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2010 Mazda CX-7 i Sport

Zoom, Zooming Beyond Expectations

     When the Mazda CX-7 made its debut in 2006, my initial reaction was an automotive yawn. I dismissed it as another crossover that promised to combine all the worst light duty attributes of a car with the disadvantage of the high center of gravity of traditional truck-based SUVs. Then Mazda went one step further and gave us the disservice of revealing pictures of the poor thing. The only reason public reaction to the grinning clown-face didn’t amount to outright ridicule was because vehicles like the Pontiac Aztek, Honda Element, and Scion xB had already numbed America’s sense of good taste.
     Muxlow’s positive review of the initial 2.3-liter Turbo wasn’t enough to make a CX-7 believer out of me, so a test drive of the recently revised front-wheel-drive 2.5-liter i Sport was in order. Obviously, my expectations were low. Climbing behind the wheel the first thing you’ll notice is the large flat windshield; a piece of glass as flat as a plasma TV set at a dramatic 66 degree rake. That intense angle results in an absolutely enormous dash-panel and visibility-robbing dual A-pillars. The design is similar to the infamous early 90’s GM APV minivan trio (Lumina, Trans Sport, and Silhouette). Unlike those ‘dust-buster’ vans, Mazda has made reasonable use of the dash’s vast expanse. The CX-7 hides the true size of the acres of plastic by dividing the panel into two tiers, then nestling the satellite radio and HVAC display side by side in a forward location not far from the driver’s forward sight line. The only oddity to this layout is the radio displays in blue, while the HVAC and all other instruments illuminate in Mazda’s usual reddish orange. While we’re on that topic we should note the HVAC controls were refreshingly intuitive to manipulate.
     While the view forward is draped in controversy, the rearward view was refreshingly unobstructed. The roof pillars are unusually slim and are further enhanced by large side cargo windows. This setup made the backup camera an unnecessary high tech luxury. Even so, the display for the camera is well placed in the screen that also doubles and triples as the display for the satellite radio and trip computer.
     Returning to forward momentum is surprisingly effortless. The 2.5-liter may offer equal ratings of horsepower and torque (a mediocre 161 hp and ft-lbs), but it pulls the nearly 3500 lb vehicle around with relative ease. The acceleration was further enhanced by a well-tuned 5-speed automatic with a manual shift gate. The 4-cylinder did transmit a bit of vibration to the cabin during idle, but this was easily forgiven considering how quiet the vehicle was at highway speeds–betraying this base model’s price segment (i SV starts at $21,700 and our i Sport at $22,490). Fuel economy tallied in at a commendably high 27 mpg that matched the upper end of the EPA ratings of 20 city/28 highway. While this is more than a stone’s throw from such lofty figures as the 32 mpg highway rating of the Chevy Equinox/GMC Terrain, it delivers economy that just a few years ago was no more than a fantasy in a vehicle of this size and capability.
     We praised the handling of the CX-7 in our review of the 2.3-liter in ’07, and the 2010 draws the same accolades. The CUV that ‘zooms’ begs to be thrown into corners and takes them with little roll or tire squeal. Even though equipped with a standard automatic, this vehicle is relatively engaging to drive. Brakes hauled the trucklet to a stop responsibly and the pedal lacked any dreaded dead zone.
     The ride is perfectly comfortable. Seats felt a bit wider than necessary, offering a bit too much wiggle room, but proved to be a comfortable place to spend a long drive. An unexpected combination was the availability of seat heaters on cloth seats. We would have been far happier with these seats had the seat belt not continually found itself caught on the lumbar lever:  a simple redesign of that handle is necessary. The overall quality of the interior was marred by the mouse-fur headliner more commonly found in a 1980’s sedan. To add insult to injury Mazda installs some of the cheapest sun visors in the industry. Thankfully, the armrests proved to be supple and soft to the touch. On a cargo laden Home Depot run we discovered that the flip-down rear seats revealed a cavernous interior but didn’t fold fully flat with the rear cargo floor.
     So how about those low expectations of mine? The CX-7 proved to be a happy balance of good fuel economy, passenger space, cargo volume, comfort, and handling. Expectations were clearly exceeded. How about that styling? It has aged better than expected, still looking fresh among a crowd of me-too crossovers. However, one still has to ask the question: if one chooses a FWD CX-7 what does this vehicle do that a moderately sized station wagon wouldn’t do better? The simple answer is ‘nothing.’ Why, then, does Mazda sell the CX-7 but no longer offer a Mazda6 wagon? The answer is one we have heard for far too long:  ‘American’s don’t like wagons’. ‘Tis a shame, because this excellent crossover would be even better without the long dash, high center of gravity, and out-of-this-world styling. While we’re wishing for the CX-7 to morph into a sport wagon we might as well wish for world peace, honest politicians and a cure for the common cold. Until then, we can enjoy all that Mazda has done right with the CX-7 and start whispering ‘zoom, zoom’ as we search for twisting roads on the way to Home Depot.

