form. Built in Hiroshima, Japan, CX-9 puts the “Zoom-Zoom” Mazda is known for into this sometimes inconspicuous looking three row SUV. Not that the CX-9 is homely in any manner, it’s actually a classy looking three row family transporter. Specifically, when considering which midsize SUV to buy, most consumers don’t usually have “sporty handling” as one of the top reasons to buy.

Until, of course, you drive a Mazda CX-9.

Then you realize in addition to more than enough room for a family of five and the dog, CX-9 delivers outstanding handling attributes more so like a sport sedan than a SUV/Crossover. And it’s all wrapped with a brand new motif and a turbocharged engine under the hood.

This new generation design follows Mazda’s “Kodo” vehicle ideology whereas Mazda feels there is a “Soul of Motion” that results in a feeling of oneness between car and driver. The end result is a CX-9 that is shorter in length than the last generation yet offers a longer wheelbase. This new build thus offers a one-two punch of bigger interior dimensions and lighter overall weight, resulting in upping performance and fuel mileage. (Our i-Active AWD equipped Signature is 290 lbs. lighter than the 2015 similar model). This build philosophy combines nicely with Mazda’s Skyactiv vehicle dynamics theory of properly matched suspension, transmission, engine and computerized technology that results in the surprising sure footed handling and spirited performance.

Starting at $31,520 for the entry Sport front-drive, next up is the Touring at $35,970 and then the Grand Touring at $40,470. These three models also offer AWD underpinnings for $1,800 more. If you choose the top flight Signature, they all come with standard with AWD and are near fully loaded for a retail of $44,315.

Under the hood sits the 250-horsepower 2.5-liter turbo four that generates 310 lb. ft. of torque and mates to a six-speed automatic. Fuel mileage is decent as the EPA numbers are 22 city and 28 highway for front-drive models and 20 and 26, respectively, for the AWD CX-9. Expect zero to 60-mph in about 7.1 to 7.6 seconds depending on model choice.

This new generation CX-9 arrived in 2016 and features a motif that follows the progress of its other “CX” SUV siblings, specifically CX-3 (sub-compact) and CX-5 (compact). Outwardly, CX-9 is very pleasing to the eye especially when it receives the Signature edition treatment. Included are 20-inch Falken all-season tires on alloy wheels, large chrome front grille, aluminum roof rails, rain sense wipers, privacy glass, power moonroof and LED lighting everywhere (even in the Signature grille). Our tester came finished in a Machine Grey Metallic paint ($300 extra) that was outstanding and took the vehicle a step closer to “luxurious looking.” Add a $100 cargo mat and $940 delivery and you arrive at the bottom line retail of $45,655.

The CX-9 cabin is also notable, as our Signature tester came standard with many items the entry models list as options. The Nappa leather trimmed seating is noteworthy as are aluminum trim and real Rosewood touches. A fine sounding 12-speaker Bose stereo system with all the modern gadgetry fills the cabin while third row passengers will appreciate the legroom. As for cargo, with the third row seating in the down position there’s more than ample cargo space for usual cargo needs. However, when you drop the second row seats you’ll enjoy more than 70 cu. ft. of space for those important “I need lots of room” home improvement center visits.

An area where selecting the upper class CX-9 models pays dividends is the safety factor. Signature models come standard with high-tech items like radar adaptive cruise control, cross traffic alerts, rear backup sensors, an enhanced safety rear camera, lane departure, lane assist, and crash avoidance smart brake support and smart city brake support. Add all the traction controls, four-wheel ABS disc brakes, stability control, modern airbag system and the Skyactiv body ring structure (like a roll bar built in) and you are traveling in one of the safest SUV crossovers on the road today. Notable is that adaptive cruise and the emergency braking are standard on Grand Touring and Signature trims but not available on the other models.

Important numbers include a wheelbase of 115.3 inches, 4,327 lb. curb weight, 8.8 inch ground clearance, from 14.4 to 71.2 cu. ft. of cargo space, 3,500 lb. towing capacity and a 19.5 gal. fuel tank.

Mazda continues to carve a successful imprint into the business of building fine vehicles. Although Japan’s big three of Toyota, Honda and Nissan all sell more vehicles in the U.S., smaller footprint Mazda continues to strive forward and do it well. In addition to selling one of the most popular sports cars on the road today in the Miata, Mazda continues to impresses enthusiasts with professional open wheel, prototype and Miata class racing efforts, all of which impact sales worldwide.

Currently, Mazda dealers have leftover 2017 CX-9 models on sale and being that the 2018 CX-9 is identical, prudent shoppers can receive some nice incentives. Your Mazda dealer is awaiting your test drive visit to explain more.

Likes: New generation, build ideology, interior fit and finish, great looks.

Dislikes: Entry models don’t offer some high-tech safety features until you get to Grand Touring. Not much else.

— Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now and other Gatehouse Media publications.