Available with either front-drive- or all-wheel-drive, Mazda's CX-7 is one of those vehicles that slips under the radar and soldiers along with minimal fanfare. It's not a car that gets you all hot and bothered, but is a steady seller for the company.
Introduced as a 2007 model at the Los Angeles Auto Show and manufactured in Hiroshima, Japan, it got a minor facelift in 2009. The CX-7 does not share its platform with any Ford products, but does however, feature an interesting assortment of components from other Mazda products: the MPV, Mazda6 and Mazda5 have all had their parts bins pillaged for the CX-7 at one time or another.
These days, it's offered with either a normally aspirated 2.5-litre four-cylinder, or a turbocharged 2.3-litre four-banger. Two transmissions are available: five-speed and six-speed automatic with manual shift mode, and there are three basic trim levels: GX, GS and GT.
I've driven all the models, and while I can't honestly say that any of them knocked my socks off, the driving experience was pleasant enough, with no glaring low-lights. The level of refinement in the CX-7 is definitely superior to that of the Ford-based Mazda Tribute, for example, but it has less cargo space and is not available with either a V-6 engine or manual transmission. It's also more expensive.
If abundant reserve power and decent 0-100 km/h performance is on your list of perquisites, the turbo GS or GT models are the ones to get, but if you just want a reasonably peppy people hauler, the normally aspirated model should do the job - to a point. There is a price difference of at least $3,500 between the two, and the turbo models are considerably thirstier - 12.2 litres/100 km in town versus 10.4.
That said, the turbo CX-7 has an intoxicating power band once the boost comes on - at about 1,500-2,000 rpm. For highway overtaking - especially uphill - it's lovely and will leave its normally aspirated stable mate for dead.
Both versions have an upscale feel and standard equipment is generous. Things like 17-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, tire-pressure monitoring system, heated mirrors, rear privacy glass, rain-sensing wipers, intermittent rear wiper, automatic headlights, cruise control, tilt and telescopic steering wheel with audio controls, trip computer with fuel consumption gauge, keyless entry, cloth seats, 60/40-split/folding rear seat, floor mats and CD/MP3 stereo all come with the base GX.
You can also order extras like, oh, larger 18-inch wheels and tires, climate control system, leather interior, heated front seats and a blind spot monitoring system, which will activate small lights located in the outside mirrors if there's an object beside you. This latter feature is an outstanding idea; one of the inherent flaws in the new breed of SUVs - from all the manufacturers - is poor side/peripheral vision, and I don't know how many times I've cut someone off when changing lanes, simply because I didn't see them.
Moving right along, the CX-7 is not the roomiest SUV out there. Fold down all the seats, and you get 1,658 litres of storage room, which is more than the Mitsubishi RVR, for example, but less than the CR-V, RAV4 or Equinox. It'll carry five adults, but it's a snug fit, and the back floor is not completely flat with the seats folded down.
And a word about the new "corporate" body cues of the CX-7. Someone in the design department must be sniffing too much styling clay, because the front-end treatment of this vehicle is completely out of whack with the rest of the car. It's almost as if Mazda designers are trying to make their cars look cheerful and happy, with a smirking front end and upswept front body panels. The rest of the car is fine, but get rid of that front end, please.
And I might as well bellyache about the interior ergonomics while I'm at it: why are the radio presets and heat/ventilation control settings located in a small housing atop the dashboard? I don't understand why designers do things like this; it doesn't make things easier or more straightforward and, in fact, clutters up the dash treatment. I suspect change for its own sake - a common malady throughout the industry.
The CX-7 is duking it out in a viciously competitive market segment. Some of the industry's heaviest hitters are here: Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Chevrolet Equinox and even the Kia Sorento and Hyundai Santa Fe. While I like the fact that you can get a turbocharged version of this car, I can think of no other compelling reason to buy a CX-7. It takes a back seat to many of these vehicles when it comes to cargo room, engine power (the normally aspirated model, at any rate), interior ambience, styling, fuel economy, and, especially, price.
Incidentally, the 2011 CX-7 is a carryover from 2010, with minimum changes, aside from a price drop. But even so, it's time for another redo, Mazda.
2011 Mazda CX-7 GX
Type: Mid-size SUV
Base Price: $26,495; as tested, $29,490
Engine: 2.5-litre, four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 161 hp/161 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.4 city/7.2 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Chevrolet Equinox, Hyundai Santa Fe, Kia Sorento, Mitsubishi RVR, Ford Escape, Mazda Tribute, Nissan Rogue, Suzuki Grand Vitara, Dodge Journey, Acura RDX, Subaru Forester