Crossovers, as they're called, have become the hottest segment in the auto industry. They combine the practicality of a truck-based sport utility vehicle with the agility, smoothness and fuel economy of a car. Just as important, they avoid the stigma that comes with a minivan or station wagon. The CX-7 competes with the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, among others.
The CX-7 fits into Mazda's zoom-zoom mold: sporty but functional; roomy but svelte; snappy but comfortable. It has a surprisingly powerful, fairly frugal, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine with a state-of-the-art six-speed automatic transmission motivating a sporty-looking and sporty-handling, five-passenger vehicle that will haul nearly as much stuff as it does people.
The CX-7 starts at less than $24,000 for a front-wheel-drive version. A well-equipped, nicely featured, all-wheel-drive model goes for less than $30,000; and the top model with every option box checked comes in under $35,000. Though a bit pricier than the prime opposition, the CX-7 excels in ride and handling and offers a navigation system.
Mazda CX-7 Sports ($23,750); Mazda CX-7 Touring ($25.500); Mazda CX-7 Grand Touring ($26,300)
For starters, the fenders are seemingly transplanted directly to the CX-7 from the company's sports car, the RX-8. To fit those bulbous wheel housings to a sedan-like body required pinching the front end's nose and squeezing headlights into the tops of the fenders. This leaves substantial mass below the bumper line that's only slightly lightened by a massive mouth braced by large intake-like recesses that double as housings for the optional fog lamps. The way the CX-7's bulk is suspended between the exceptionally wide track (distance between the tires side to side) leaves it looking almost as if it's drooping, or sagging, from the weight.
The side view appeals more, with wheels pushed to the corners and a super-fast windshield sweeping back over tautly drawn side glass. Side mirrors separate the front door glass from an odd-looking, windwing-like, but fixed, tiny piece of glass at the base of the A-pillar. The beltline rises as it moves rearward, peaking just aft of the severely blistered rear wheelwell before tucking in between the steeply sloped backlight and the sculpted back end. Full-round, easy-to-grab door handles ride the crest of a soft bulge connecting the tops of the fenders. An understated crease highlights the lower door panels, skipping over the rear tires to continue around the bottom fold of the rear bumper.
The rear aspect is somewhat plain, with a modest spoiler sitting atop the backlight, itself resting in a gentle dip in the liftgate. A rather large, seamless bumper stretches the width of the back end, above a widespread pair of exhaust tips, this last a feature that's beginning to wear. It works on a vehicle boasting a robust powerplant under the hood, preferably a V8 or some other V-configuration, where each pipe nominally runs directly back from its bank of cylinders. But for draining burnt gases from an inline engine, especially an inline-4, and one sitting transversely, to boot, it's a bit overdone. A single pipe, or maybe two running tightly parallel and exiting out one side, seems more fitting.
The dash is a prime example. Some parts look right, while others come across almost as a styling exercise in Design 101, and not much of it looks of a piece with the rest. For starters there's what Mazda calls the double-roof instrument panel. Translated, this constitutes, first, a ridge stretching across the top of the dash that's supposed to make the front seat passenger feel involved, included in the interior's dynamic. Below this floating lip is the second part, a more traditional dash construct comprising three elements, the instrument cluster, the center stack and the section holding the passenger airbag and housing the glove box. This lower part, the designers say, is intended to play to the driver, concentrating on the interfaces necessary for managing the car. All the pieces for this are there, so the job is doable, but the way everything is put together doesn't make it all that easy or appear that seamlessly integrated.
Beyond the quirky design, the instrument cluster is deeply hooded, stylishly compartmentalized and softly lit to the point it's not a quick and easy scan. The steering wheel, borrowed directly from the sporty MX-5 Miata with its much more confined cockpit, feels undersized in the more expansive interior of the CX-7.
Large buttons and knobs populate the stack of air conditioning and sound system controls in the center, but their arrangement and assigned functions are far from intuitive. The optional navigation system only adds complexity, as it incorporates many of those functions into one of the menus accessed only through the touch-screen LCD and, for example, allows switching preset radio stations by exchanging the map display for the audio display. And although the Sport shift slot is properly placed on the driver's side of the primary shift gate, gear selection feels backwards (to some of us), as you push up to shift down and pull down to shift up.
