The Mazda CX-7 is sporty, svelte, and distinctive, while still being functional, roomy, and comfortable, with decent interior space and all the right safety equipment. It's available with a snappy four-cylinder turbo like the Kia Sportage SX or the Acura RDX, or a naturally aspirated four-cylinder like the Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4.
We find the Mazda CX-7 fun to drive, with excellent high-speed stability and responsive handling. The CX-7 excels in cornering, something Mazdas are known for.
The CX-7 is in its fifth year, introduced for 2007 when crossovers (SUVs with the chassis of a car, not truck) were a new idea. They offer the SUV high seating position and cargo capacity, with the more agile steering and smoother ride of a car. Also, fuel mileage is better than with a heavier and boxier truck-based SUV. The CX-7 was revised for 2010, with increased body rigidity, stiffened dampers, and reduced noise, vibration and harshness. Inside, it got a new dashboard with electronic equipment upgrades. The biggest change for 2011 is a new model, the i Touring, which adds equipment to the base model with the 2.5-liter four-cylinder.
Under the hood is 2.5-liter engine making 161 horsepower and using a 5-speed automatic transmission. A 244-horsepower 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder is also available, using a 6-speed automatic.
The base 2.5-liter engine is well matched to the CX-7, providing adequate acceleration from a stop, though it lacks a bit in midrange punch. It's smooth and works well with the 5-speed automatic transmission, well enough that the costlier and more complex 6-speed isn't needed, reserved instead for the sportier turbo.
The turbocharged engine has more midrange power than the base engine, making passing a much easier prospect. Power builds smoothly from a standstill. The 6-speed automatic transmission shifts well and adapts well to different driving situations with impressive torque at low engine speeds.
The base engine is EPA rated at 20 mpg city/28 mpg highway. You pay for the extra power in the 2.3-liter turbo, with fuel mileage of 17/24 mpg with FWD and a lackluster 15/21 mpg with AWD.
Even though it's been around since 2007, the Mazda CX-7 sports the latest version of Mazda's styling theme, and it still looks sleek and fresh. The interior makes no less of a statement than the exterior. Some design features work well, others not so well. Overall, the CX-7 interior seems chunky and a bit complicated, not as friendly and functional as the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4.
In interior space, the Mazda falls between CR-V and RAV4 in front-seat legroom and rear-seat headroom, but has the least rear-seat legroom by a substantial two inches, with 36.4 inches. The Kia Sportage beats the CX-7 too, with 37.9 inches. In cargo space with the rear seat folded, the CX-7 is a distant third behind the Honda and Toyota, but it beats the Kia.
Over rough pavement, the suspension is firm while not being stiff, but sharp bumps can be harsh. And despite good engine compartment and underbody insulation, the tires transmit road noise into the cabin, which otherwise is fairly quiet. We discovered the CX-7 AWD worked reasonably well on unpaved roads.
Even though it's been around since 2007, the Mazda CX-7 sports the latest version of Mazda's styling theme, and it still looks sleek and fresh. The bulbous fenders are inspired by the RX-8 sports car. The headlights jut into the tops of the fenders, and Mazda uses a small grille above the bumper. This leaves substantial mass below the bumper line that's lightened by a black eggcrate grille flanked by large air intakes, that double as housings for the foglamps on some models.
The side view appeals 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, kicking up just before 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. They're chrome plated on the Grand Touring model. 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 plain, with a modest optional spoiler sitting atop the backlight, itself resting in a gentle dip in the liftgate. A large, seamless bumper stretches the width of the back end, above single (for i models) or dual exhaust tips (for s models).
The interior of the Mazda CX-7 makes no less of a statement than the exterior, and with much the same result. Some design features work well, others not so well. Overall, the CX-7 seems chunky and a bit complicated, and not as friendly and functional as the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4.
