Don't be fooled by the looks of the 2009 Mazda CX-7. While it rides higher off the pavement than a sports car does, and it has a tall roof with a 58.6-cubic-foot cargo area in back, it's surprisingly agile on the road.
Steering response is crisp, and the CX-7's turbocharged four-cylinder engine provides good get up and go.
In fact, sitting behind the steering wheel, it's easy for a driver to forget that the CX-7 really is a 15.3-foot-long crossover sport utility vehicle that provides the kind of people- and cargo-carrying functionality of a Toyota RAV4.
Best of all, the five-passenger CX-7 earned an across-the-board, five-out-of-five-stars rating for passenger protection in federal government frontal and side crash testing.
BASE PRICE: $23,900 for FWD Sport; $25,600 for base AWD Sport; $25,800 for FWD Touring; $27,500 for AWD Touring; $26,700 for FWD Grand Touring; $28,400 for AWD Grand Touring.
AS TESTED: $34,175.
TYPE: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger, crossover sport utility vehicle.
ENGINE: 2.3-liter, double overhead cam, turbocharged and intercooled four cylinder with direct injection.
MILEAGE: 16 mpg (city), 22 mpg (highway).
TOP SPEED: 117 mph.
LENGTH: 184 inches.
WHEELBASE: 108.3 inches.
CURB WEIGHT: 3,929 pounds.
BUILT AT: Japan.
OPTIONS: Technology package (includes power moonroof, 240-watt Bose nine-speaker sound system, DVD navigation system, rearview camera, keyless entry and start, perimeter alarm) $4,485; front and rear underguards $445; scuff plates $145; rear bumper guard $50.
DESTINATION CHARGE: $650.
2009 Mazda CX-7 AWD Grand Touring
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $24,550 for a base, two-wheel drive CX-7. The lowest starting retail price for an all-wheel drive CX-7 is $26,250.
Compare that to the 2009 Volkswagen Tiguan that starts at $24,990 with automatic transmission and front-wheel drive, and the 2009 Acura RDX, which has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $34,455. The RDX comes standard with all-wheel drive and many luxury features, including leather-trimmed seats and power moonroof.
The CX-7, Tiguan and RDX are the only crossover SUVs powered by turbocharged, four-cylinder engines.
Most crossovers, such as the 2009 Toyota RAV4, are offered with naturally aspirated four-cylinder and/or V-6 engines. The RAV4 starts at $22,245 with two-wheel drive and four-cylinder engine.
Intriguingly, the CX-7 is a crossover SUV that has the horsepower - 244, to be exact - of a V-6 and a zippy ride, to boot. But it all comes from a four-cylinder engine that's not really thrifty with gasoline.
The test CX-7 - a top-of-the-line Grand Touring model with all-wheel drive and a 4,000-pound overall weight - was rated at just 16 miles per gallon in city driving and 22 mpg on the highway. This is the same mileage rating that the larger, V-6-powered Honda Pilot SUV has.
The only CX-7 powerplant is a 2.3-liter, turbocharged and intercooled, direct-injection four cylinder that requires premium gasoline.
It provides a spirited ride, for sure. I zoomed around town, noticing just a bit of turbo lag when I depressed the accelerator firmly. Power came on strongly and was so well-matched to the CX-7 that some passengers thought the CX-7 had a V-6 under the hood.
Peak torque is 258 foot-pounds at 2,500 rpm. This provides a more immediate punch of power than the 260 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500 in the Acura RDX.
Too bad the miles per gallon in the CX-7 aren't anything to brag about, and the use of premium gasoline means a fill-up of the 18.2-gallon tank can cost upwards of $68.
Indeed, even the front-wheel drive CX-7 rates only 17/23 mpg, which is less than the Tiguan's highest rating of 19/26 mpg with manual transmission and two-wheel drive. The only transmission in the CX-7 is a six-speed automatic.
As they travel, passengers hear the CX-7 engine quite a bit, along with considerable road noise from the standard 18-inch tires.
The sounds are expected in a sports car, but in a crossover SUV, they're not quite as welcome. I especially became fatigued by the ba-boom sounds of the suspension over highway expansion cracks.
I enjoyed the capable handling of the CX-7 - the way it swished through mountain twisties and held its line in long curves. The weight of the vehicle shifted from one side to the other in a controlled, predictable way and didn't alarm riders. The steering was memorable, too, for its accurate response.
Sturdy-feeling front bucket seats added to the sporty atmosphere of the test CX-7, and, while not always pleasing, road bumps were another reminder that this crossover provides a sports car ride sensation.
I'm just not sure how many shoppers prefer such a sporty ride in a more than 5-foot-tall crossover SUV.
Typically, these vehicles are purchased as alternatives to fuel-gulping, truck-based SUVs and mundane minivans. They're preferred because they provide safety and good views over cars ahead and offer traction-enhancing all-wheel drive and a roomy interior for people and cargo.
But because they don't look like sports cars, buyers don't usually expect them to ride like sports cars, and the stiff ride of the CX-7 is perhaps a limiting issue.
In a comparison of five crossover SUVs, Car and Driver magazine published an article in June ranking the CX-7 fourth out of the five. The Nissan Murano ranked first.
Sales of the CX-7 seem to have already peaked at 41,659 in calendar 2007 and are lower this year. It doesn't help that Consumer Reports ranks the CX-7's predicted reliability as poor.
The test vehicle had excellent fit and finish, inside and out. But the rear seat cushion was short and didn't provide much thigh support.
No third row of seats is available for the CX-7. Buyers who want a third row need to move up to the CX-9, which has a starting retail price of $30,490.
The optional rearview camera at the tailgate on the CX-7 tester was a great help when the vehicle was backing up, and the steeply raked windshield was a constant visual reminder to everyone inside the CX-7 that this is a sporty vehicle.
All safety equipment, including frontal, side-mounted and curtain air bags, is standard. So are antilock brakes, traction control and electronic stability control.
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