Mazda's flagship crossover utility vehicle, the CX-7, has received a mid-cycle refreshing for 2010 after first hitting the streets in 2006 as a 2007 model.
It's inside, outside and, most significantly, under the hood. The new engine option is a naturally aspirated, 2.5-litre, four-cylinder engine available on the base GX front-wheel-drive trim. It's the same engine found in the Mazda6, but the output is less - the CX-7 gets 161 horsepower and 161 lb-ft of torque compared with the Mazda6's 170 hp and 167 lb-ft.
Another bonus is the price point - starting at $27,995, it's reasonable, especially when you consider all the new added features - rain-sensing windshield wipers, a telescopic steering wheel, a rear door storage bin, an exterior temperature display and a trip computer.
That's in addition to air conditioning, steering-wheel-mounted cruise control, a tire-pressure-monitoring system, ABS with electronic brake distribution, dynamic stability control, traction control, dual front airbags, side airbags and curtain airbags.
The only option available on the GX is a luxury package, which significantly improves the look and feel of the cabin. For $2,995, it adds a power moon roof, leather upholstery, heated front seats, an eight-way power-adjustable driver's seat with power lumbar support and a four-way power-adjustable passenger seat.
For more power and the added security of an all-wheel-drive system, you have to move up the ladder to the GS or GT trim; both have a 2.3-litre, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine that delivers 244 hp and 258 lb-ft.
The mid-model GS costs $32,295 and has 18-inch alloy wheels, dual exhaust outlets and a six-speed automatic transmission with sport mode so you can manually shift gears.
The top GT trim costs more, $38,990, and includes new features such as larger 19-inch alloy wheels, a driver's memory seat, a premium Bose audio system with nine speakers, six-CD changer with MP3 and a colour information display with a rear-view camera.
Other innovative technology added to the GT includes a blind-spot-monitoring system that uses radar sensors to warn you of vehicles.
A keyless entry and start system lets you lock and unlock all the doors or tailgate by pressing a button on the driver's door handle - just keep the key fob buried in the bottom of your purse or pocket and it'll do the trick. You can also start the engine without a key - just turn the ignition like normal.
The GT also comes with a moon roof, heated front seats, a retractable cargo cover, xenon HID headlights and leather seats. The only option available is a $2,600 seven-inch DVD navigation system with touch screen. But if you opt for it, the price jumps to more than $40 grand, which is more expensive than some of the competition. For instance, Honda's top-trim CR-V EX-L with navigation is $37,090; the most expensive Toyota RAV4 4WD V-6 Limited is $34,390.
Personally, I prefer the performance, price and comfort of the base GX trim. The four-banger has pleasant road manners and is comfortable and secure on the road. The five-speed automatic transmission is smooth, but the engine whines when pushed. Road and wind noise also penetrate into the cabin. There is some body lean when cornering, too.
While it's not as powerful or fast, and can't tow as much as the upper models (680 kilograms compared with 907 kg), it's more cost effective when it comes to filling up.
The GX FWD is rated at 10.4 litres/100 km in the city and 7.2 on the highway, while the AWD models get 12.2 city/8.7 highway. Regular fuel is recommended on the GX, while premium fuel is recommended on the turbo for optimal engine performance.
As for design, the new CX-7 looks similar to the last model. The most obvious change is the face; it resembles the smiling grin found on the Mazda3. Although some hate the design, I like it. It's recognizable and creates continuity across the brand.
The GT trim adds a few sportier touches such as chrome-trimmed mouldings surrounding the grille, windows and lower door, and large dual exhaust outlets.
Entering and exiting the CX-7 is easy because it's low to the ground. The CX-7 seats five - not seven as the name might suggest. Big brother CX-9 gets three rows of seats for up to seven passengers.
Inside, you'll notice big changes - higher-quality materials and fit and finish. From the driver's seat, outward visibility is good, but thick rear pillars partly block visibility on the driver's side.
The front seats are firm and supportive, even on long rides. The rear seats could use a bit more padding and leg room for taller passengers.
The cargo area is spacious at 848 litres. Drop the second-row seats to unveil 1,658 litres of room.
There are plenty of handy storage compartments, too, including a centre console box, front- and rear-door storage bottle holders, driver- and passenger-seatback pockets, and dual front and rear cup holders.
The CX-7 is an improvement over the last version, but I'd skip the most expensive trim in favour of the base GX FWD version - for about $30,000, you get a lot of CUV for the price.
2010 MAZDA CX-7 GX
Type: Five-passenger, mid-size crossover Base Price: $27,995; as tested, $30,990
Engine: 2.5-litre, DOHC, inline-four
Horsepower/Torque: 161 hp/161 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed auto
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.4 city/7.2 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Honda CR-V, Ford Edge, Nissan Murano, Toyota RAV4, Hyundai Santa Fe