Mazda isn't really comfortable with the C-word. Oh sure, the company refers to the all-new 2007 Mazda CX-7 as a "crossover" all the time in public. But it doesn't really think the term is entirely appropriate. Crossing between what and what else, one might ask? Instead it boldly proclaims that the CX-7 is an SUV with the "soul of a sports car." Uh-huh.
Sports car concept?
CX-7 Program Manager Shunsuke Kawasaki coined the term "metropolitan hawk" to help his design team understand his vision. He wanted his designers to fuse the conflicting ideas of urban hip/cool and the great outdoors — or, more to the point, sports car and SUV. Usually when we hear this, we brace ourselves for the usual stickers-make-me-go-faster sports treatment.
But our initial skepticism took a hit the first time we saw the CX-7. It looks good in photographs, but it's even better in 3-D, an impression quickly reinforced by the double-takes it received from drivers of tweaked-up Civics, GTIs and the like.
Instead of attempting the square-peg route of making an SUV look sporty, Kawasaki's design philosophy was to turn a Mazda RX-8 into an SUV. Important RX-8 design cues that have landed on the CX-7 are the massive, blacked-out air intake and the pronounced front fender bulges.
But the design element Kawasaki insisted on was the CX-7's steeply raked windshield, which at 66 degrees is reclined slightly more than an RX-8. This moves the driver farther aft, explaining the 108.3-inch wheelbase, 3.6 and 5.0 inches longer than the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, respectively.
Inside the CX-7, Mr. Kawasaki strove to establish a distinct cockpit feeling. The raked windshield and seating position help here, while still providing a generous 38.2 inches of with-sunroof headroom — plenty for this 6-foot-2-inch tester. The seats are grippy and comfortable, and the three-spoke steering wheel looks identical to the one that guides our 2006 MX-5 Miata.
Less obvious is a center console that's built up higher to mimic the relationship between steering wheel and shifter found in the RX-8. Manual-mode flogging of the six-speed automatic transmission is encouraged by this layout, as we didn't have to drop our hand far from the wheel to grab a gear. The design also creates a cavernous lockable center storage compartment that can swallow a purse or laptop whole.
I could've had a V6
The final piece of the sports car puzzle is the engine. Mazda installed the same 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder found under the hood of the Mazdaspeed 6 sedan, but retuned it to broaden the torque curve and to be more "compatible" with the six-speed automatic transmission.
This was primarily accomplished by reducing the turbo inlet size to make it spin up faster. The changes dropped horsepower from 274 to 244, but it peaks at 5,000 instead of 5,500 rpm. Torque is similarly affected, dropping from 280 to 258 pound-feet, while coming on at 2,500 versus 3,000 rpm.
Our nearly loaded Grand Touring test car had the $1,700 all-wheel-drive (AWD) upgrade. Power is metered to the rear axle via two magnetic clutches in the active torque split mechanism. Torque bias shifts continuously from a nominal 100-percent front bias up to an even 50/50 front/rear split. We found no locking mechanism, indicating that off-road performance is not the goal for the CX-7, a point supported by its non-aggressive all-season tires.
Because the CX-7 is heavy, with a curb weight of 3,929 pounds, performance is good, but not great. Our staffers found it quite stout accelerating out of corners and reported sweat-free two-lane passing moves. But it wasn't exactly stellar off the line. The CX-7 simply got beat to 60 mph by a V6 RAV4 we tested on the same day, posting a time of 7.7 seconds versus the RAV's 7.1 seconds. Ouch.
Compared to an earlier test of a 3.5-liter V6 Murano S, however, the Mazda does quite well, edging it to 60 mph by 0.2 second and legging it out to a 0.4-second win at the quarter-mile.
The Toyota delivers better observed fuel economy — 19 mpg compared to the 16.6 we measured in the Mazda. Oh, and the RAV does all that on regular unleaded, while the CX-7 needs premium.
