05/08/06 — Merging a sports car with an SUV

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Merging a sports car with an SUV

Mazda CX-7 (2007)

WASHINGTON — We pulled out of the hotel parking lot, found a hole in heavy D.C. traffic and hit the accelerator.

The Mazda CX-7 answered with a startling and almost neck-snapping zoom-zoom.

It didn’t take but a few hundred yards in city traffic to appreciate the exuberance of this all-new crossover SUV that is energized by astounding low-end torque from a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, and very effectively lives up to Mazda’s six-year-old zoom-zoom theme.

Toyota RAV4, 2007

Within minutes of our departure, a winding off-ramp gave us the opportunity to display the CX-7’s sports-car-like road-hugging attributes.

Could this be the new sport utility for the family man who appreciates performance and handling, but who has not become affluent enough to afford both a sports car and a family vehicle?

Or is this the sport utility for the person who wants fine-tuned driving dynamics and head-turning styling in every vehicle he owns?

Mazda sees itself at the forefront of the rapidly evolving SUV segment with a car-based sport utility — called crossovers in modern automotive parlance — that performs closer to its RX-8 sports car cousin than the standard-issue Mazda Tribute SUV, but with the same cargo-hauling and people-moving practicality of the Tribute.

Not only were the handling and performance characteristics patterned after the Mazda sports car, but the styling was derived from the RX-8 as well. CX-7 Program Manager Shunsuke Kawasaki put it simply — Mazda’s goal was to turn the RX-8 into an SUV.

The styling portion of this goal was accomplished by creating a steeply raked windshield, which at 66 degrees is reclined even more than the RX-8, and prominent front fenders with bulging wheel arches that come directly from the RX-8 design.

A massive black air intake under the prominent Mazda nose gives the front of the CX-7 an aggressive stance.

The sports car theme continues inside. Chief Designer Iwao Koiuzumi pointed out that because of the windshield rake, the driver is moved back to create decent head room much like the RX-8. This also produces a cockpit-like feeling — an RX-8 feeling — for the driver.

“We sought a relaxed but sporty cockpit,” Koiuzumi said.

The three-spoke steering wheel looks identical to the one found in the Mazda MX-5 roadster and the front seats are designed to hold passengers in place during aggressive driving.

Koiuzumi pointed out that designers took great pains to insure that the six-speed automatic transmission falls easily to hand, again mimicking the feel of the RX-8. This was accomplished by building up the center console.

The dashboard is clean, but sporty, with clear gauges housed in three protruding chrome-ringed clusters directly behind the steering wheel.

To eliminate the picnic-table look created by the wide expanse of dashboard — a byproduct of the raked windshield — Mazda designers created a very neat upper deck that extends across the entire instrument panel.

Although the CX-7 weighs nearly 4,000 pounds and rides higher than a typical sports car, engineers have designed aggressive handling characteristics into the SUV.

We found it surprisingly nimble and even more surprisingly competent on curving two-lane roads in mountainous areas outside Washington, D.C. The steering is tight and the brakes pull the CX-7 down quickly from speed with excellent pedal feel.

Mazda has endowed the CX-7 with a modified version of the turbocharged 4-cylinder engine found in the fast and furious Mazdaspeed 6 sedan.

All trim levels get the 2.3-liter direct-injection inline 4-cylinder engine generating 244 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. The engine is mated to a six-speed automatic with manual shift capability.

The CX-7 is lightning quick off the line, but performance evens out as speed increases, and by our seat-of-the-pants estimate the CX-7 can finish off a 0-to-60 run in just a tick or two over 7 seconds.

The downsides — there aren’t many in this vehicle — are that the engine takes premium fuel, and we had hoped for a bit better gas mileage. That being said, the EPA mileage is not troubling for an almost mid-sized SUV with this kind of performance — 18 miles per gallon city and 24 highway. And as the price of gas escalates, the percentage difference between a gallon of regular and a gallon of premium becomes minuscule.

Will the CX-7 fit your family? If it has four or fewer members, the answer is yes. It holds four adults with adequate rear-seat leg and head room, and can accommodate three kids in the second seat. The seats fold flat with one quick pull of a lever creating 59 cubic feet of storage space. There are 30 cubic feet behind the second-row seat.

The CX-7’s chief competitors, the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, although not quite as long and with smaller wheelbases, have more cargo space. The Toyota is listed at 73 cubic feet and the Honda at 72.

If more space is needed for cargo or a third seat is desired for passenger hauling, Mazda is readying a bigger vehicle with the same driving dynamics and styling called the CX-9. It will arrive early next year. Mazda officials said the CX-9 is not a stretched version of the CX-7.

The CX-7 can be purchased in two-wheel or full-time all-wheel drive in which torque is seamlessly moved from front to back as needed creating an optimum 50-50 split.

Mazda has priced its new entry in range of most buyers and with a pleasing array of standard features across three trim levels including four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, 18-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, power windows and locks, keyless entry, cruise control and a stereo with CD player in the Sport model for $23,750. The mid-level Touring model adds leather-trimmed seating, front-seat heaters and power driver’s seat for $25,500. The top-end Grand Touring adds HID headlights, automatic climate control and full leather upholstery for $26,300.

Load the CX-7 with everything that Mazda has for sale and you are looking at around 32 grand.

Desirable options include navigation, upgraded Bose stereo, power moonroof and keyless start.

While the RAV4 V-6 has more straight-ahead performance and others have slightly more cargo space, there’s simply nothing currently available with the sporty demeanor and eye-popping styling of the new CX-7. This is one crossover SUV worth a test drive.

By Jim Meachen
Published in Car Reviews on May 8, 2006 2:49 PM