The Mazda CX-7 offers seating for five people, decent cargo space, a comprehensive set of standard safety features and distinctive looks. We found it fun to drive, with responsive handling and good high-speed stability.
Mazda introduced the CX-7 for 2007 as a totally new crossover utility vehicle to compete against the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, among others. Crossovers, as they're called, have become the hottest segment in the auto industry. They combine the high seating position and cargo capacity of a truck-based sport utility vehicle with the agility, smoothness and fuel economy of a car. And many folks who find a minivan or station wagon just to ego-bruising seem okay with a crossover.
As the CX-7 was all-new for 2007, very little has changed for the 2008 model year. There has been some fiddling with the option list and, thanks to some reprogramming of the engine management, premium fuel is now recommended rather than required, so it will run on regular gas. The CX-7 still starts at less than $24,000 for the 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 just around $35,000. Though a bit pricier than the prime opposition, the CX-7 excels in ride and handling.
Mazda CX-7 Sport ($23,750); Touring ($25.500); 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 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 across its 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, wind-wing-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 individual 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 an 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 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 where 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.
In interior accommodations, the CX-7 splits the difference between the Honda and Toyota in front-seat legroom, rear-seat headroom, and in hip room, front and rear. The Mazda finishes last in front-seat headroom and rear-seat legroom, the latter a true dead last by a substantial two inches.
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. And the nicely padded, front seat center armrest sits about the same height as the front door armrests, promising comfortable postures for long drives.
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.
Visibility is best out the front, as the kicked-up beltline and tapered cabin constrict vision toward the rear. Even with the driver's seat at its highest adjustment, however, the h
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, even over poorly graded railroad crossings.
Power from the turbocharged four-banger builds smoothly, with impressive torque at a very usably low engine speed. It's worth noting here that the CX-7 develops more torque (258 pound-feet) at significantly lower engine speed (2500 rpm) than the Toyota RAV4 (246 pound-feet at 4700 rpm) or Honda CR-V (161 pound-feet at 4200 rpm). That's worth noting because it's torque, not horsepower, that propels you from intersections and up steep hills.
However, the CX-7 pays a price with the poorest EPA fuel economy estimates of the group.
Underway, the mechanical tones from the Mazda's engine compartment are decidedly low-key, more buzzy than throaty.
The transmission shifts well and adapts well to different driving situations, quickly learning a driver's preferences and holding lower gears longer and adjusting shift points to match. That's in Drive. 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, and we've noticed it 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 Mazda CX-7 is a competent crossover utility vehicle when measured against the competition. It's a bit smaller inside than some of the competition, but not everybody needs or wants room for seven passengers. What it 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.
Tom Lankard filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drive the CX-7 in Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C.