On The Road Review: Mazda CX-7



It is 4:35 am as I head out the driveway and point the latest Mazda CX-7 crossover wagon south for a winter rendezvous with other auto writers. The local roads are dark and icy and few other motorists are yet on the road this overcast Saturday morning.

 

As I cruise south it is a good time to ponder my impressions of the Mazda. We have been together for eight days, and when today’s drive to southern Massachusetts is completed, we will have traveled well over 1,300 miles together.

During a conversation with Mazda press staff this fall I had requested the CX7, as I envisioned that this spirited midsize wagon might make a suitable substitute in our own personal fleet as well as some other notable friends and family. I liked the CX-7’s size, styling and the premise of Mazda’s Zoom-zoom driving personality.

Long days in the saddle tend to make any driver reflective. Could be work challenges, life at home, troubled children, or in my case — the virtues of this Mazda. As a brilliant red sunrise bursts through the leaden skies just as I leave South Portland, only two shortcomings vex me after a truly pleasant time with the CX-7.

First, the CX-7’s chassis did not disappoint — this is one of the more supple and compliant riding crossover wagons. The Mazda is agile and comfortable in all driving situations with a distinctly confident feeling to the steering. The car’s handling, the brakes and all other aspects of the car’s operation all seem to practice Mazda’s sporting intentions without sacrificing comfort. Path accuracy is right on, steering feel is appropriately weighted, and the CX-7 demonstrates a solid performance that says this is truly a tall car, not a trendy crossover with a high-riding stance.

In some ways, the CX-7 is much closer to the original philosophy of this segment — a design developed by the Lexus RX-series and copied by the Nissan Murano — rather than the larger, heavier two-box designs that populate the midsize sales charts, crossovers such as the Honda Pilot, Ford Edge and Toyota Highlander.

This doesn’t mean that the CX-7 is not spacious inside, because it truly is comfortable and offers more functional space than its exterior might suggest. Efficiency is found with pockets and slots to hold numerous items, a flowing center dash layout that leaves controls readily accessible, plus easy access to not only all seating positions but to the rear cargo hold. Doors seem light too, which is more convenient with laden arms.

Last week, I mentioned that the midsize Volvo S60 seemed close, almost too tight. With actual measurements differing only slightly, the CX-7 offers lots more space than the Volvo. The windshield and hence the front A-pillars are farther away, which enhances both your visibility and your sense of ‘space.’ The cabin is slightly wider and the console is narrower, while the seats seem to offer just as much support without being confining. Rear seat space is much more user-friendly in the Mazda, as the center tunnel is lower, less intrusive. Yes, the cabin is a few inches higher, but the CX-7’s ride is just as compliant — if not more so than the Volvo — while its foul-weather prowess was equally as impressive with the optional AWD setup. The Mazda just fit me better, as well as the passengers who journeyed with me.

The Mazda’s controls and features are noteworthy for several reasons. Keyless ignition is the future and setups like the CX-7 are very convenient. A small black button on the door handle lets you lock doors when leaving and unlock them when returning, all without fumbling in your winter coat pocket, or a deep purse, for a recalcitrant key. This is smart convenience that goes beyond simple remote entry.

While some may not admire the red and blue lighting of the Mazda’s dash, I have grown used to this style of illumination and do not object. There is high-intensity daytime lighting, and milder nocturnal lighting — as needed. Contrasting white LED info boxes in the center dash and atop the instrument cluster complement and do not distract. Add the sloping angle of the center dash — a Lexus standard — plus a tilt and telescoping steering wheel with multiple redundant controls, and the CX-7 seems to have been designed by real drivers.

The CX-7 was conceived in the mid-2000s and debuted during the fall of 2006. Its sleek shape is different from the boxier rivals that dominate sales, yet Mazda has never been a company to pursue conventional very well. The CX-7’s swoopy stance helps to mask its overall dimensions: a not so insignificant 184.3 inches long on an elongated 108.3-inch wheelbase. Track width stretches out to 64.1 inches, too, so this truly is a midsize offering similar to the Ford Edge. Yet the Mazda is a lightweight in a segment where girth is taking over. The CX-7 weighs only 3,500 pounds in front-wheel-drive trim, about 3,880 with AWD — several hundred pounds less than both the Ford and the Nissan.

Now going on five years old, the CX-7’s shortcomings might be explained as part of its relative age — at least these are my conclusions after driving for almost five hours in one sitting.

At speeds up to 60 mph, the cabin is quiet enough to thoroughly enjoy the satellite radio-equipped stereo. At highway speeds, some annoying road noise enters that disturbs some of that bliss. Those lighter doors, thinner glass (remember the lighter weight?) and the obvious absence of enough sound insulation exact a small toll on the Mazda’s driving pleasure, its excellent road manners not withstanding.

And after a week together, one gauge kept staring back at me with numbers that I just couldn’t seem to improve. Two nicely sized info panels reside at the base of the windshield. On the left, you get various selectable bits of information which includes your current trip fuel economy. Try as I might, I could not get higher than 22.5 mpg on this display, and over the course of several stormy days, the gauge actually reported some mileage as low as 17 mpg.

This is lamentable because the Mazda uses four-cylinder power — which should be more fuel efficient than a V-6 right? In my test car, the CX-7 used the turbocharged version of the 2.3-liter four that also resides in the Mazdaspeed 3. In that car, the engine is a robust power freak that can also deliver as much as 36 mpg — I know, because I’ve done it. To have this powertrain — with a six-speed automatic and the AWD system — produce only 20.1 mpg for our overall time together, was, well, disappointing. EPA estimates are 17/23 mpg for this package.

If you can do without the AWD setup, and don’t need the turbo-engine’s 244 horsepower or 258 pound/feet of torque, you can get the CX-7 with just standard front-wheel drive and a conventional 161-hp 2.3-liter four cylinder engine. EPA mileages estimates are 20/28-mpg which is more in line with the majority of compact crossover wagons and exceeds the midsize class.

The CX-7 gets high marks for comfort, drivability and overall functionality. Perhaps the second generation model will fine-tune the two shortcomings mentioned and maybe Mazda might bring its European 31-mpg diesel version to America, too. This is too good a crossover package not to capitalize on its potential.

Just the Facts: Mazda CX-7

CX-7 is a five-passenger midsize crossover wagon. Pricing starts at $21,990 for front drive models. AWD Grand Touring model sampled lists for $33,340 and included a host of extra features.

CX-7 trim levels include; i, s, Sport, SV, Touring, Grand Touring.

Features on test car: 18-inch wheels, blind-spot detection system, upgraded stereo with Sirius, multimedia connectivity, and Bluetooth, heated leather seating, keyless ignition, sunroof, back-up camera, rear parking assist and automatic climate system.

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