Car reviews - Mazda - CX-7 - Diesel Sports 5-dr wagon
Sportiest SUV this side of a BMW, value for money, diesel performance and economy, practical package, standout design
Room for improvement
Blind-spot A-pillars, no auto option, limited front-seat legroom for tall people, no downward adjustment for front passenger seat, limited rear headroom for taller folk
22 Oct 2009
MAZDA’S renaissance in the 2000s may have started with the first Mazda6 in 2002, but – MX-5 aside – it has arguably been this century’s CX-7 that has remained the most true to the 80-odd-year-old company’s Zoom Zoom ethos.
Think about it: no matter how close they come or how much of a sales success each may have achieved, every other model – from the Mazda2 to the RX-8 sports car – has been bettered by the competition as either a driver’s car or for sheer swoopy design (surely the pillars of the Zoom Zoom philosophy).
But from launch in late 2006, the CX-7 has had it all in spades.
Strikingly low slung, usefully large and a stonkingly good drive should you be prepared to rev that 2.3-litre direct-injection turbo jewel of a powerplant, this Mazda really has put both ‘sport’ and ‘utility’ in the compact SUV segment – while the ‘V’ could very well have stood for ‘value’ too.
The odd blind spot, too much road noise and high fuel consumption aside – in the real world the CX-7 could easily be as thirsty as a Territory – compact SUV buyers who took a chance with the responsive and sweet handling Mazda were in for a treat.
Little wonder that more than 14,000 have found homes in such a short period of time in Australia. The CX-7 quickly made the dumpy Mazda Tribute it first supplanted and later replaced obsolete.
Three years on, there’s now an updated version, complete with a little more refinement and a whole lot more choice.
Thankfully Mazda hasn’t dropped the 2.3L turbo six-speed auto all-wheel drive (AWD) option, but now customers can choose between a way-cheaper 2.5-litre petrol five-speed auto with front-wheel drive (ex-Mazda6) or an intriguing new 2.2-litre turbo-diesel six-speed manual AWD (ditto).
So the CX-7 Series II gains a manual as well as a diesel in one fell swoop.
And, if you love driving, want a sizeable cabin, need real-world fuel economy, and don’t mind changing gears, then this – and this alone – is the compact SUV of choice. Especially if a soupcon of sassy styling also rates highly on your agenda.
Mercifully, Mazda has not messed with the CX-7’s. A new bumper here, a bigger grille there, and … err … that’s it by the looks of things. There was nothing broke here so the stylists have pretty much left most of it alone.
Stepping inside does reveal a few more new bits and pieces, however.
Answering previous criticism, Mazda has applied higher-grade materials on the dashboard and console, to make everything seem less cheapo than before, and by-and-large it has succeeded.
Owners of the latest up-spec Mazda3 models will notice that its small but functional satellite navigation system – standard diesel model fare by the way – has been incorporated within the reprofiled upper-dash binnacle.
It doesn’t exactly harmonise visually with the adjacent info window for audio, climate control and external temperature. But this Tom-Tom-sized item is functional and extremely easy to operate once mastered – via a steering wheel-mounted system.
One innovation is the self-zooming feature when the screen shows an approaching turn or destination point. And are the dulcet tones those of a familiar Network Ten newsreader?
Now, while the cabin architecture does seem familiar – if not dated – compared with newer Mazda models, the CX-7 does not suffer for it.
There’s a pleasant symmetry to the console, which is defined by large, clear switches and buttons, while the tri-dial instrumentation looks respectably sporty in its blue and red lighting at night, and yet manages to remain a model of clarity in the daytime.
The Mazda’s driving position is second-to-none, with the ability to be both low-slung and lofty at a push or pull of a button of the standard electric seat adjuster.
Of course, the new tilt and telescopic steering wheel – small, grippy and attractively designed – helps too, as do nicely formed seats up front.
But vision out isn’t great at all, despite a large set of exterior mirrors. Those fat, sloping A-pillars collude with the rising side window line to make the driver feel nervous when reversing. So it’s a good thing Mazda has also standardised a reverse camera on this diesel model. We used it constantly.
Whether you find the rear quarters spacious or cramped depends on whether you categorise the CX-7 as a compact or medium SUV, because it sits on a variation of the Mazda6’s platform and so is larger and longer than – say – a Subaru Forester.
The sloping roofline may cramp tall folks’ heads, but there is plenty of space for legs, knees and shoulders if there are two adults and a child back there.
A nicely padded cushion and relaxed backrest angle make for comfy passage, while the rear windows fall right away so kids and dogs can stick their heads out without interference.
