Skip to main content
car review

There's family time, and then there's time to party it up.

The former's what we do on vacation with our kids, now seven and three years old; the latter is what we did in our carefree single days. Until we hit a water park in the southern Algarve region of Portugal this summer, we had never seen a place that combined both.

But there was the outdoor wave pool, full of inner tubes, pre-schoolers frolicking about in the sunshine, parents and grandparents standing over them, especially vigilant when the waves started. And on a stage just above them, a hyped-up DJ spinning high energy dance music, complete with flashing disco lights, with a couple of logo-splashed, spandex-clad ladies next to him, promoting a local nightclub.

And strangest of all – at least to us apparently staid North American types – was the sight of doting moms and dads, seemingly taken over by the music, getting down with their young kids. Right next to them, groups of teens and 20-somethings were doing much the same thing – and they knew more of the co-ordinated dance moves, unsurprisingly.

So that's why it's called Aquashow Park.

This mix of traditional family values and youthful enthusiasm was reflected nicely in our wheels for the trip there, a loaded Mazda CX-7. As a mid-size crossover, the comfortable and refined five-seat CX-7 offers lots of room up front for the kids, a wide-enough back seat for three child seats, or as we usually had it, two seats plus grandma. So it was great at filling the practical family hauler role that's key to most of its buyers.

But unlike so many SUV-ish family haulers, the CX-7 also offers a strong sense of youthful energy, starting with its looks, but also under the hood, and from the driver's seat. The aggressively curved contours of those fenders, which mimic the ones in Mazda's doomed but still cherished RX-8 rotary sports car, huge wheels, and the steeply laid back windshield scream out that the CX-7 owner cares about style and performance, even if they have to give up some headroom or interior space to get it.

Driving from Faro, the Algarve's largest city, to the nearby touristy Albufeira region that's chockfull of English, Spanish and German visitors, this European model furthered that energetic feel with a six-speed manual transmission and its four-cylinder turbodiesel engine, both of which are unfortunately not available in North America. Although the 173-hp figure won't excite anyone used to the CX-7's turbocharged gas engine of 244 ponies, it's the diesel's 295 lb-ft (400 Newton-metres of torque at a low 2,000 rpm that impresses most.

Not only by the immediate thrust of this engine, but its smooth refinement, to the point where one can barely hear any diesel clatter from inside the vehicle, even soon after a chilly morning start – "chilly" being relative to most warm and sunny August mornings in southern Portugal.

Fuel economy-wise, we averaged a thoroughly impressive 9.2 litres/100 km overall with this six-speed manual CX-7 turbodiesel, and that's with it travelling mostly with five people onboard. Compare that to the auto-only turbo gas engine, which is rated at 12.2 city/8.7 highway for the AWD model (even with Natural Resources Canada's admittedly optimistic figures), and the turbo uses pricey premium fuel, compared to diesel that's now about the price of regular fuel at Toronto-area gas stations.

This figure is even within a faulty pump reading of our entry-level, non-turbo, front-wheel-drive CX-7, which uses a five-speed instead of six-speed automatic. The base CX-7 is listed at 10.4 city and 7.2 highway, so still slightly better, but with nowhere near the torque (at 161 lb-ft) or creamy refinement of Mazda's turbodiesel.

Then again, the all-wheel-drive CX-7 had better be refined, because in Portugal it starts at more than €57,000, making it a full-blown luxury machine there. This price may include the country's 23 per cent sales tax, but still, that sounds like a typo. For that price, even in economically depressed but still strangely pricey Portugal, you could get a similarly sized but much more luxurious Audi Q5 or even an A6 wagon quattro for thousands less than the CX-7's €57,095 starting price, which converts to a staggering $77,700 Canadian.

That makes the $36,690 Canadian MSRP for the top of the line Mazda CX-7 GT look like a screaming bargain. I'll never again complain about Canadians paying more for the same car as Americans, who are generally known to enjoy the lowest car prices in the world, as at least we're in the same ballpark of their $33,340 (U.S.) for a fully loaded turbocharged CX-7.

Granted, that price south of the border is before lower taxes and freight charges as well. Okay, so strike that U.S. pricing vow.

Our trek for family fun was originally going to include some cousins who also have a young boy, but when they heard we were going to this water park, they begged off, citing two-hour lineups for rides and a major lack of parking for all the folks that would surely be there at the busiest time of the year for tourists, from other countries as well as those from further north up the country. We had by then done quite a few beach days, though, and were determined to escape the serious August heat. Even at the most southern tip of this southern European country, most homes still don't have air conditioning.

Those cousins were right about the impossible parking, as there were cars parked on top of every sidewalk, walkway and grass area within sight of the park's entrance, even within a half hour of it opening.

Looking over the throngs of people at the park, the lineups of folks at concession stands and the crowded gift shop at the exit – which you thankfully didn't have to walk through on your way out – it certainly didn't seem like Portugal was a country lacking for economic activity. Which is why tourism has become one of the key areas of development for the Portuguese government in recent years, in order to battle the serious lack of jobs and industry in many other parts of the country.

On a micro level, even with this packed beehive of activity, we didn't encounter any two-hour lineups, though we didn't do any of the amusement park rides, and stuck mainly to the wave pool, the water-spouting jungle gyms and smaller waterslides – which weren't worth lining up for, as they were insufficiently waxed and/or watered, to the point where many folks would actually stop sliding halfway down. And suddenly became very conscious of all that yummy food they'd been enjoying on vacation.

Perhaps it was time for more partying, and cardio, at that rocking wave pool.