Just a few days into our evaluation of Mazda's lightly refreshed 2010 CX-9 crossover, we found ourselves in a bit of a conundrum. Crossovers, modern convention dictates, are boring contraptions designed for rugrat-hauling utility. The CX-9 is a driver-focused fun machine. What's going on here?

Even if they're unquestionably better for the average pavement-only driver than off road-oriented body-on-frame SUV dinosaurs, crossovers generally deliver competence with minimal joy. They possess neither the ungainly on-road ride and handling nor the ruggedly adventurous aura of SUVs, meaning they sit somewhere in the middle of the realm.

Not so the CX-9, as we learned after a series of samplings.

What is it?
Designed to haul a family and their luggage in comfort, the CX-9 is aimed right at the heart of middle America. More than just marketing babble, Mazda's Zoom-Zoom mantra was built into the CX-9 from the start, even if it shares its platform with the milquetoast Ford Edge.

For 2010, Mazda polished the CX-9's smiling front fascia, gave it a new steering wheel, upped the audio system's sophistication level, added in active head restraints (which we did not test) and slapped in the most aromatic and buttery smooth leather this side of Overland Outfitters.

Our test photo vehicle was a mid-level CX-9 touring with the optional moonroof and the basic front-wheel-drive setup. We recently sampled - but did not photograph - a similarly-optioned all-wheel-drive CX-9 over an extensive 1,000 mile drive.

What's it up against?
With its seven-seat capacity, the CX-9 targets the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, Chevrolet Traverse (and its GMC and Buick corporate cousins) and Subaru Tribeca.

The aforementioned Ford Edge platform mate offers seating for just five in its bug-like shape.

Any breakthroughs?
The CX-9 breaks little ground, but it does offer impressive value for the money. Its new-for-2009 audio system combines one of the most pleasant and easy-to-use interfaces with streaming Bluetooth audio functionality. Fire up Pandora Radio!

How does it look?
The CX-9's light styling update won't divide crowds quite like the smaller Mazda3 sibling. Former Mazda designer Laurens van den Acker's grinning Cheshire cat theme gave the revised CX-9 a tasteful matte silver band around the lower grille, which is flanked by a pair of black plastic cutouts that scream "I didn't pony up the cash for fog lamps!"

Otherwise, things are much as they were at the CX-9's 2007 launch. In profile, the snout is a bit long and the rearmost side windows are a bit short, but otherwise the CX-9's proportions are spot-on. It's a generally conservative overall design, though extensive silver detail trim and restrained black plastic lower panels manage to balance a modern city-oriented look with a touch of traditional SUV ruggedness. Though not striking in a "move the couch into the garage to stare at the new car" sort of way, the CX-9 is nonetheless one of the most pleasantly styled crossovers on the market.

Our tester's 18-inch multi-spoke alloy wheels came wrapped in road-oriented Bridgestone Dueler H/L rubber, but even those hefty wheels looked a bit small in the large wheel openings.

Smart touches included a nice optional aluminum scuff plate festooned to the rear bumper, as well as doors that opened all the way to the bottom to help prevent soiled legs during the winter driving season.

Our tester was swathed in Mazda's new Dolphin Grey shade, which looks like no delphinidae we've ever encountered, but nonetheless fits the crosover rather nicely.

And on the inside?
Buttery smooth leather with a tickle-the-senses aroma to match; even if the CX-9 featured an interior design cribbed from Lada or Yugo, we'd be content just sitting in it. For the new model year, Mazda took the liberty to select some of the finest leather we've seen in anything but a hand-crafted luxury car and then stitched it inside of a people mover for the masses. It's first impressions like this - the whiff of something special - that help sell cars and we applaud Mazda for understanding the allure of luxury.

Lucky for the CX-9, the crossover doesn't use its newfound leather to compensate for poor design. Start with a sporty driving position, add in a thick and grippy steering wheel and a convenient, ergonomically-efficient control setup and you'll end up with a winner every time.

