Mazda's CXy Beast

Mazda’s CX-7 isn’t a cliché crossover because its mileage, handling, great looks, and reasonable price make it the real thing

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Up Front Jaded auto journalists everywhere were blasÉ when Mazda announced, with much fanfare, that it would bring a pair of crossovers to market, dubbed the CX-7 and CX-9. The press shrugged its collective shoulders at the clichÉd promise of sporty handling in a practical package. The company's promise, meanwhile, to endow the vehicles with the "soul of a sportscar" elicited pained, been-there groans.

Well, guess what? Mazda has actually zoom-zoomed past those clichÉs.

The company, which has managed to transform itself from just another Japanese econo manufacturer into a purveyor of budget-minded auto fun, has over-delivered on its promises with the new CX-7. The model, the first of three made just for the North American market, provides a winning combination of spirited driving and affordability.

The CX-7 carries a base price of $24,345, and is available in three trims: sport, touring, and grand touring. But true to Mazda form, loading up the vehicle with copious options and goodies doesn't much alter the actual driving experience, just the gadgetry inside and out.

The grand touring trim adds about $2,500 to the base price. For the additional money, you get nifty extras like Xenon headlamps, heated side-view mirrors, chrome accents, fog lamps, and truly spiffy leather seats with sport stripes that look lifted from a concept vehicle. My test car also came with the optional $1,585 moon roof and Bose CD changer. The entire package totals up to $30,180.

At that price point, the CX-7's natural rivals would seem to be the Honda (HMC) CR-V, Toyota (TM) Rav4, Hyundai Santa Fe, and, to a lesser extent, the Subaru Forrester. Though slightly more expensive at the base, the CX-7 manages to hold its own against these on value for money once competitors are optioned-up. Plus, save perhaps the redesigned Santa Fe, none can match the CX-7's distinctive styling. In fact, though stalwarts have been around much longer, they all seem to be chasing after Mazda's uncompromising sleekness posthaste.

Indeed, the body design is bound to draw attention, if not outright gawking. Cruising around Manhattan, I caught more than a few fellow drivers staring at the CX-7's silky lines. I will admit feeling sorry for them, trapped as they were in dull-looking little 4x4 boxes.

The sloping windshield is race-car raked, with a lean 66-degree angle. The maw, meanwhile, clearly pays homage to Mazda's honest-to-goodness soulful sports car, the RX-8. But designers resisted taking existent lines and simply stretching them to fit a larger frame. The effect is just reminiscent of the sportier model, and thankfully, totally unlike Porsche's Cayenne SUV, which looks like a 911 blown up and distorted via Xerox machine.

Looks-wise, there's almost nothing like it on the market besides the swoopy but threatening Infiniti FX 45. Unlike that car, which looks like it's on loan from a Goya tableau, the CX-7 has curves that give it an easy, laid-back attitude instead of rendering it overly aggressive.

Behind the Wheel Powering the CX-7 is a modest-seeming 2.3-liter inline 4-turbo engine that develops 244 horses. That's nearly identical to what you get from the more expensive Nissan (NSANY) Murano, which has a bigger V6 that pumps out 245 horses. Mazda, which is 37% owned by Ford (F), sourced the powerplant from the popular 6 sedan, though it has been altered slightly to better sync with the needs of a heavier payload.

The petite turbo engine doesn't feel as though it has endless power reserves, but it willingly opens up when asked, passing and merging without any hesitation. It's an above average four, but is still no match for a full-on 6.

If the powertrain is only proficient, the steering is splendid. From this, the CX-7's sporty character and fun-to-drive qualities are entirely derived. Proving that driving delight isn't merely a function of mating decadent power with a decent transmission, Mazda endowed the car with well-weighted, responsive steering that brings the experience to life. Throwing it into curves is joy defined.

Given the CX-7's low ride height and complete lack of body lumber, driving is indeed zoom-zoom-worthy, albeit with the SUV caveat thrown in. If BMW's excellent X5 or Land Rover's muscular Range Rover Sport lie beyond your budget, the CX-7 can undoubtedly serve as an affordable alternative for you.

The CX-7's interior is as smooth as its exterior. The steering wheel is a pleasure to hold, and the gauges fit with the corporate mantra. The audio controls took a while to adjust to, as the display is a good two feet above and back from the dials, inset high up on the dash. At first, this was annoying, but after habit sets in, I find it handier to have the media and A/C information within your natural line of sight.

Seating exhibits a Jekyll and Hyde sensibility. While the front seats feel extremely comfortable and spacious, the back bench lacks on both counts. Not only are the rear seats less comfy, they're a bit cramped as well. This was, no doubt, a choice made by Mazda designers who admit gearing the car toward young couples with cargo but no kids.

The grand touring version's leather seats are cut in half with a racy sport stripe detailing. The dark line on my test car's sandy leather seats had a serpentine pattern that some will surely find sexy and others tacky. In my opinion, all in all the cabin is a rather impressive space for a car costing so little.

Buy It or Bag It? Being the new kid on the block isn't easy. Luckily for Mazda, the CX-7 has plenty going for it to ease its transition onto fresh blacktop, primarily unbeatable looks and standout value for price. No car that attempts to merge serious sculpting with SUV bravado manages to do so as successfully as the CX-7. In terms of looks, Mazda's established its model as the one to beat or, at least, emulate shamelessly.

Fuel economy is slightly disappointing, though. It appears that in assuring the car met company standards, fuel economy took a backseat. The CX-7 gets between 18 and 24 miles to the gallon. That's by no means piggish, but not quite thrifty either.

Similarly powered competitors, however, don't fare that much better. Six-cylinder versions of the Forrester and RAV4 only do moderately better, eking out 21/26 and 21/28 miles per gallon respectively. Depending on the import you place on fuel consumption, those differences will either be negligible or a deal breaker. Then again, if the zoom-zoom catchphrase tempts your fancy, you'll likely be powerless against the CX-7's considerable charms.

But it's not just about speed. The CX-7 is also about safety. It recently received five-star frontal and side impact crashworthiness ratings, the highest possible scores, in the U.S. government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) tests. It also earned a four-star rollover rating for both the front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive versions.

Mazda says this is "the SUV you never saw coming." That might be overstating the case a wee bit, since drivable crossovers with cargo room and curvy body panels are no novelty. Sleek, fun, and fast have been done. A better line might be "the SUV you never saw coming from Mazda." In any case, the CX-7 is certainly coming on strong to challenge established peers.

To learn more about the CX-7, click here for the slide show
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