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Mazda's fun, but illogical crossover

For some, zoom-zoom ride may outshine subpar mileage

Mazda made a handful of minor cabin and styling tweaks in the 2009 edition of the CX-7, a smallish crossover vehicle that shares its turbo four-cylinder with the hot-rod Mazdaspeed3. Mazda made a handful of minor cabin and styling tweaks in the 2009 edition of the CX-7, a smallish crossover vehicle that shares its turbo four-cylinder with the hot-rod Mazdaspeed3. (Mazda)
By Kelsey Mays
Cars.Com / December 28, 2008
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Ten bucks says the penny-pincher inside you is balking at the very prospect of a Mazda CX-7. It's a five-seat crossover whose turbocharged engine recommends premium fuel and returns subpar gas mileage, and its cargo area is as small as its price tag is large. It is not, as Spock might say, a particularly logical choice - but is it ever a fun one. Fire up the engine, take a drive and consider some of the CX-7's strengths that are less apparent on paper, and those left-brained sensibilities eventually will come around.

The CX-7 is a smallish crossover that shares its turbo four-cylinder with the hot-rod Mazdaspeed3. Changes for the 2009 model include a handful of minor cabin and styling tweaks. In ascending order, trim levels comprise the Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring, with all-wheel drive optional on all three. I tested an all-wheel-drive CX-7 Grand Touring.

Perhaps a bit over the top when it first hit the streets back in 2006, the CX-7's lines have matured well - especially considering that the compact-SUV field, with the possible exception of the Ford Escape, is looking more windswept by the year. The CX-7's oversized elements, from its flared fenders to its mustachioed air dam, create the illusion of an RX-8-turned-SUV. The 18-inch alloy wheels, standard across all trims, help maintain the image as well. I'm not so crazy about the frosted taillight effects, but they're minimally offensive.

At 184 inches long and nearly 74 inches wide, the CX-7 has a slightly larger footprint than most of its immediate competitors, and its 37.4-foot turning circle isn't particularly U-turn friendly - only the Volkswagen Tiguan (39.4 feet) and Saturn Vue (40.0) rate worse; the Subaru Forester (34.4), Toyota RAV4 (34.8), and Mitsubishi Outlander (34.8) require less room.

Mazda reportedly may offer a more fuel-efficient, normally aspirated four-cylinder engine in the CX-7 down the line, but until then, the only available drivetrain is a 244-horsepower, turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder hitched to a six-speed automatic transmission. The combo yields potent but uneven power, so shoppers who put driving refinement above all else ought to look elsewhere. There's slight but noticeable turbo lag starting out, and under hard acceleration the engine blats out a flat, unappealing drone. The automatic takes its time doling out downshifts, and when they finally arrive, the resulting power can feel peaky and sudden. Six-cylinder competitors like the 3.6-liter Vue and 3.5-liter RAV4 accelerate more smoothly, and the RAV4 feels quicker overall.

Don't take that to mean the CX-7 is slow. There's plenty of power at low revs and good highway passing power, too. The drivetrain feels best on inclines, where it easily maintains speed without needing to downshift. On several occasions it was able to pass others on steep uphill stretches with the tach below 3,000 rpm. No doubt a front-wheel-drive CX-7 would feel even lighter on its feet, as it sheds 219 pounds. Our friends at MotorWeek clocked a front-wheel-drive CX-7 hitting 60 miles per hour in a swift 7.7 seconds. That's in the same league as the quickest Vue MotorWeek tested, and it's significantly quicker than the V-6 Mitsubishi Outlander.

Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are standard. The pedal feels linear and elicits strong deceleration without much forward suspension dive. Don't consider towing much, though, as the CX-7 maxes out at just 2,000 pounds. When properly equipped, the Vue, RAV4, Outlander, and Ford Escape can each tow 3,500 pounds.

You'll pay for all this fun, of course. Once gas prices go back up - which many experts fully expect them to do - gas mileage will be the CX-7's single greatest drawback. The EPA pegs mileage for front-wheel-drive models at 17/23 miles per gallon city/highway, and in all-wheel-drive models it's estimated at 16/22 miles per gallon. Those may not seem like huge deficits versus a V-6 RAV4 or Escape, but considered as a percentage they translate into significant differences in your weekly gas receipts. Nonturbo four-cylinder SUVs offer the best mileage in this segment, but even among the go-fast crowd, the CX-7 ranks near the bottom. Worse yet, Mazda recommends premium fuel. Regular fuel will suffice, but it will likely mean slightly slower starts and weaker passing.

Impressively, Mazda continues to make good on its zoom-zoom marketing tagline. Just about every one of its models, with the possible exception of the Escape clone Tribute, is among the most engaging to drive in its respective segment. The CX-7 is no different: The heavy steering wheel takes a bit more effort to turn, but it isn't overly stiff in parking lots. It transmits precise inputs on curvy roads, and on the highway it's evenly weighted when pointed straight ahead. Body roll is minimal, and the chassis sticks to the road over bumpy corners more than I'd expect in an SUV. I found myself throwing the CX-7 around with carlike abandon at times, and though understeer is prevalent at the limits, it sticks to its course pretty well.

