Thursday, April 19, 2007

Review: Mazda CX-7 (2007)

The SUV you never saw coming or just another fancy mom-wagon?

April 16, 2007 - We've been hopping in to a lot of these new-fangled "crossovers" lately, and to be honest, it's getting tougher and tougher to write about them. All of these "CUVs" kind of blend into each other and there are a limited amount of ways we can talk about these tall shoe-shaped wagons on stilts. Every single one of these CUVs shares the same basic traits: car-like build for a car-like driving experience, decent (but not a mind-blowing amount of) interior room and a shoe-like shape.

We won't lie here: you can take any CUV review we've done in the past, change a few nouns and get a pretty accurate review of any other CUV we've driven - including the Mazda CX-7 we're reviewing today. We must stress that this isn't a bad thing; this "sameness" actually means that all of the CUVs we drive come very well-equipped and are decent to drive. Not mind blowing, but decent is okay considering the market. That said, we do know that the devil is in the details, so we'll do our best to talk about what makes the Mazda CX-7 unique. All we ask is that you forgive us if you read any sentences that sound eerily familiar...

Mazda's CX-7 takes the now-familiar "rolling shoe" shape and smoothes things out a bit. Rather than looking bulbous in all the wrong places, Mazda's "zoom-zoom" CUV looks more like a rounded wedge, and as we all know, wedges are sporty. (Triumph's TR-7 ads from the '70s tell us so...)

While other CUV manufacturers try their best to make their glorified kid-haulers look "upscale" and "sophisticated" by adding a rap video's-worth of chrome to the exterior, Mazda opted to keep things simple and tasteful. We must say that Mazda did an excellent job of bringing its sports car-inspired aesthetic to its first-ever crossover ute. The nose looks like a fatter version of the schnoz found on the RX-8, and the buff front and rear fenders convey a real sense of power and sportiness. Keeping with the company's "zoom-zoom" mantra, a black plastic honeycomb grille finds a home between the headlights and on the lower air dam, visually adding more hints that the CX-7 really is a sports car at heart.

Power and Performance
Most CUVs on the market come equipped with reasonably-powered V6s so that CUV manufacturers can give people the illusion that their tall mom wagons are truck-like, which in turn gives CUV owners the illusion that these vehicles have the power to do "tough" and "manly" things like tow boats. Of course, we all know that a CUV will never see such strenuous hauling duty, meaning that this V-engine-induced illusion will never come back and bite said manufacturers in the ass.

Rather than jump in the CUV V6 wars, Mazda went its own way and dropped a 2.3 liter turbocharged inline four into the CX-7's engine bay. This is the same direct-injected spark ignition (DISI) MZR found in the MazdaSpeed6 and MazdaSpeed3, only (and we shouldn't have to say this) it isn't as awesome in the CX-7. We feel that this "less-than-awesome" performance is due to three reasons: One - in the CX-7, the "Dizzy" motor is tuned to just 244 horsepower; Two - this lower-powered "Dizzy" motor has to pull a lot more weight - 3,929 pounds in our AWD tester; and Three - the CX-7 comes only with an automatic slushbox.

Now, the overall feeling of power and acceleration is on-par with other CUVs, meaning that it's not mind-shatteringly quick (or fun), but it's not slow enough to get one into trouble while merging onto freeways. Mazda does get things right by giving the CX-7 a sport shift mode, where downshifting is accomplished by bumping the gear select lever up (as in a proper race car), but we still often found ourselves longing for MazdaSpeed6-like bursts of power.

Handling is decent for a CUV. We're still not bold enough to really push a high-riding vehicle through corners (we're not about to risk a rollover in a press car, thank you...), but the CX-7 certainly felt planted enough while cornering. We'd say that the CX-7 handles more like benchmark "sports" CUVs like the Infiniti FX and Acura RDX than it does "soft roaders" like the Ford Edge or Hyundai Santa Fe.

Comfort and Convenience
The cabin of Mazda's CX-7 is put together surprisingly well; it certainly feels more "high-end" when compared to other Mazda cockpits (such as the RX-8's). In terms of things like the look of the plastics and the overall fit and finish, the CX-7's interior is almost Volkswagen-like in terms of perceived quality. It's surprisingly good. Of course, the interior of our test car was all-black instead of the creamy-white you see in this press photo, which probably helped things a little.

We like the overall ergonomics of the cabin; the steering wheel is placed in just the right position (a BIG thing for us), the controls are easy to figure out and adjust and the seats actually have a bit of side support. (We're glad that Mazda stepped things up and gave the CX-7 a touch-screen navigation system as its prior point-and-click nav units are a pain to use). Back to the CX-7 at hand, its cabin was a genuinely comfortable place to be. It was nice and quiet inside, it felt spacious (even the back seats weren't so bad) and Mazda didn't make the mistake of trying to fit this thing with an unusable third row. The CX-7 actually has a usable cargo space in the back, meaning that the vehicle is actually somewhat functional, too. A functional back area in a crossover utility vehicle? How novel!

Mazda's CX-7 is a sporty crossover with a good bit of utility thrown in. Of course, we just described nearly every crossover utility vehicle in existence with that last sentence, so take from it what you will.

We like Mazda's CX-7 as it gives an enjoyable driving experience and it doesn't even try to front like it's a "truck". Mazda's CUV is what it is and it's all it aims to be. There's nothing wrong with the vehicle that we can think of, but even with its "zoom-zoom"-iness, it doesn't do much to really set itself apart from the rest of the CUV pack. If we needed a people/stuff hauler, we'd rather do time in the Mazda5 (seriously) or Mazda6 wagon; we could save a few bucks and get a bigger driving bang for the bucks we do spend. Still, when it comes to CUVs, the Mazda CX-7 isn't bad. Here's hoping someone gets around to building a MazdaSpeed version of the car.

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