As an enthusiast, unless it’s unquestionably special, I loathe large crossover SUV. They’re like SUVs, but without the rugged off-road ability. They’re like cars, without the driving dynamics and efficiency. They’re little more than thinly-veiled minivans. But at least a minivan is honest. Crossovers SUVs are the lies we tell ourselves so we can feel cool while driving the family around. Yet despite my general distaste for the bland, compromised crossover, I’m behind the wheel of one and I’m having a blast. Somehow, Mazda managed to create a big, three-row family car that’s fun to drive.

Mazda’s flagship CX-9 has been around for 10 years now, but for 2016 it has been completely redone. Gone is the old model, based on the same platform as the Ford Edge and with the same Ford V6 — the last vestiges Ford’s ownership of Mazda’s — and in its place a Mazda platform and a 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, pumping out 250 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque. The CX-9 also benefits from Mazda’s current “Kodo” design language, and looks incredibly sharp, with its aggressive, forward-slanted maw and clean lines.

The interior, equally, is superbly executed. In top “signature” trim, the CX-9 comes swathed in supple, tobacco-colored Nappa leather trimmed with bits of aluminum and porous rosewood ( the same kind FujiGen Guitars use). It’s a wonderful place to be, with a level of comfort and finish that is on par with luxury counterparts from Infiniti, BMW and Lexus. The touchscreen navigation is intuitive and easy to use (though Apple CarPlay and Android Auto would be welcome additions), and a Bose audio system delivers an above-average listening experience.

2016 Mazda CX-9
Engine: Skyactiv 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Horsepower: 250 @ 5,000 rpm
Torque: 310 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm
Drivetrain: front-wheel-drive; all-wheel-drive
Price: $45,215 (as tested)

But it’s the way the CX-9 drives that sets it apart. Flip the drive setting to “sport,” find a good road, and you’ll feel the CX-9 is sharper than any car its size and price has any right to be, but provides a firm-yet-smooth ride. On twisty backroads it’s tight and composed, with very little body roll — normally with SUVs this size you’d expect it to lumber around — and the electric steering system feels precise while requiring just the right amount of heft to turn. And while the car’s claimed 0–60 mph time of 7.2 seconds isn’t exactly brisk, it feels far quicker than it is, given you get the entirety of the engine’s grunt way down in the rev-range.

To quote my colleague Hayden Coplen in his review of the Mercedes-Benz GLS63 AMG, “If you’re a family man, somewhere out there is the car that you want, and elsewhere — probably in your garage — the car that you ‘should’ want.” He’s right, but his remedy to this conundrum is a gargantuan, gas-guzzling $124,000 Mercedes — that’s pretty out of grasp for the average family. But the answer doesn’t need to just be the GLS, or any other uber-luxe, over-tuned and ultra-expensive SUV. Mazda’s CX-9 is a modest alternative for the enthusiast family man.

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