WASHINGTON, D.C. - "Crossover" vehicles are all the rage these days. Like so many popular products, they combine the best of several worlds: specifically, the space and practicality of an SUV, coupled with carlike driving and ride characteristics.
Mazda is joining the fray with its five-passenger CX-7, billed as a "sports crossover SUV." Program manager Shunsuke Kawasaki was given a challenging but direct assignment: to "make the nicest SUV in North America," incorporating "zoom-zoom steering/handling."
Mazda, which enthusiastically touts the "zoom-zoom" personality of its vehicles, claims "sports cars styling" for the CX-7. In addition to being fun to drive and delivering "great feedback," the CX-7 should let its driver "feel comfortable behind the wheel," said project engineer Kelvin Hiraishi. Mazda promises "true seven-passenger capacity," which is a definite bonus in this family-focused segment.
Designed mainly for the North American market, the CX-7 promises a "relaxed but sporty cockpit," said chief designer Iwao Koizumi. Externally, the body is accentuated by what Koizumi calls a "boldly kicked-up beltline."
An astoundingly steep windshield sits between A-pillars that are "very, very laid back," said vehicle line manager David Matthew: 65 degrees to be specific; "rivaling sports cars." Bodysides are devoid of moldings, and large dual tailpipes are easily visible at the rear.
Platform-sharing has long been a practice at Ford and its affiliates, but Mazda spokesperson Jay Amestoy says the CX-7 is not built on the same platform as Ford's Edge. However, it is related to the Mazda6 sedan. "Everything comes out of Mazda6," said Amestoy. The same engine is used in various Mazdas, as well as Ford models. The CX-7's front suspension is the same as the one in the Mazda's new MPV minivan (no longer sold in the U.S.).
In the CX-7, the turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine develops 244 horsepower at 5,000 rpm, and 258 pound-feet of torque at 2,500 rpm. Mazda advises that the turbocharged engine functions with a cooler charge and provides more complete combustion. Therefore, it can run on slightly leaner fuel mixtures to increase fuel economy. In addition, the catalytic converter ignites sooner, which may reduce emissions.
Inside, the steering wheel was borrowed from Mazda's MX-5 sports car. The driver uses a high-mounted shifter for the six-speed automatic transmission, which incorporates Sportshift for manually-selected gear changes when desired.
In recent years, Mazda and "sporty" have almost gone hand in hand. Even the company's more pedestrian models have often exuded elements of enthusiastic road behavior.
Judging by its curvaceous exterior and well-considered design touches, you'd expect the CX-7 to exhibit a similar brand of athleticism. While competent in just about every respect, this particular Mazda model doesn't quite manage to stand above the crowd - or to deliver performance that matches its delicious profile.
Although the CX-7 is fully capable and reasonably satisfying, several details are troubling. Tall occupants might find a shortage of headroom in the front passenger seat, especially if a sunroof is installed. On the dashboard, the red pointer on each gauge is almost the same color as the numbers, curtailing easy readability. A rather tacky-looking hood sits over deep-set gauge panel.
During our test drive in Virginia, a harsh automatic-transmission downshift occurred at one point, when coming to a halt. Although the ride is generally satisfactory, one railroad track produced quite a jolt. Sound levels inside are modest, but some road and wind noises can be heard.
Acceleration is reasonably energetic, but not especially striking or stirring considering the output figures of the turbocharged engine. That's essentially how the whole vehicle comes across: acceptable and capable, but not really much more that that. Most Mazda vehicles deserve the "zoom-zoom" designation, but on the sportiness scale, the CX-7 seems to warrant only a single "zoom."
Manual-shift mode in the automatic transmission operates promptly enough, but you move the gearshift lever forward and back in opposite directions from systems on most other vehicles.
The steep windshield doesn't impair visibility at all. Tiny triangular forward panes are useless but not bothersome.
Antilock all-disc braking is standard, with electronic brake-force distribution and Brake Assist for improved operation in emergency situations. The tire-pressure monitor includes sensors in each wheel.
Sales are scheduled to begin in late May. Three trim levels will be offered: Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring. The Sport model stickers for $23,750 with a six-speed Sportshift automatic transmission, side-impact and curtain airbags, and 18-inch tires. The Touring edition will run $1,750 more, while $26,300 drives home a Grand Touring model.
The CX-7 may have front-wheel drive, but Active Torque Split all-wheel drive is available as a $1,700 option. An available Technology Package includes Bose 240-watt, nine-speaker "centerpoint" (synthesized surround sound). Touch-screen navigation and Sirius satellite radio are available.
Mazda expects to sell about 40,000 CX-7s per year. Crossover sales are "steadily increasing," said vehicle line manager David Matthew. "They're personal use vehicles" that can "support this user's urban lifestyle." The CX-7's "demographic attributes are similar to a coupe or sport sedan," Matthew said, attracting an individualistic segment.
Early in 2007, Mazda will add the CX-9 crossover, which is larger than the CX-7 and built on a different platform and architecture.
Urban Update: During a more extensive test-drive in familiar territory, the CX-7 proved to be a little more appealing than it had during our Preview Drive - but not by all that much. It still rated somewhere under two "zooms."