Tell me some good news
When it comes to handling and brake performance, the Mazda CX-7 lives up to the "soul of a sports car" hype.
The hydraulic power steering is nicely weighted, and the effort increases in direct proportion to the cornering forces. This SUV feels very stable in turns and changes direction quickly, while maintaining good body roll control and providing just the right hint of understeer. If you get it all wrong, Mazda's Vehicle Dynamic Control stability control system is standard. There is no "off" button, but it's tuned so we didn't notice its presence, even when driving hard, unlike the RAV4 system's nervous-nanny finger-wagging character.
Because of all this, the CX-7 countertrounces the RAV4, posting a slalom time of 64.3 mph, way ahead of the Toyota's 61.3-mph effort. On the back roads, this shows itself as the ability to carry more speed through turns, and the poise to allow you to hammer the throttle down harder on corner exits. Zoom-zoom, indeed. The CX-7 does ride a bit less soft than the RAV4, but the degradation is small.
The brakes are freaking awesome. Unlike most competitors, all four of the CX-7's rotors are ventilated, not just the fronts. And the front calipers are two-piston units, not single pistons as is the usual custom. This allows for a larger pad, with more heat capacity. Our track test numbers were simply outstanding, with 60-0 stops taking a mere 113 feet, with no fade or smelly aftereffects.
Enough sport, on to utility
While the obvious competitors for the Mazda CX-7 are the Toyota RAV4 and the Honda CR-V, it has more in common, sizewise, with the larger and vastly more expensive Nissan Murano. It's only 0.3-inch narrower, with a wheelbase and overall length closer to the Nissan than the other two.
The 60/40-split rear seats can be folded down easily, using remote levers accessible from the hatch area. When folded down, a 70-inch flat floor is created. Seats folded up, we still had room for a couple of dozen traffic cones, cameras and test gear. What we didn't discover until after we smudged the carpet was the reversible floor insert, which can be flipped over to reveal a rubberized side for carrying dirty stuff — like cones. Oops! Send us the detailing bill.
You get a lot for your money
Our test car was loaded with everything except the Technology package — which means we didn't have a navigation system, rearview camera, voice-control system or smart key. Still, it rang up at $30,145. A V6 RAV4, equipped similarly, and leaving out the third row, costs only $250 less. But our CX-7 re-takes the lead when you factor in the included xenon HID headlamps, which the RAV4 doesn't offer. An equivalent Murano comes out somewhere north of $36,000.
The really good news is that all of the performance and safety stuff — the 2.3-liter turbo engine, six-speed automatic tranny, P235/60R18 tires, alloy wheels, six airbags, ABS brakes, stability control and cruise control — is standard on even the lowest-priced front-wheel-drive base model, called Sport, which you can get into for $24,310. The midlevel FWD Touring model, which adds leather-trimmed seats, front seat heaters and an eight-way power driver seat, goes for $26,060.
So if you have a fun-to-drive car in your driveway and you want a fun-to-drive SUV to park next to it, the 2007 Mazda CX-7 is for you.
Edmunds.com Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
You could argue that the Tribute was Mazda's first foray into "crossover land," but after driving the CX-7 it's obvious to me that this is the vehicle meant to capture that growing market segment. The CX-7 strikes all the right crossover sweet spots, too. It's not just "carlike" but "really-fun-to-drive-carlike." The suspension and steering work in perfect harmony to keep the cabin serene over bumps and confident around corners. The interior design is classic Mazda, meaning on the edge of contrived style, but not going over it (though the red instrument lighting may be too "Pontiac" for some ). The exterior shape works as well, though it clearly uses the same philosophy that's already been seen on the Nissan Murano.
If there's a weak point to the CX-7's recipe it's under the hood, where the 2.3-liter, turbocharged four feels just a tad overburdened by the car's size and weight. It's really a reflection on the world we now live in. People expect their utility vehicles to handle like sports cars and accelerate like muscle cars. The CX-7 manages the first, but falls short of the second (meaning it "only" feels sprightly rather than super-speedy). There's certainly more than adequate power for how people need to drive a vehicle like this, but we've long since left the days of merely demanding the power we "need" from our cars.
