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2007 Mazda CX-7 First Drive

At first, we weren’t particularly interested in the announcement of an all-new crossover SUV–the 2007 Mazda CX-7. A new car-based ‘ute is about as rare as a Hollywood wedding. Mostly, they’re ungainly, unexciting vehicles that trade the stability and light weight of a car for extra cargo room and ground clearance that nobody uses. A few high-end crossovers do emphasize the Sport in SUV–Range Rover Sport, ML55, X5, etc.–but in the meat of the market, there’s not much to get our blood boiling.

When we heard the CX-7 would be powered by a 244-horse turbo, however, our ears perked up. After all, Mazda is known for injecting a bit of “Zoom-zoom” philosophy into nearly every vehicle they build. And when we saw that curvy body, we relented, and decided to take a look at what we fervently hoped would not turn out to be just another family hauler with no soul.

Short story: it’s not. The CX-7 proved itself to be one of the liveliest crossovers in the $24-30,000 range. In fact, Mazda says that it was consumer feedback that inspired them to build it; their research concluded that crossover owners liked the utility of their SUVs but were under-whelmed with the performance and handling. Willing to trade attributes like ground clearance and cavernous cargo room for more speed, stability and styling, these respondents said they wanted “an SUV with the soul of a sports car.” (Although why such consumers didn’t scrap SUVs altogether remains unexplained.) If any manufacturer was suited to fill that niche, Mazda was it–and thus the CX-7 was born.

Like many recent models from the Ford/Mazda/Volvo/etc. family, the CX-7 originated with the commendable Mazda6 chassis. Also derived from that model, the front suspension is a McPherson strut setup; the independent multi-link rear design evolved from the Mazda5 design, however. Stabilizer bars are fitted at both ends. The end result is a five-passenger vehicle that’s 12 inches longer than the Tribute and much more car-like in demeanor. (Mazda further stressed that, contrary to popular belief, the upcoming 7-passenger CX-9 is not a long-wheelbase CX-7. They say the 9 will be 16″ longer–same as an Audi Q7–and also based on the Mazda6 chassis, but shares little with this model.)

Mazda stylists had an essentially clean slate to work with, aiming for a sleek, sporty, yet sturdy look, while retaining brand continuity. The fruit of their labors is, we think, a rather appealing piece. The prominent fenders and bold air intake convey a muscular, brawny impression, while details such as the grille shape and clear-lens cylindrical taillights are reminiscent of the vaunted RX-8 and Miata sports cars. It’s certainly distinctive, and doesn’t offend the eye like some recent envelope-pushing SUV designs have. If anything, we wish the wheels–standard 18-inchers–were bigger or somehow more aggressive; the flared fenders demand visually-impactful rolling stock. On the whole, the CX-7 may be the best-looking sport-styled SUV on the market when it goes on sale in May.

Of course, the competition is never far behind. For instance, fresh redesigns of the Mitsubishi Outlander and Suzuki XL7, debuted at the New York Auto Show, feature cutting-edge styling as well.

Fortunately, Mazda isn’t relying on looks alone to best their rivals–the CX-7’s powertrain promises a driving experience that feels just as sporty as the exterior looks. A turbocharged version of the excellent Mazda 2.3-liter four-cylinder is the centerpiece, featuring direct injection and an intercooler (innovatively placed on top of the motor). This motor puts out 244 horsepower, while its small size and lightweight construction aid in the CX-7’s overall balance. Torque is impressive, too, with a broad plateau of pulling power that peaks with 258 lb.-ft. at 2500 r.p.m.–99 percent of which is available to the hp peak of 5000 r.p.m. With a 6600 r.p.m. redline, this MazdaSpeed6-derived powerplant boasts quick power delivery and almost imperceptible turbo lag.

Backing up the engine is a standard six-speed automatic transmission with manu-matic capability and ventilated disc brakes measuring 11.6″ up front, with dual-piston calipers, and 11.9″ at the rear. All trim levels come with ABS, Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), brake assist, Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) and a Traction Control System (TCS). An Active Torque Split all-wheel-drive system, which distributes power from 100/0 to 50/50 front/rear, is optional. AWD subtracts only 1 m.p.g. from the CX-7’s city rating of 19; highway mileage is 24 m.p.g. regardless.

Behind the wheel, too, the CX-7 hits its target–although we weren’t sure it would. An initial stretch of poorly-banked freeway exposed significant body lean, and after several miles we had almost written off the CX-7, impressive specs aside, as just another pretender. As our route became more challenging, though, this Mazda came into its own. It settles in well, slicing through both sweeping high-speed curves and sharp, tight turns with impressive agility. The wide tires (235/60-series rubber is standard) and AWD give prodigious grip, which we only exceeded–to the point of activating the electronic safeguards–once. As we got comfortable, we found ourselves charging down unfamiliar roads at speeds we never would have attempted with other so-called “sporty” crossovers–and grinning all the while. Aspiring challengers will have to work hard to best this baby.

