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

Our Opinion

We like
Great value with new base model, lower pricing across range, excellent ride and handling, improved road noise, steering feel on petrol models, interior presentation and comfort, diesel performance and quietness
Room for improvement
Lack of auto for the diesel, steering feel on diesel model, extra service cost for diesel model, sluggish performance from 2.5-litre petrol, only five speeds for base auto

13 Oct 2009

WITH the original CX-7, Mazda took the compact SUV and made it sexy. Now, less than three years later, it has refined the formula, expanded the portfolio and made it even better.

The addition of a new entry-level model with a non-turbo engine has not only addressed one of the original CX-7's few shortcomings – its thirst – but also vastly reduces the cost of entry, while the long-awaited diesel brings an extra degree of real-world performance and improves the economy equation even further.

In terms of styling, the CX-7 has few detractors and its overall proportions have, of course, been retained, but the facelift brings with it notable changes to the front end that give it an even more upright yet sporty look.

Taking on the latest front-end style that now spans the Mazda range from the little 2, the SUV gains what is now a familiar lower grille shape that not only smiles welcomingly but also provides extra cooling capacity for the new diesel engine, along with matching 'brake ducts' that incorporate the fog lamps and add to the vertical theme of the front end.

Inside, a new stepped dash design sweeps across the vehicle and now contains an information display screen, images from the standard reversing camera and, where fitted, the satellite navigation map and instructions.

Revised interior surfaces, a nice new steering wheel, clearer instrumentation and chrome-trimmed air vents further refine an interior that already set a high standard for finish and comfort. The CX-7 is a superb place to be for either a long haul in the country or while battling the urban jungle, with seats that have just the right balance between support and comfort.

This week's launch in north-east Victoria naturally concentrated on the introduction of the two new engine variants rather than the continuing 2.3-litre turbo petrol models. They tackle the CX-7 equation in different ways and are worthy additions to the line-up.

Looking at the new entry-level model first, it came as no surprise to find that the 2.5-litre 'atmo' engine struggles a little, even though it has to haul 172kg less weight around – mostly as a result of making do with drive to the front wheels only, rather than all four.

But there is simply no overcoming the large engine performance deficit over the 2.3-litre turbo – 31 per cent less power at 120kW and 49 per cent less torque at 205Nm – and the shortcoming is further highlighted by having only five gears rather than six.

Speedy traffic light getaways will be out of the question and out in the country some labouring up hills is inevitable, followed by a sudden downshift that has the engine revving hard because of the five-speeder’s wider spread of ratios. Having said that, even sporty Mazda drivers may not be overly concerned by such matters when they ponder the $5000 premium for the extra performance of the turbo.

Of course, the big issue with the new non-turbo Classic model is the economy. With CX-7 turbo drivers routinely getting as high as 15L/100km around town, the new non-turbo should see a big improvement, although the official combined figure of 9.4L/100km might be a little hard to achieve (we averaged 10.0L/100km cruising at a fairly steady 100km/h).

Regardless of the actual numbers, the new model should reduce fuel costs by about 20 per cent.

Despite the ordinary performance, we loved driving the new CX-7 Classic. On smooth surfaces at least, road noise was well-controlled, the steering was perfectly weighted and provided excellent feel, and the 17-inch wheels allowed the suspension to work efficiently, absorbing all manner of road imperfections while still offering excellent handling.

With the drive going only to the front wheels, the vehicle will ultimately understeer at the limit, but the grip levels are so high you would have to be incredibly ham-fisted to reach that point so it's hardly an issue. For such a large vehicle, the CX-7 handles well and makes for an excellent country cruiser. We doubt many Mazda buyers will be the least bit concerned by the lack of AWD.

Stepping up to the highly-anticipated diesel model, we were not disappointed with the extra performance of the 127kW/400Nm turbo-diesel engine, which provides the sort of wonderful urge – especially from lower revs – that we had expected. Just lean on the throttle and you are suddenly overtaking a slower car or accelerating briskly out of a corner.

Even with the extra weight of the AWD system and the inherently heavier iron-block engine – amounting to a 167kg penalty over the similarly-specced turbo petrol Classic Sports – the Diesel Sports feels alive and responsive.

What's more, it does this with surprising smoothness and silence. The noise suppression is so good that you will not hear any diesel clatter until you open the door or a window.

The official combined figure of 7.6L/100km suggests a further 20 per cent improvement in fuel economy over the new base model and our launch drive tended to confirm that. We averaged 7.7L/100km on a 100km cruise that was slightly flatter than when we did the same thing in the Classic.

On the downside, when driving the Diesel Sports gears have to be changed manually because an auto transmission is still more than three years away – probably coming with the next-generation model – and you will be changing often because there are six ratios to choose from and with a turbo-diesel there is no point revving them out. Best to learn to skip the occasional gear when accelerating around town and letting it lope along in a higher gear than you might have thought necessary.

The bigger wheels on the Diesel Sports create extra harshness, and the added weight means the vehicle moves around a little more, but there is no problem with the overall level of grip and there is less understeer with the drive going to all four wheels.

Apart from a common problem these days with clutch action, which makes changing smoothly difficult, the biggest issue we had with the Diesel Sports was the steering, which has electric power assistance and felt entirely different to the all-hydraulic set-up used on the petrol models.

The electro-hydraulic system was way too light – at least for country driving – and lost all of the feel that makes the base model a delight to drive. No doubt it will be less of a problem around town, but it seems like an issue that could be addressed on the next model.

Buyers should also be aware of the pioneering urea injection system that completely eliminates harmful NOx emissions from the exhaust through a chemical reaction in the catalytic converter, a system that has also been developed by other car-makers and will soon be commonplace, but which is a first for Mazda outside of large trucks.

This technology is tremendous from an environmental point of view as NOx is a harmful smog emission – and one which diesel proponents have tended to ignore while talking only about CO2 and particulates – but buyers need to understand that the urea has to be replenished every 20,000km or so.

That fits in fine with Mazda's regular 10,000km service intervals so there's no excuse for running out (and therefore not being able to restart the engine!), but the cost of fully replenishing the 15-litre tank will add about $140 to a service bill.

Both new models are welcome additions to the CX-7 line-up and give buyers some clear and attractive options to the previous single-engine line-up. At only $33,990, though – almost $8000 less than the previous starting point for the CX-7 – we reckon the new entry-level non-turbo Classic model represents outstanding value and should be popular with budget-conscious buyers looking for a well-equipped SUV with Mazda style, engineering and resale value.

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