The CX-9 shares much in terms of its basic appearance with the rest of the Mazda lineup. We like the deeply recessed gauges and the steering wheel, which is shared with the Mazda3, but we were blown away by the audio system. A full-color LCD screen offers up detailed song information in an easy-to-read format, Bluetooth setup is as easy as it gets and we appreciated the small backup camera integrated into the display - it's standard on the Touring trim level. For a non-navigation setup, this audio system head unit might be the new class benchmark, even if the optional Bose speakers provide so-so sound quality.

Materials selection bests Toyota and Honda by a reasonably wide margin; soft-touch plastics with good quality grain are only let down by the borderline chintzy piano black accents. There's something less-than-rich about glossy plastic masquerading as deeply lacquered real wood - and the finish already showed light abrasions on our low-mile testers.

The front seats, both power adjusted in the Touring trim level, proved comfortable over a week long road trip, and although we spent limited time in the rearmost jumpseats - which are best reserved for the kiddos - the second row was a comfortable coach plus affair.

Our kvetches are mostly minor issues: The keyless access system needs a lock button on the outside of the tailgate and pressing a separate button on the climate control panel to check the outside temperature is a little archaic.

But does it go?
Underneath the revised look and spiced up interior, the CX-9 is essentially a carryover from the 2009 model. The 3.7-liter V6 was co-developed with Ford, so it also sees duty in the Mazda6, Lincoln MKS and MKT and will soon power the entry-level Ford Mustang. Hooked up to a particularly smooth-shifting six-speed automatic, the torquey CX-9 never felt underpowered in our testing. Officially, Mazda rates it at 273 horsepower peaking at a high 6,250 rpm and 270 lb-ft. of torque at an also hefty 4,250, but both power curves are very flat and linear, which helped propel the CX-9 quickly off the line and aided in highway passing.

Our front-wheel-drive tester exhibited an occasionally nervous feel in corners, but the all-wheel-drive one we sampled on curvy roads at high altitude remained surefooted at all times on varied pavement. The front-wheeler might be an acceptable budget-buster, but we think the The CX-9 settled nicely into corners in an almost track-tuned way; in our testing, this crossover handled better than many so-called sports sedans. Steering feel was decidedly sports car-esque, transmitting more of what the front wheels are doing than in any crossover this side of a BMW X5. Resistance definitely tended toward the heavy, which will probably turn off as many buyers as it will excite.

If there's any place the sportiness could be toned down, it's in the firm ride. Although well-controlled and predicatble, the CX-9 doesn't let you forget that you're on a rough road in the way that the softly-sprung Traverse does. We like that taut feel, but we also didn't sample the CX-9 on the chewed up roads of the Midwest or Northeast. It certainly helps set the CX-9 apart from its rivals - and that's a good thing.

Fuel economy is perhaps the only inarguable demerit. We measured as much as 21 mpg on a long highway run in the all-wheel-drive model but saw that number drop closer to 17 mpg in mostly city driving, neither of which is impressive for a crossover. Properly equipped, a CX-9 can tow 3,500 lbs., but neither of our test vehicles included the towing package.

Why you would buy it:
Just because your family portrait shows a few little ones doesn't mean you need to give up the ability to enjoy your time behind the wheel.
Why you wouldn't:
The CX-9's rivals have put you in a state of complacency with utter mediocrity.

Leftlane's bottom line
It won't replace the sports car you had to give up to haul the family around, but it sure does try. The Mazda CX-9 injects a serious dose of fun into a segment otherwise filled with dullards.

At around $35,000 for a decently-equipped all-wheel-drive CX-9, it's a screaming deal for an all-season family hauler that won't upset the enthusiast in your household.

2010 Mazda CX-9 Touring FWD base price, $30,555. As tested, $34,327.
Rear bumper step plate, $150; Power liftgate package, $617; Moonroof/Bose package, $2,255; Destination, $750.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.