We weren’t thrilled with the exhaust note, however. Unobtrusive at normal engine speeds, at high revs it lacks either a resonant rumble or whining turbo timbre–instead there’s a rather nasal clatter that’s certainly loud but hardly befitting of a sporting machine.

The CX-7’s hefty steering feel does evoke athleticism, though, but the effort it requires might frustrate some. With a 15.8:1 ratio and a mere 18.7-foot turning circle, it’s certainly more sporting than the typical SUV’s over-assisted feel–but the frequent adjustments we found ourselves making at freeway speeds pushed the CX-7’s rack-and-pinion system a notch or two below perfection. Brake force is outstanding, however. The CX-7’s binders bite in initially like a man just off a hunger strike, yet pedal modulation is easy and the overall action is smooth. Our electronic gear measured the CX-7’s stopping distance at a remarkable 117 feet from 60 to 0. We liked, and felt safe with, the CX-7’s whoa-power enough to really flog our tester, subjecting it to a half-hour of serious heel-and-toeing through some of Virginia’s best back roads. By the time we hit highway again, the brakes had faded almost entirely, along with our adrenaline reserves. (We aren’t complaining, however, as any production car would exhibit similar diminishment under such conditions.)

Of course, the CX-7 wouldn’t be a real Zoom-zoom Mazda without some stirring speed. As noted, the 244-horse turbo proved torquey yet responsive; mash the throttle in any gear at any speed and response is nearly instantaneous. We clocked a rough zero-to-sixty m.p.h. time of 7.5 seconds, averaged over a few runs on the flattest stretches we could find during our drive. That slots the Mazda neatly between its stated competitors–about a half-second behind the new V6-powered Toyota RAV4, but at least a full second above the Honda CR-V. In fact, the CX-7 is just a tick behind high-end sporty crossovers like the Infiniti FX35 or Lexus RX400h, and well ahead of the Nissan Murano.

That 6-speed tranny deserves credit for the CX-7’s snappy response and respectable acceleration, too. A gear or two ahead of most rivals, this unit shifts quickly and intelligently. At a calm cruise, it’ll hang in 5th gear–but it’ll downshift the instant you hit the go-pedal. You’ll never miss a hole in traffic, and you’ll never lug the engine up even the most sudden of hills. We never even needed the manu-matic gate; although we appreciate that it holds gears even at redline and provides split-second shifts, the transmission’s logic in Drive was responsive enough.

As a family vehicle, the CX-7 doesn’t cater only to the driver, however. The interior is contemporary, but relaxed and comfortable. Seats are well-bolstered but not tight up front, and roomier in back than most. Total passenger volume is 98 cubic feet, with over 39′ of headroom front and rear (less with moonroof) and shoulder room lists at 58’/56’. Leg room, too, is plentiful, with 42′ up front and 36′ in back–enough for a six-foot editor to sit behind himself comfortably. The 60/40 split rear seats don’t recline, but are angled better and contoured deeper than others in the class.

One trick feature in the CX-7 is the remote latch for folding the rear seats. A cable-operated, door-handle-like lever, it’s accessible from the rear hatch. Either side can be flipped forward without walking to the side of the vehicle–and without expensive motors or electronics. Cargo space increases to 59′–double the 30′ available with seats up.

Our testers were both top-line Grand Touring models, stickered at $26,300. A front-drive Sport model can be had for $23,750, but you lose the leather upholstery, heated seats with power adjustment for the driver, heated mirrors in body color, and the retractable cargo cover. The mid-level Touring model, at $25,500, adds those features, but lacks fog lights, automatic & adjustable Xenon HID headlights, electroluminescent gauge lighting, automatic climate control, ambient interior lighting, outside temp display, and folding mirrors. In addition to all those goodies, our GT testers were equipped with the $1,700 AWD and a $1,585 package with the moonroof and an audiophile-quality Bose stereo with 9 speakers and a 6-disc CD changer.

We also sampled the $2,420 Technology package, which includes the moonroof and Bose audio and adds a navigation system, rear-view camera, keyless entry/start and a perimeter alarm. The touch-screen nav system appears to be sourced from the same vendor Lexus uses, and thus is among the most intuitive on the market. The rear-view camera, which automatically displays in the nav screen whenever you’re in reverse, aids in parking and not crushing small children. And we especially like the keyless system–entering and leaving a car without ever fumbling for keys looks pretty suave, and push-button starters just look cool. We’re ambivalent about the actual transmitter/”fob” Mazda uses, however; it’s credit-card-sized but too thick to add to our already-spine-bending wallets.

A loaded CX-7 tops out at $32,005–notably less expensive than the upper echelon of the competition. Base models, at $9,000+ less, stack up well against the cute-ute segment. Nevertheless, what puts the Mazda over the top is the driving experience. Others might match the CX-7 in a category or two, but we’ve never driven any small-to-midsize SUV with such frisky DNA.

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