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Car reviews - Mazda - CX-7 - 5-dr wagon range

Our Opinion

We like
Head-turning style, amazing value, practical cabin, standard stability control, smooth turbo performance, reasonable fuel economy if driven carefully
Room for improvement
No manual option, some road-noise intrusion, cabin lacks million-dollar looks of CX-7 exterior, no GPS or rear camera or Bluetooth

17 Nov 2006

WHERE, exactly, is the SUV market headed?

Not into the bush, that’s for sure.

In fact it seems that if the buying public has its way, what we now know as the crossover category is set to evolve into something less like a 4WD and more like a conventional station wagon.

Already 4WD is an optional choice with some SUVs, while the tendency to morph into lower, sleeker profiles with increasingly car-like manners shows just how rapidly the concept is changing.

If you’re looking for solid proof, perhaps one of the best places to start is Mazda’s just-launched CX-7.

Lower, sleeker and more tarmac-focussed than its Tribute sibling – and still moreso than many other SUVs – the CX-7 is remarkably car-like on the road.

You’ll find a similar formula in many other successful SUVs, where the supposed go-anywhere 4WD capabilities and intimidating looks take a back seat to relatively low-slung style and easy-driving, easy-parking body dimensions.

The Mazda is right out there among the trend-setters, a little more compact than, say, a Nissan Murano or Lexus RX, but bigger than a RAV4 or X-Trail - and quite a bit more car-like into the bargain.

Like most of today’s SUVs, the CX-7 is an on-demand 4WD only, which means it operates as a front-driver most of the time until the back wheels are called in to help when tyre grip is lost up front.

Once a second-choice system that showed deficiencies in the noticeable pause as it gathered its wits before bringing extra traction into play, on-demand systems have become better and better, to the point where they are indistinguishable, in most cases, from a proper, three-differential, full-time 4WD.

The Mazda, with its Active Torque Split system is a quick-thinker that is able to apportion torque swiftly to the back wheels when needed, by up to 50 per cent. The whole thing operates invisibly to the driver, but adds extra security on the road, if not real 4WD ability off it.

It’s telling that at the launch of the new Mazda SUV, the chosen introductory test route was all-bitumen, as it also was with two other recently launched SUVs - Honda’s new CR-V and the latest 400h version of the Lexus RX.

Interestingly, the chosen powerplant for the CX-7 is the turbocharged 2.3-litre four-cylinder already employed in the seriously fast 6MPS and 3MPS models – the former using a version of the CX-7’s all-wheel drive system and the latter directing all the torque through just the front wheels.

In the CX-7 it’s tuned down to deliver 175kW/350Nm rather than the 190kW/380Nm churned out by the 6MPS and 3MPS. Both the power and torque are delivered at slightly lower revs, promising a little more flexibility to deal with the nearly 1.8-tonne CX-7.

What all this means is that the CX-7 has a rather different character to anything else in the segment.

It hasn’t got the head-spinning surge of the smaller and lighter Mazda turbo sedans, but it has a ready supply of smooth, eager torque that is not heavily compromised by turbo lag and, in most parts of its rpm band, is almost as smooth as many of its competitors' V6s. Only when taken out to the upper rev limits does the CX-7 sound distinctively four-cylinder.

The CX-7 is decently quick, dealing with a 0-100km/h sprint in a tidy 8.5 seconds and, with the help of its smooth and responsive six-speed sequential auto transmission, a rapid overtaker on the highway.

But the car’s bulk does extract a penalty in fuel consumption. The test CX-7 couldn’t manage better than 14.2L/100km despite a lot of country work and nowhere near the official average figure of 11.5L/100km. The CX-7 also asks for premium unleaded, which ups the costs even further.

Wouldn’t the torquey and thrifty turbo-diesel engine just introduced in the Mazda6 be perfect?

That said, there’s hardly a more desirable SUV in the CX7’s price range. Both the base model and the more expensive Luxury version are very well equipped yet you can climb into Mazda’s new SUV for a fraction under $40,000 (before on-road costs) which is a tad less than what you pay for a high-spec CR-V, RAV or X-Trail. Even the Luxury CX-7 is affordable at $45,560 – not far above the most expensive X-Trail, Honda CR-V and RAV and actually less than Mitsubishi’s new top of the range Outlander.

It’s hard to argue with a standard spec sheet that includes six airbags, electronic stability control, air-conditioning, alloy wheels, trip computer, cruise control and a six-disc in-dash CD stacker.

For the extra five and a half grand, the Luxury version adds a sunroof, heated front seats – with power adjustment on the driver’s side - leather trim, climate-control and a muscular nine-speaker Bose sound system.

The CX-7’s trump card is its nicely conceived, quality interior where the shapes are aesthetically pleasing and the space generous in both front and rear. In the Luxury model tested the power driver’s seat enables a close to perfect driving position, marred only by the vertical-only steering column adjustment.

Legroom is abundant up front and generous in the back as well, where adults can lounge in comfort on a decent-size, supportive 60/40 split-fold bench.

The instrument layout is pure class, never leaving you in doubt you’re driving a quality vehicle even if the dash plastic turns out to be hard-touch, rather than yielding slush-mould.

Large, easy-to-decipher controls are laid out on the centre console, there are buttons for controlling the sound system and cruise control on the steering wheel and there’s a massive, Mazda-signature (see Tribute) lockable storage bin/armrest between the front seats.

Cargo space is excellent too, with a lengthy load area measuring up to 1758mm (1013mm with the back seat in place) and 400 litres of rear cargo space – up to the window line – in five-passenger configuration.

With its six-airbag system - dual front and front side, full-length curtain bags - and impact-absorbent body the CX-7 has scored a five-star rating from the US Government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA).

Somehow being aboard a CX-7 gives a feeling upmarket of a RAV, CR-V or X-Trail, one more consistent with luxury SUVs like the Lexus RX or BMW X3.

This carries over into the on-road feel too, where CX-7’s sporty orientation becomes quite evident.

With its quite-generous wheelbase and broad front and rear tracks the Mazda always feels well planted and smoothly controlled as far as ride comfort is concerned. There is some rumble from the 235/60R18 tyres, but the engine is generally hushed and refined and there’s no real intrusion from wind noise.

Via its speed sensitive steering the CX-7 points accurately, very sedan-like except that, even though it does mask the vehicle’s weight, it’s maybe a tad too light for some tastes.

But, apart from the fact you’re still sitting higher than in a regular car, there’s none of the common SUV tallboy feel. The CX-7 can be fed with alacrity through a tortuously bending road, dealing out unexpected levels of driver enjoyment and no complaints from passengers.

Mazda has done a good job creating reality from the MX-Crossport concept that previewed the CX-7.

Sitting among smaller, less dynamic SUVs in terms of price, yet offering more class and no shortage of standard equipment, it is impossible to ignore.

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