The best midsize crossovers for 2009

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Crossovers drive like a car but play like a truck.

No wonder their popularity is soaring.

We combed through 2009's growing number of crossover utility vehicles, or CUVs as they're now being called, to find three standouts: the Chevrolet Traverse, Mazda CX-9 and Nissan Murano.

Crossovers borrow most of their structural and mechanical components from cars, not trucks. That's why they're lighter and more nimble than traditional truck-based SUVs, get better gas mileage and have standard front-wheel rather than rear-wheel drive.

They're a hip alternative to minivans and offer a sophisticated level of standard equipment, especially safety features, including traction and stability control, antilock brakes and lots of airbags to protect passengers in side-impact and rollover accidents.

Chevrolet Traverse

This is the Queen Mary of crossovers, offering three rows of seating for seven or eight passengers, and nobody will be complaining about legroom in this 17-foot-long mini-limo.

While Chevy claims best-in-class fuel economy, you can't expect miracles from a family hauler like this. It uses a little less gas than most truck-based SUVs, but a little more than the typical minivan, averaging 16 miles per gallon in the city, 23 m.p.g. on the highway.

Apart from its cavernous interior, what Traverse has going for it is a well-controlled ride and fairly direct steering and handling.
The interior quality is about what you'd expect for a ride costing more than $30,000, although some plastic parts and switches could be -- and should be -- better.

The standard 3.6-liter V6 is a gutsy engine with 281 horsepower that's able to spin the front wheels if given a chance, thus our preference of all-wheel drive for the Traverse. Its LT1 trim package contains most of what you need, and in all-wheel-drive form costs a reasonable $33,545.

The options we'd at least consider: the pricey $2,355 rear-seat entertainment system and, if you don't need seating for eight, the $455 7-seat option that provides two sweet captain's chairs in the second row. We'd pass on the $2,355 upgraded stereo and navigation system. If you need it, you can buy a seriously capable aftermarket navigation unit for a fraction of that price.

Mazda CX-7

If you're after a midsize crossover with more sports-sedan than minivan genes, Mazda's CX-7 is the best choice.

Its sleek, European-inspired exterior, 18-inch alloy wheels, dual stainless-steel exhaust tips and edgy-yet-functional interior give away the CX-7's true calling.

Even its 2.3-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission are tuned for sport. Turbo "lag" keeps the 244-h.p. Mazda from rocketing off the line, but once the engine spools up, the SUV turns into a veritable sports car.

Handling and braking are so decidedly impressive as to be uncharacteristic for almost any crossover of any size -- even the much more expensive "premium" compact CUVs.

Of course, you pay for this performance and rakish good looks in a couple of ways.

The CX-7 has only two rows of seats that will fit just five and half the cargo room of the Traverse.

It also gets 17 m.p.g. city/24 m.p.g. highway with front-wheel drive and 16 m.p.g. city/22 m.p.g. highway with all-wheel drive -- barely better than the much larger Traverse.

For 2009, Mazda offers three CX-7 models: Sport, Touring and Grand Touring.

We think the best utility and value come from the all-wheel-drive Touring model that costs $28,150 and includes leather upholstery, an 8-way power seat for the driver with lumbar support and heated front seats. What else do you need?

There's an incredibly dear technology package that lives up to its name, but we'd never pay the $4,485 asking price.

Nissan Murano

When Nissan launched the Murano six years ago, it defined what a midsize crossover should be, becoming the benchmark for styling and performance.

Based on the responsive underpinnings of the Nissan Altima, the redesigned 2009 Murano continues to be the best all-around midsize crossover.

It comes in three trim levels -- S, SL and LE -- with front- and all-wheel drive, and a 3.5-liter, 265-h.p. V6 that makes this the most powerful of our three favorites.

Yet the Murano's ridiculously smooth continuously variable automatic transmission -- no gears, just seamless acceleration -- helps to deliver top-drawer fuel economy, posting 18 m.p.g. in the city and 23 on the highway.

True to its high-spirited nature, the 2009 Murano stands near the top of its class in acceleration, cornering agility, ride comfort and braking.

It also has taken a major step up in terms of interior refinement. You could easily mistake the Murano cabin for that of one of the Japanese luxury brands with five big and nicely contoured seats, pushbutton ignition and 6-speaker, MP3/WMA-capable audio system.

About the only thing that could be interpreted as a shortcoming is the limited cargo capacity. It's slightly larger than the tight CX-7 but markedly less than a lot of vehicles in this class.

We say that if you're going for a Murano, the SL with all-wheel drive is the best value at $30,800, leaving room for the reasonable Premium Package ($1,000) or $1,600 leather seats.

But in truth, the Murano is so good to drive and so nicely trimmed, you really don't need to dish out for options.