Senior Road Test Editor Josh Jacquot says:
Normally we give little credence to marketing hype, advertising slogans and PR talk. But somehow, Mazda always manages to deliver. Even a crossover vehicle like the new CX-7 is not exempt from the corporate mission statement that insists every product drive like it actually matters. Even the CX-7 has some zoom-zoom.
Sure, you say, it's still a tall, SUV-shaped people mover. Right, but that hardly tells the whole story. It might be tall, but it doesn't handle tall. Want proof? How's a slalom speed that's within 1 mph of the Subaru WRX we tested on the same day strike you? Doesn't sound like any SUV we've ever driven.
More importantly, it offers carlike feel from behind the wheel. The driving position is more RX-8 than Chevy Tahoe, but the CX-7 still offers the height and visibility most buyers in this segment are after. Steering feel is abundant and communicative, whether you're changing lanes on the freeway or honking around an on-ramp. The transmission's sequential-style shifter allows usable engine braking for drivers who want it or can be slapped into "D" for mindless freeway motoring.
Bringing zoom-zoom to the masses is what Mazda does best, and the CX-7 is driving proof. Add up its carlike control feel, space and usable powertrain and this crossover "crosses over" better than any other vehicle in the segment.
System Score: 6.0
Components: Our CX-7 was the Grand Touring version with an option package that includes an upgraded Bose stereo. That Moonroof/Bose Audio/CD changer package costs $1,585. The stereo upgrade includes an in-dash six-CD changer and nine-speaker Bose sound system with Centerpoint technology, which mimics surround sound even with stereo CDs. The system also features AudioPilot noise compensation, which adjusts the sound frequency according to measured noise from the cabin. Steering-wheel-mounted audio controls are also included. This system also features Bose SurroundStage signal processing that compensates for off-center vehicle seating, providing balanced surround sound to driver and passengers.
Performance: The optional Bose system in the new Mazda CX-7 offers acceptable sound quality but it isn't excellent. It does some things well but leaves much to be desired in other areas. If you listen to the "right" kind of music you'll think this sound system is nearly perfect. Music with a simple structure or lots of strings sounds great and makes the most of the Centerpoint surround sound effect. We listened to artists like Dave Matthews, Shawn Colvin and various country and folk albums and were impressed with the sound quality overall, although those artists' albums tend to have exceptional production value. Still, the bass tends to get boomy, which can feel taxing after listening for an hour or so.
However, listen to more aggressive rock tracks with complex overdubbing and layers of guitar, backing vocals, keyboards and inspired drum fills and this stereo's lack of separation starts to show as its Achilles' heel. To make matters worse, there is no midrange adjustment so you can't tune even a little of the confusion out. Also, the bass and treble adjustments must be turned up nearly all the way to get decent sound quality. But even with the bass turned all the way up it never sounds precise or has enough kick for our liking. There's plenty of rumble, but that doesn't always sound good, and in the case of the CX-7 some of the door panels would actually buzz as the bass hit.
On the other hand, the Centerpoint surround sound effect works well and we like how you can choose the level of the effect you want with four different settings, ranging from "low to "max." Also, the steering-wheel-mounted controls work well and are easy to use without looking.
Unexpectedly, the CX-7's upgraded Bose stereo does not have an input for handheld MP3 players and cannot play MP3-coded CDs. There is an option for a six-disc changer with MP3 capability, but that comes with the Technology package when the stereo is combined with a navigation system.
Best Feature: Centerpoint surround sound effect.
Worst Feature: Limited options for playing MP3s.
Conclusion: With sound quality that's just acceptable, we're a little disappointed with the CX-7's Bose stereo, especially given that we listened to the top-of-the-line unit that costs extra money. — Brian Moody