This isn't to say the dash/driver interface is dysfunctional, but only that it's not as good as Mazda has done. Where other car makers are trending toward simplicity and sleekness, the CX-7 has gone chunky and choppy. Overall, the cabin doesn't seem as friendly and as functional as its primary competition, the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4.
When it comes to accommodations, the CX-7 splits the difference between the Honda and Toyota. In front seat headroom, though, it comes in about an inch short of both the 2006 CR-V and the RAV4. (A side note here: the 2006 RAV4 is new for this year, while the CR-V is in line for a major upgrade for 2007. While these comparisons will hold through 2007 for the RAV4, come fall 2006, there'll be different data for the 2007 CR-V.) The Mazda also trails in rear seat legroom, by almost two inches to the RAV4 and by three inches to the CR-V.
As for how those seats fit, the bottom cushions offer slightly more thigh support than, say, economy class airline seats, which is to say more would definitely be better. Substantial front-seat side bolsters are fitting for a vehicle with sporty aspirations.
The rear seats favor two passengers over three, an impression reinforced by the decently contoured seatback and the absence of a head restraint for the center seating position. The CX-7's competitiveness in rear seat headroom is no doubt facilitated by the shallowness of the rear seat bottom cushion and by the closeness of that cushion to the floor, the latter evidenced by the proximity of the rear seat passenger's knees to chin. The nicely padded, front seat center armrest sits about the same height as
Directional stability at speed, even into the low three digits, is comforting. The brake pedal returns a solid, firm feel, and the vented discs all 'round deliver reassuring, controlled stops when called upon. Driven fast on winding, two-lane roads, the CX-7 tracks cleanly, with minimal body lean despite its somewhat upright stature. Yes, its design default mode when carrying too much speed into a corner is understeer (where it wants to go straight instead of turn), but the electronic stability control system shields all but the most lead-footed driver from ever experiencing this. There is some head toss in quick left-right-left transitions, not a lot, but it's notable.
The steering wheel, brake and accelerator pedals and shift lever are properly juxtaposed for spirited driving, or at least as spirited as is comfortable in the CX-7. In support of which, Mazda points out that the wheel/shifter geometric replicates that in the RX-8 sports car. Over rough pavement, the suspension tends more to stiff than firm, with a hint of harshness. This no doubt contributes to the disappointing amount of road noise the tires transmit into the cabin, which otherwise was fairly quiet, including over poorly graded railroad crossings.
Power from the turbocharged four-banger builds smoothly, with impressive torque at a very usable low engine speed. It's worth noting here the RAV4 V6's lesser torque peaking at a much higher engine speed. (The RAV4's V6 generates 246 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm vs. the CX-7's 258 at 2500; torque is that force that propels you from intersections and up steep hills.) However, the Toyota offers better EPA fuel-economy ratings (20/28 mpg city/highway vs. the Mazda's 18/24). But betraying their origins in an inline-4, the mechanical tones from the Mazda's engine compartment are decidedly low-key, more buzzy than throaty.
Left in Drive, the transmission adapts very well, quickly learning a driver's preferences and holding lower gears longer and adjusting shift points to match. Shift into the Sport mode and it executes manually directed shifts smoothly, up or down.
There's some torque steer (where the front tires pull one way or the other, most commonly to the right, under hard acceleration) in both the front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive models. It's somewhat less in the latter, which redirects up to 50 percent of the power to the rear wheels in extreme conditions.
The 2007 Mazda CX-7 is a competent crossover utility vehicle when measured against the competition. It may be a bit behind the curve in interior styling and roominess, but not everybody needs or wants room for seven passengers. What is does have is the sporty Mazda look and a good measure of the marque's sporty handling characteristics. The CX-7 has a remarkably energetic engine and an equally accommodating transmission, and it's available with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. That easily makes it worth a look.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Tom Lankard test drove the CX-7 in Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C.