Like nearly all crossovers, the CX-7 uses a four-wheel-independent suspension. The wheels hit bumps with little noise or reverberation, and road and wind noise on the highway remains relatively low. Ambient noise, however, seems high; on the highway, trucks passing in the next lane can drown out your music - unless you're listening to U2's "Achtung Baby," in which case it'll probably all blend together. (Cue the hate mail.)

Some may find the CX-7's interior styling a bit too heavy-handed, but overall quality is good, and there's more utility than you might imagine on first glance. The dashboard plastic is hard to the touch - typical for this class, though the Tiguan and Vue laudably buck the trend - but the surfaces look high-rent. Where some competitors throw grainier, cheaper-looking plastics below dash-level, Mazda sheathes areas from the gearshift to the cupholders with a slick black finish. Nice.

Higher up, the silver plastic trim and optional piano-black accents are attractive, and the cabin is generally free of unsightly panel gaps. The Grand Touring's auto-A/C dials operate with a luxury car's well-oiled authenticity. Unfortunately, I can't lavish such praise on the headliner, which employs the sort of mouse-fur most competitors have banished by now.

The features are a mixed bag. The base Sport trim comes standard with premium niceties like express down-and-up front windows and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, but higher up the ladder, some options feel half-baked. The automatic climate control offers only a single zone; the Escape, RAV4, Santa Fe, and Tiguan offer two. The uplevel nine-speaker Bose stereo system sounds merely OK. The heated seats on upper trim levels have only one setting, and it's not especially toasty. Competitors have as many as five levels of heat.

Then there's the optional navigation system. Allow me a rant: The shortcut keys flanking the touch-screen are too small, and the blocky map graphics look a few years behind the times. There aren't nearly enough street labels, and in my week with the car, the point-of-interest finder went one for three - it found a favorite pizza joint but couldn't find a major bowling alley or the local gym. The intersection finder won't let you input a city or state first, and it annoyingly demands full details for one road before allowing you to input the cross street. Want Third and Main? Hope you remember if it's West Third Boulevard or South Third Avenue, because if you don't you'll need to choose from dozens of variants in umpteen surrounding states. It doesn't hint at where those mystery roads might be, mind you - because then you could dismiss the one in Nowhere, Idaho. While you're pulling your hair out trying to figure out which one is yours, pop in U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name." I dare you.

Touring and Grand Touring trims have leather seats, which offer good lateral support but could use a bit more cushioning. Both trims also get a power driver's seat with an impressive range of travel in all directions. Alas, the steering wheel only tilts; the RAV4, Tiguan, and up-level Foresters offer tilt and telescoping adjustments.

One passenger noted that the short rear doors make the back seat a chore to enter, but headroom and legroom are excellent once you're there. The seat cushions angle upward, offering good thigh support, but the seatbacks don't recline, which is possible in many competitors.

The back seat folds in a 60/40-split, and save a ceiling-anchored middle seat belt, the setup is perfect. (The belt obscures visibility and interferes with luggage space in a way that belts anchored into the seatback don't.) Both sides are spring-loaded to fall on their own via release handles in the cargo area, and the resulting load floor is gap-free. Best of all, the outboard seat belts are mounted in the seats rather than the C-pillars, so they don't get caught behind the seatbacks as you return the seats upright. Very clever. All told, Mazda gets points for doing what it could with the limited space: The CX-7 has less cargo space than most of the pack, and it doesn't offer a fold-flat front passenger seat to accommodate long cargo, as some competitors with smaller cargo areas do.

In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests, the CX-7 earned top scores in both front and side-impact tests. Standard safety features include antilock brakes, traction control and an electronic stability system, as well as six airbags.

Child-seat provisions include standard Latch child-seat anchors in the outboard rear seats. Top-tether anchors for the outboard positions sit midway down the seatbacks - a more accessible location than up in the ceiling or down at the base of the seats, which is where they're found on many SUVs. Though the outboard rear seats have head restraints, there isn't one for the middle position; that's something the Escape, RAV4, and others include.

Reliability has been middle-of-the-road, with average overall scores from Consumer Reports. The publication rates the RAV4 significantly higher and the Vue significantly lower. Mazda's three-year/36,000-mile comprehensive and five-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty match most competitors', though the Vue, Outlander and Santa Fe offer even longer policies.

Rants aside, the CX-7 represents a lot of performance for the money, and thanks to some clever features and a workable starting price, it's not a pragmatic embarrassment, either. Does that make it the right car for these times? Probably not - Subaru clinched that with the sub-$20,000 base-model Forester. But I'm not convinced every car buyer out there is sidelining whatever he or she wants and choosing the smartest plain-vanilla car for the money. If you are leaning toward something a bit more fun, the CX-7 is worth a look, and it might not break your (shrinking) bank account, either.

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