Mazda fits a space-saver spare wheel, but the part of the cargo floor that covers it still sits proud of its surrounds, so loading heavier objects on to it might be a bit of a struggle for some. Plus the surface is not completely flat, either.
Nevertheless, the load-carrying capacity is sizeable, despite that sloping roof and acutely angled tailgate that do so much to give the Mazda its sporty silhouette.
Predictably, though, it is what lies beneath that has the ability to keep the keener driver entertained.
That Mazda6-related platform is a great start, but the diesel vehicle’s steering – even though it is the only model in the range to employ an electro-hydraulic set-up – endows the CX-7 with the most communicative and well-weighted tiller in the compact SUV class.
Add responsive handling that is supplemented by amusingly flat and grippy roadholding, and this Mazda diesel … wait for it … really does Zoom Zoom.
A part-time four-wheel-drive system is at work down below, whereby torque transfers to the rear wheels when slippage is detected, but the balance, agility and body control of the CX-7 Diesel belies both its size and hefty 1928kg mass.
For the facelift, Mazda boosted rigidity by five per cent and fitted improved dampers for greater stability and ride comfort, and these moves really seem to have paid off in the way the already-impressive CX-7 drives.
And then there is the star of the show, the MZR-CD diesel – a slightly detuned 127kW/400Nm version of the impressively smooth and revvy common-rail direct-injection unit found in the Mazda6.
Before we drove it, we wondered if Mazda was being prudent in releasing a manual-only model in a very auto-dominated class. And while many people will be barred from the CX-7 Diesel as a result, those who can handle a stick would be well advised to try before buying something else.
The fact is, a potent powerplant mated to a light yet positive and slick-shifting six-speed gearbox, and underpinned by a tightly sprung yet supple riding chassis, makes for a SUV that seems to shrink in size from behind the wheel. You point, it goes, without wallow or that vague steering feel that afflicts so many other similar types of vehicles. And the anchors keep everything in check with no hints of hesitation or fade.
You can rev the 2.2-litre unit to 4500rpm, and it does so with zeal, for a diesel. Yet there is hardly any need to, since an abundance of torque exists from the low 2000rpm range to haul the Mazda off the mark quickly and efficiently with minimum hesitation. Rowing up the ratios catapults the car with considerable thrust.
Naturally enough, fuel consumption rises well above the 7.6L/100km official combined average, but the CX-7 Diesel is significantly more economical than the 2.3-litre turbo petrol (11.5L/100km).
Better still, the Mazda is an early adopter of an anti-nitrogen oxide agent called AdBlue, a man-made urea substance that addresses one of the diesel engine’s largest drawbacks.
Combined with a commendably low 202g/km of carbon dioxide emissions, there is yet another compelling reason to choose the diesel over the petrol versions – even if the servicing of AdBlue adds about $140 to your servicing bill every 20,000. Failing to do so renders the CX-7 Diesel undriveable, by the way, so there is no way out of it.
Besides the cut-and-thrust traffic of capital-city driving, we also used the Mazda on the highway, where it felt steady despite strong side winds, and on gravel roads, which did not seem to affect stability. We reckon country buyers are going to get a kick out this particular model.
But so will city slickers looking for something that is a cut above the everyday compact SUV.
Engine noise is distant, there is a welcome lack of drivetrain shunt, and the drivetrain’s happy marriage pays dynamic and refinement dividends.
That usual Mazda bugbear of excessive road noise is still evident despite a concerted effort by the engineers to quell it. Some wind whistle can be heard around the exterior mirrors at higher freeway speeds, and larger speed humps reveal limited wheel travel.
On the other hand, as the company does not pretend that this is anything even remotely off-road like, the latter point is probably a moot one.
Earlier we said that the old CX-7 shone brightly for value for money, and we believe that the Diesel is the same despite a highish-sounding $43,640. That includes satellite navigation, leather upholstery, heated front seats, a Bose stereo upgrade, a blackout instrument cluster, Bluetooth connectivity, a reverse camera, 18-inch alloys and heated exterior mirrors.
Strangely, we wish an automatic gearbox was included on the Diesel’s option list despite enjoying the manual so much, simply because more people would be exposed to how good it really is.
Yet as it stands, this could be the ultimate CX-7 because the Diesel loses little of the 2.3-litre turbo petrol’s polished dynamicism while providing welcome low fuel consumption and emissions.
Potential buyers of performance wagons such as the Subaru Liberty GT and Holden Commodore Sportwagon, as well as those contemplating driver’s SUVs such as the Subaru Forester XT or even BMW X3, really need to spend a little time in the CX-7 Diesel.
For the way it goes and the cut of its gip, this has the most Zoom Zoom out of all the current Mazda models.
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