The two-part dash for example. The upper part is 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. It includes a Multi-Information Display with orange characters in most models, but preferable full color our more expensive Grand Touring; it also shows the image from the standard rearview monitor. The MID screen is only 4.1 inches diagonally, though, making the image from the rearview camera and the navigation screen a bit hard to see. There's no turn-by-turn display with the navigation (or if so we never saw it), but it wasn't confusing to program, at least.
Functions on the MID are controlled by five buttons on the right side of the steering wheel. The navigation system, too, can be controlled at the steering wheel. It takes some getting used to, and we're not sure if it's less distracting or not. You don't have to stretch your arm, but you do have to move your eyes around more.
One benefit of the two-tiered dashboard, says Mazda, is that the screen is up and away, so drivers won't have to take their eyes off the road. It does, however, require looking back and forth between the steering wheel and MID.
Below the top tier is a more traditional dashboard. 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. Large buttons and knobs are used, but their arrangement and assigned functions are not always intuitive. However, we like that the radio can be turned with its own knob that spins to select channels.
Beyond the novel design, the instrument cluster is heavily hooded, stylishly compartmentalized and softly lit. The dashboard, door panels, and center console are largely plastic that looks nice but smacks of cost containment, in our $34,000 vehicle. The steering wheel, borrowed directly from the sporty MX-5 Miata with its much more confined cockpit, feels sporty but small in the CX-7 SUV.
Our s Grand Touring was equipped with the Blind Spot Monitoring System. It illuminates lights in the side mirrors when vehicles are traveling in the CX-7's blind spots, and if you attempt to change lanes when it thinks cars behind you are too close, it will beep at you. Like every BSMS we've ever known, the false alarms were frequent. Once, in the fast lane, it read the guard rail as a continuous car in a blind spot, and stayed steadily on for a mile.
In interior space, the Mazda falls between Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 in front-seat legroom and rear-seat headroom, but has the least rear-seat legroom by a substantial two inches, with 36.4 inches. The Kia Sportage beats the CX-7, with 37.9 inches.
Seat comfort is average. The seat-bottom cushions offer decent support, and substantial front-seat side bolsters are fitting for a vehicle with sporty aspirations. There's manual lumbar support with the loaded Grand Touring, which we used effectively during one 240-mile run in the rain at night, always good for back stress. The padded center armrest sits about the same height as the front door armrests, allowing a comfortable posture for long drives.
The rear seats favor two passengers over three, a reality reinforced by the two contoured seatbacks and absence of a head restraint for the center. The CX-7's good rear headroom is assisted by a thin, low seat cushion. Good headroom, at the price of closeness between knees and chin.
The kicked-up beltline and tapered cabin constrict vision toward the rear, and it's also compromised in front. Even with the driver's seat at its highest adjustment, the rakish hood falls below the sight line of a six-footer, requiring cautious navigation in tight spaces. The available video camera helps the driver spot objects behind the vehicle when backing up, including short metal posts, other cars and children on tricycles.
Storage is adequate. The front center console's lockable bin is deep enough for a laptop computer and includes a secondary power point for that purpose. The glovebox is small but lockable. Fixed door pockets are shaped to hold a water bottle. Two cupholders fill the space in the front center console between the shift gate and the storage bin Illuminated vanity mirrors are located in the sun visors.
Rear seat passengers get no door pockets, but magazine pouches are provided on the backs of both front seats.. The fold-down center armrest in the rear seat also provides two cupholders.
Both the CR-V (73.0 cubic feet) and RAV4 (72.9) hold a lot more cargo than the CX-7 with the rear seat down. The CX-7 holds just 58.6 cubic feet, but that's still more than the Kia Sportage's 54.6.
Only the RAV4 can be ordered with a third-row seat, giving it accommodations (however meager) for seven passengers. The CX-7, on the other hand, is the longest, lowest, and widest of the four; which gives it the dubious distinction of providing the least interior space for the most exterior bulk. However, the CX-7 has the best aerodynamic performance of the group.
The Mazda CX-7 gets the zoom-zoom award in this class, especially when compared with the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. The Honda and Toyota models focus more on utility than spirit; in fact, they seem downright dumpy and staid, when compared to the CX-7.
