Mazda, the Japanese automaker typically associated with athletic driving, steps up its interior aesthetics in the all-new ’17 CX-9.

Our judges are impressed by Mazda’s well-appointed 3-row CUV, with several editors praising the designers for surprising and delighting budget-minded buyers in so many ways. Admittedly, our $45,655 Signature-trim tester hits the high end of the CX-9 scale, but it’s hard not to be smitten with its Nappa-leather upholstery and aluminum-and-rosewood trim, along with a fully updated interface that makes the vehicle intuitive to drive and control.

Over the past year sampling redesigned Mazda’s flagship utility, we’ve also witnessed owners of far higher-priced luxury CUVs express considerable surprise – and definite purchase intent – after climbing into the CX-9 and taking a good look at its wares.

Our two weeks of intensive evaluation turned up a lot of reasons to love what Mazda has done, but quality materials and design harmony carry considerable weight. The CX-9 hits a high note in these areas, blending a number of materials in an artistic manner.

“This definitely raises the bar for near-luxury SUVs,” says one judge. “Gorgeous materials and I absolutely love all the finishes.”

“Lots of great colors and materials working in harmony,” says another. “A unique look – sporty, technical and luxurious.”

Judges call out the attention to comfort and detail, appreciating cushy seats, soft-touch armrests and the padded center tunnel where knees often rest during drives longer than a commute.

The use of real rosewood and aluminum is eye-catching, especially the long satin metallic piece dividing the upper and lower instrument panel. We also laud the auburn trim for standing out more than swaths of gray and black too often employed in near-luxury models.

VIDEO: INSIDE AWARD-WINNING CX-9

While our tester didn’t check every driver-assistance system box, it covered the bases with a responsive voice control and large, simple-to-use knobs, buttons and dials. Though the CX-9’s adaptive cruise control won’t bring the vehicle to a complete stop, it does a dependable job of pacing other vehicles in traffic and offers above-average lane-keeping assistance.

The kudos continue into the second and even third rows where, unlike many automakers, Mazda doesn’t skimp on materials, comfort or functionality. Each seat gets a head restraint – a safety feature sometimes deleted – and second-row occupants get their own climate controls.

Farther back, the third row has more than adequate headroom for two occupants and is easily accessed thanks to a design that allows sliding the second-row seats fore and aft.

Mazda deserves recognition for not just meeting, but exceeding, customer expectations for a premium CUV interior. With the CX-9, the automaker has redefined near-luxury by creating an environment competitive with vehicles priced thousands more.

bgritzinger@wardsauto.com @bobgritzinger