The Good:
Sure handling, strong braking, healthy four-cylinder power, excellent real-world fuel economy.
The Bad:
Expansive dash, low quality headliner, even lower quality visors, can hear a tad too much of the engine at idle.
The Verdict:
An affordable compact crossover worthy of the ‘Zoom, Zoom’ tagline.

Photos by Jason Muxlow

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  1. Jim
    October 27th, 2010 at 11:12 | #1

    It is refreshing to see in a review (from a driving/handling/efficiency & visibility/ergonomics standpoint) what separates it from a car, wagon or truck-based SUV. This usually gets skipped in favor of a direct comparison to other similarly spec’d vehicles.

    I will note that perhaps another reason why CUV’s are “preferred”, or at least percieved to be, to wagons in the US is driving height. Everyone likes to ride up high and “own” the road? Just a guess.

    Something that I’ve been thinking about lately is how this segment seems to be encroching on the mid-size sedans (from the perspective of the average car buyer). Specifically, the Malibu is without a doubt a fine vehicle. But if I were shopping for one, I see very little reason to buy a 4-cyl Malibu when for (roughly) the same power, same price, same fuel economy, but much more spacious/versatile 4-cyl Chevy Equinox can be had. In years past, the price and fuel economy difference was enough to sway most people towards the sedan, but the Malibu has gone up and up in price and the latest Equinox’s MSRP is actually lower than the previous gen! While the fuel economy has gone up for both, it’s definitely gone up more for the small CUV so that the difference is now negligable (22/33 mpg Malibu, 22/32 mpg Equinox).

    Sure there are driving quality differences, and to the driving enthusiasts such as yourselves, something like the CX-7 will never match the Mazda 6, but to the average car buyer I don’t see this nearly as significant as matching price & fuel economy with added versatility of the CUV.

    I see this happening, perhaps not as dramatically as GM, but across the line with all manufacturers. If not currently, soon everyone will have to match GM’s 30+ mpg 4-cyl CUV to stay competitive. Does anyone else see the small CUV replacing the mid-size sedan as the future dominant market segment?

  2. December 25th, 2010 at 23:00 | #2

    Jim – I agree. If the fuel efficiency between a midsize sedan and CUV’s remains this marginal, unless someone is looking for a genuine sport sedan, the reasons for buying a midsize car are slowly being eliminated. The versatility of the ‘wagon’ body style offered by a CUV is far more desireable than a traditional notchback sedan. I personally don’t prefer the height of a CUV because I ‘feel’ more likely to tip over. I’m not sure why the masses don’t feel this way. I do want to point out, however, that Buick is claiming their e-assist LaCrosse will get 37 mpg on the highway, which is head and shoulders above the ‘Nox and Terrain twins. I believe that there is always more potential for better fuel economy in a car than a CUV simply due to the potential for lower aerodynamic drag. The minimized frontal area offered by a sedan is always going to give a better potential for increased fuel economy – all other things being equal.

  1. November 23rd, 2010 at 20:02 | #1
  2. June 1st, 2011 at 20:35 | #2
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