A better performance rival is the new Kia Sportage SX, with its 256-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter engine and 6-speed automatic transmission; its styling is sleek like that of the Mazda CX-7, its price about the same (retailing for a bit less), and its fuel mileage 21/25 mpg. Or maybe the Acura RDX, another four-cylinder turbo with an emphasis on handling, although the Acura runs quite a few thousand dollars more.
The Mazda CX-7 is eminently smooth and stable at 80 mph. On winding roads it tracks true, with minimal body lean despite its SUV stature. Being front-wheel-drive based, it will understeer when provoked by excessive cornering speed, 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, but not a lot. What's felt more often is a certain jaggedness over bumps, sometimes. The chassis and suspension changes for 2010, making the CX-7 more rigid and stiffer, have improved the cornering but not necessarily the ride, in every situation. Over rough pavement, the suspension is firm while not being stiff, but sharp ruts can be harsh.
And despite more engine and interior insulation in 2010, the tires transmit road noise into the cabin, which otherwise is fairly quiet, even over poorly graded railroad crossings.
The steering wheel, pedals and shift lever are positioned well for sporty driving. Mazda claims that this is no accident, because the steering wheel/shifter geometry replicates that of the RX-8 sports car (though we wonder how). The brake pedal returns a solid, firm feel, and the vented disc brakes deliver reassuring, controlled stops.
The base 2.5-liter engine is well matched to the CX-7, providing adequate acceleration from a stop, though it lacks a bit in midrange punch. It's smooth, and works well with the 5-speed automatic transmission.
The base engine is EPA rated at 20 mpg city/28 mpg highway. You pay for the extra power in the 2.3-liter turbo, with fuel mileage of 17/24 mpg with front-wheel drive and 15/21 mpg with all-wheel drive.
The turbocharged engine has more midrange power than the base engine, making passing a much easier prospect. Power builds smoothly from a standstill, with impressive torque at low engine speeds (torque is that force that propels you from intersections and up steep hills). The CX-7 develops more torque at a lot lower engine speed (258 pound-feet at 2500 rpm) than even the V6 in the Toyota RAV4 (246 pound-feet at 4700 rpm), but that's what turbochargers do for engines. A four-cylinder turbo theoretically makes as much power as a V6 but with better fuel mileage.
The 6-speed automatic transmission shifts well and adapts well to different driving situations. In Drive, the programming logic learns a driver's style and adjusts shift points to match. In Sport mode, it executes manual shifts smoothly, up or down. To change gears manually, slide the shifter into the Sport slot, which is conveniently placed on the driver's side of the primary shift gate. Then simply push the lever forward to downshift, pull it back to upshift.
With either engine, 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.
In addition to our road time in the Mazda CX-7 s Grand Touring, we crept and sometimes blasted through deep mud at an event at the Dirtfish Rally School in Snoqualmie, Washington, called Mudfest, organized by the Northwest Automotive Press Association.
The CX-7 offered great traction even on its road tires, but when the ruts grew 10 inches deep, we steered the CX-7 clear, with 8.1 inches of ground clearance. That's still a good amount, matching the 2011 Jeep Compass, an SUV built more for off-road. The Kia Sportage SX, also at the event, has only 6.8 inches of ground clearance, so it bailed out of the mud long before the CX-7. Besides, the Sportage awd system can't match the traction made by the CX-7.
The Mazda CX-7 is a competent crossover utility vehicle when measured against the competition. It's not the roomiest in the class, trading some interior space for sporty styling. The sporty looks are backed up by sporty handling characteristics, and excellent performance in the turbocharged s models with a 6-speed automatic. The base engine with 5-speed automatic lowers the starting price while still offering enough power. However, stepping up to the more powerful engine adds all-wheel drive to the options list, and the AWD works well.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard reported from Washington, with Kirk Bell in Chicago, and Sam Moses reporting from the Pacific Northwest.