Automakers are stemming the tide of anti-SUV sentiment with a new type of family vehicle: the crossover. Built primarily on car frames, crossovers — predictably — offer a more carlike ride than earlier, truck-based SUVs. Mazda comes on the scene with one of the best-looking, best-performing crossovers I've tested to date, and it does so at a mid-$20,000 price point.
There is no understating the looks of the CX-7; it's a bold design statement all around. Onlookers are confronted with a menacing face and blacked-out grille, all pulled together by a very, very large Mazda emblem. The front wheels are topped by exaggerated fenders that remind me of Mazda's RX-8 sports car. They also force the eye down the CX-7's side profile to the tapered rear windows, which narrow considerably at the rear. While that effect is great for exterior design, I found that this eye-catching element actually detracted from the driving experience. More on that later.
Even from behind, the CX-7 shines, with frosted plastic taillights that exhibit an expensive air. Large 17-inch wheels add to the muscular look, as does the low ride height, which also allows for easy access for passengers and cargo.
Mazda is one of those companies I can't figure out. Its lineup is full of attractive, affordable, fun-to-drive and competitively priced cars in almost every segment. Yet where I find myself liking the cars the most — besides sheer driving pleasure — is on the inside.
Making plastic look and feel expensive to the touch is hard to do, and automakers often fail at pulling off an elegant interior in an inexpensive car. Mazda instead focuses on forming the plastics and interior design into a "sporty" look rather than an elegant one. This works to perfection in the RX-8, Mazda3 and here in the CX-7.
Orange-red gauges are recessed in three deep pods, like a sports car, and are easy to read even in bright sunlight. The steering wheel is thick and well-padded, and the center dash has large knobs for controlling all the essentials. The only tricky aspect is that the display for the stereo and environmental controls is high on the dash, away from the controls themselves. This is meant to keep drivers from looking anywhere besides the road. Because the dials are so easy to use, the setup becomes second nature after a few days behind the wheel.
The leather seats in my tester were firm and supportive, but not supple or luxurious like the leather in European models. Of course, the CX-7 isn't priced like European vehicles, either. If the exterior is a study in design over-indulgence, the interior can't be slighted for its tighter focus. The test vehicle also had thousands of miles logged on it and still looked brand new, a rarity for many journalist-loaned cars.
Going & Stopping
You wouldn't believe how many shoppers out there think a V-6 is always superior to a four-cylinder engine, no matter what. I bet a lot of people will discount the CX-7 because it has a four-cylinder underneath its menacing hood. Hold on — this is a turbocharged four-cylinder that produces 244 horsepower and 258 pounds-feet of torque, and it can really move.
Not many SUVs — or crossovers, for that matter — truly act like cars. But the CX-7 lives up to its marketing, moving as sportingly as any midlevel, midsize sedan I've tested. Floor the accelerator and you'll shoot from the tollbooth with gusto and extreme control. My wife took over for me on a long road trip, and even she will admit a grin crossed her face as she passed some slowpokes in the center lane.
My only gripe with the powerplant is the six-speed automatic, and it's only a relevant gripe at highway speeds. When cruising, the transmission would pop down out of sixth gear far too soon, even when I didn't want to pass or accelerate. I would bet most drivers wouldn't notice this on routine commutes, and it didn't annoy me after I got used to the small threshold I was given.
Braking was carlike and quite firm. It offered reassuring feel for the size of the vehicle and the character of the handling.
Ride & Handling
Mazda likes to say the CX-7 drives like a sports car, and in many ways it feels like you are indeed driving a car. Still, the CX-7 is a large vehicle, whether you call it a crossover or an SUV. It weighs 3,929 pounds (3,710 for front-wheel-drive models) but the steering is crisp and exact. My all-wheel-drive test vehicle was a bit out of alignment, and since I only had a week in it, I didn't get it fixed. It was slightly skewed to the left, but was manageable. Regardless, I got an excellent feel for the car's handling prowess. It must also be noted that the car had more than 8,000 miles on it when I tested it. Most cars I review have been driven fewer miles, especially ones so new to the market.
One negative of the carlike ride is a firmer, more rigid chassis that, while delivering that great handling, also sends bumps and road imperfections straight to the driver's seat. In this way, I got some sports-car feel, though in a negative way. The bumps weren't enough to negate all the other great characteristics of the CX-7's ride, but the enormous blind spots I encountered could force one or two buyers to pick another vehicle.
My first experience with one of the blind spots came 30 minutes into my time with the CX-7, when I merged into the left lane on the highway and cut off a none-too-happy pickup driver. I didn't see his Ford Ranger at all when I smoothly made my shift in lanes, complete with signal. I chalked it up to not knowing the CX-7 yet. Time and again, though, over 400 miles of driving, the blind spots forced double- and triple-checks of all the mirrors and a cautionary turn of the head over the shoulder. The blind spots are due to those narrowing side windows mentioned above; the reduction in glass means reduction in visibility. My wife also remarked on how much worse the blind spots were than those in her 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Until now, the CX-7 had been on the top of the list to replace the Jeep in our own garage. After the blind spot issue, we're not so sure.
Cargo & Towing
The CX-7's rear cargo area holds just under 30 cubic feet with the second-row seats in place and 58.6 cubic feet with them down. This is a large area, but it's also a bit high, so the depth isn't there compared to others in the class. The Nissan Murano bests both of those numbers. I liked how the carpeted cargo floor could be flipped over to reveal a hard plastic one instead. This is a brilliant feature for anyone who owns a dog that likes the carpet — so they don't slip — but who still wants the utility of a hard floor for runs to the gardening center or other messy locales.
Towing is rated at 2,000 pounds, but the CX-7 is clearly not meant to tow more than a jet ski, so that number is unlikely to concern most shoppers.
The CX-7 offers front side-impact airbags and side curtain airbags for front and rear passengers. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety hasn't tested the CX-7 yet, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave it a five-star rating for front and side-impact tests, its highest ratings. 2008 model update: Even with a full year of sales under its belt, the Mazda CX-7 has not been crash tested by the IIHS.
The car also comes with all-disc antilock brakes, an electronic stability system and traction control, all standard.
CX-7 in the Market
The CX-7 isn't the first crossover on the market by a long shot, and there are a slew of others that will join it shortly. The Ford Edge borrows a lot of Mazda technology and will be out this fall, along with a new and enlarged Mitsubishi Outlander.
Toyota's RAV4 is the segment's reigning king, and the Nissan Murano has also filled the space admirably with a mix of handling characteristics and stylish Japanese looks similar to the CX-7. Mazda's entry tops the Murano due to its more stylish interior and much more engaging driving feel. For those who want to make a statement with their crossover, the CX-7 is an affordable option.
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