The average American family consists of 3.14 people, according to the most recent U.S. census. The average household: 2.58. So it's a little odd that the market for seven-passenger SUVs is heating up. Americans, it seems, are feeling comfortable enough about the economy that they are once again upsizing.
Later this month, Hyundai will introduce a new three-row version of its Santa Fe, and Ford will soon offer its popular Transit Connect delivery van as a seven-passenger mom-mobile. But Mazda is getting a jump on the competition with a refreshed version of its CX-9.
If family size is a function of wealth, it makes sense that Mazda's largest vehicle is also its most premium and its most expensive, catering to well-educated families making at least $100,000 who can afford to drop at least $30,000 on a car and fists full of cash every time they fill up the tank.
For its sixth model year, the CX-9 is improved with mostly cosmetic and technological improvements. It's powered with the same 3.7-liter V-6 engine that gives it sufficient pull to safely merge into speeding traffic and enough juice to get up hills without overburdening the six-speed automatic transmission. Its profile, however, is more windswept, with a dramatically raked front window.
The interior finish is middle-of-the-road sleek, largely because it's entirely black, and it's hard to go wrong with such a basic. Mazda complements the black leather of its seats with black suede and subtle red stitching.
Technology, however, is where the real wars are waged between competitive vehicles. A new 5.8-inch display screen is now standard on all three versions of the CX-9 and incorporates HD Radio as well as Pandora. Also standard is a Short Message System that, when a smartphone is synced with the car, can receive and send text messages that are displayed on the LCD screen. The same system will also automatically dial 911 if the car's air bags deploy.
One of the most useful safety technologies on the CX-9 is blind-spot monitoring, a feature that is especially helpful for harried moms carting their bickering -- and distracting -- spawn. When using my turn signals to change lanes, the car beeped to let me know if I might be taking off another driver's bumper in the move.
Collapsing the third row with the Grand Touring model is especially easy for parents who long for octopus arms that can wrangle kids as well as groceries. The lift gate automatically opens with the press of a button and the third row easily collapses with a clever system of pull tabs.
The CX-9 is available in front-wheel and all-wheel drive, the latter of which gets slightly worse fuel economy mostly due to the additional weight. The profile of the CX-9 is long, but driving it doesn't feel like a car that can pack seven and also haul 3,500 pounds. It handles like a smaller car.
2013 MAZDA CX-9
BASE PRICE: $29,785
PRICE AS TESTED: $39,605
POWERTRAIN: 3.7 liter, V6, 4 valves per cylinder, DOHC, 6-speed automatic transmission with sport shift
MAXIMUM HORSEPOWER: 273 at 6,250 rpm
MAXIMUM TORQUE: 270 pound-feet at 4,250 rpm
EPA FUEL ECONOMY: 16 city, 22 highway
LENGTH: 200.6 inches
HEIGHT: 68 inches
WIDTH: 76.2 inches
BOTTOM LINE: Seven-passenger vehicle handles like a smaller car.