Mazda has a rather peculiar strategy when it comes to its crossover lineup. The entry-level Tribute is nothing more than a rebadged Ford Escape which is not really a problem since we've always like the Escape. At the top is the CX-9 which uses a longer wheelbase version of the Ford/Mazda CD3 platform that underpins both the Fusion and Edge.
The mid-sized CX-7 is the most in-house developed Mazda crossover and sits on a unique platform that shares bits from both the Mazda5 and 6. Despite not sharing anything with the Edge, it is actually closer in size to the Ford than the CX-9. For 2010 the CX-7 got its first significant update since the mid-size crossover was introduced back in mid-2006 and we just spent a week with an all-wheel-drive Grand Touring S model. While the CX-7 shares much stylistically with contemporary Mazdas, it lags behind in one major area, mass.
The CX-7 is arguably one of the best looking mid-size crossovers on the market thanks to its bold styling and aggressive proportions. Those of you that were less than enthused about the smiley face grille of the latest Mazda3 will be glad to know that the CX-7 comes across as a bit more subtle in character. Despite the larger front orifice of the updated CX-7, the relative lack of accenting trim means it doesn't have quite the visual impact of the compact car.
That's not to say that the CX-7 is a shrinking violet. Quite the contrary, as this is one of the bolder and shapelier crossovers available today. The crossover has the same bulbous wheel-arch look that first appeared on the RX-8 and it blends well with the 19-inch wheels (standard on the S Grand Touring) and swept-back windshield to give the Mazda more of the "zoom-zoom" effect than the CX-9 or the truckish Tribute.
Inside, our tester was wrapped in the "sand" leather that is the only available combination with the copper-red exterior. If you prefer black leather you'll have to opt for the silver, black or blue exterior finish. Personally we prefer the sand interior which looks more upscale to our eyes and is offset by black on the top of the dash, doors and center stack. Thankfully, Mazda has shown more restraint with the piano black on this vehicle than it has some past vehicles. The pleasantly thick rimmed steering wheel feels good in the hands and is encrusted with most of major audio, cruise and information display controls that we like to have at our disposal.
Speaking of that information display, Mazda uses a relatively small 4.1 inch LCD mounted in a little pod up near the base of the windshield for trip computer and navigation output. That's just barely larger than the display on a Motorola Droid or Nexus One mobile phone. The size would be less of a problem if Mazda embedded the display in the center stack or better still in the main instrument cluster the way Ford is doing on the 2011 Edge and Super Duty. Despite the small display, Mazda has compensated with a nice little trick in the navigation system. As the vehicle approaches a turn on the route guidance, the display automatically begins to zoom in on the intersection giving the driver a tighter view of their position relative to the turn.
The two-inch lower roof-line means that the CX-7 has a similar head-room deficit compared to the Ford Edge and Chevrolet Equinox but we still found ourselves with plenty to spare. Those that are over about six-foot-three will probably want to get a personal fitting to make sure they fit properly before signing on the dotted line. Similarly, the spec sheet shows the domestic competition with a three-inch rear leg room advantage but this reviewer's increasingly lanky teenager voiced no complaints at all when relegated to the rear compartment.
Unlike any of its closest competitors, the CX-7 is only offered with four-cylinder powerplants and frankly we don't have a problem with that in general. Today's fours are getting so good that for vehicles that aren't overtly sports oriented, we don't find larger engines all that necessary. Those of us that have driven the Equinox generally prefer the more efficient four to the torque deficient 3.0-liter V6. The base engine in the CX-7 is a normally aspirated 2.5-liter while the Touring and Grand Touring models come standard with a 2.3-liter direct injected and turbocharged four-pot.
This is essentially the same engine that you'll find in the MazdaSpeed3 but with 244 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque compared to the 263 hp/280 lb-ft ratings for the smaller car. These numbers are right in the ball-park of what we expect to the get in the upcoming 2.0-liter Ecoboost powered Edge and Explorer and comparable to the V6 in the Tribute/Escape. There's certainly nothing wrong with the numbers that are on the spec sheet and we loved the engine in the hot hatch. Unfortunately, in this case the spec sheet and the feel on the road don't quite seem to correlate.
Of course it doesn't help that the CX-7 is some 750 pounds heftier than the MazdaSpeed3 but even compared to a V6-powered Equinox or Edge with similar mass and output, the Mazda seemed sluggish off the line. We've become fairly accustomed to this in recent years, as automakers program the throttle response and transmission shift points for maximum numbers on the EPA test cycle. However, even in manual shift mode, the Mazda felt lifeless off the line, although rolling acceleration for passes was adequate. The MZR 2.3 DISI just didn't feel like it had the fat torque curve we've become accustomed to in these types of engines.
We wouldn't mind the sluggish thrust if it came along with some serious thriftiness at the pump. Here too we were sadly disappointed. The EPA rates the turbo all-wheel-drive CX-7 at just 17 miles per gallon on the urban cycle with 23 on the open road and 19 mpg combined. A week of driving that included about 60 percent highway travel yielded just 19.5 mpg. We've done upper twenties in the naturally aspirated Equinox with similar or better performance. Given that we know what this engine is capable of and how it compares to lesser power units, we're guessing that the transmission may be the culprit in not sending the motive force to the road. Still given the efforts that Mazda has made to shave weight off other new models like the 2,3 and 6 recently, we'd like to see a similar diet for the CX-7.
While the powertrain was a disappointment, the chassis was not. Mazda has done a fine job on balance compliance and body control so that even the notoriously bad roads in this region were reasonably well isolated despite the large wheel and tire combination on our test vehicle. A bit more audible information about the road surface was passed through into the cabin than we generally prefer but the actual physical motions were restricted to the area down-stream of the springs. During cornering maneuvers the body stayed comparatively flat and understeer was moderate. Despite its two-ton heft, the CX-7 feels surprisingly nimble down a curving road.
Wind noise was admirably low no doubt in part due to the steeply raked windshield. Thanks to having narrower pillars than many contemporary vehicles, the CX-7 also has excellent visibility in all directions.
The base naturally aspirated front-wheel-drive CX-7 SV starts at a fairly reasonable $22,450 including destination. At $33,960 as delivered the S Grand Touring edition that we drove comes standard with the majority of the gear that most drivers will want including a moon-roof and navigation system. The few available options buyers might want to consider are the rear seat entertainment system and the towing package although the later is limited to only 2,000 pounds. We found the CX-7 to be just the right size with great styling and handling dynamics and a disappointing powertrain but still worthy of consideration.