Pros: Sporty styling; powerful turbocharged engine; exciting driving dynamics
Cons: Non-turbo models lack power; so-so fuel economy; poor navigation system; no iPod integration
Most people buy a sport-utility vehicle for the "utility" part of the equation. But, although they want or need the generous ground clearance, large cargo area and high seating position of an SUV, some may miss the superior ride, handling and agility of a sedan. For these folks Mazda builds the CX-7, a sleek five-passenger crossover SUV with a proven track record in performance, comfort and reliability.
The CX-7 doesn’t offer a third-row seat, so if you are looking to accommodate a growing family, the larger Mazda CX-9 might be a better choice. What the CX-7 does offer is a very carlike driving experience with a nicely organized interior and available all-wheel drive. There’s also a healthy dose of Mazda’s zoom-zoom philosophy in the form of an available turbocharged 2.3-liter engine. It’s a slightly less powerful version of the engine in the red-hot Mazdaspeed3 hatchback.
The CX-7 is far from the newest crossover SUV on the market, but there are no major changes to the 2012 model – so a replacement is probably a year out. But despite its age, the CX-7 stacks up well against its competitors, a testament to the strength of the original design.
Comfort & Utility
The CX-7’s interior design may be aging, but it’s more Helen Mirren than Joan Rivers. With the exception of the maddeningly small and crowded information screens atop the center cluster, we have no complaint with the CX-7’s innards. The seats are supremely comfortable, available in cloth or leather trim and embossed with a handsome stitching pattern. The dash is bathed in red backlighting that adds to the CX-7’s sporty nature. The levers, knobs and switches for heating, audio and wipers are all logically arranged and easy to reach. On Touring and Grand Touring models, the steering wheel feels a bit overloaded with redundant controls for the audio, navigation, Bluetooth and cruise control, but they don’t inhibit the steering wheel’s primary function.
Passenger accommodations are on par with other vehicles in this category. The CX-7 has about an inch less rear-seat legroom than the Kia Sorento but two inches more hip and shoulder room than the Chevrolet Equinox. There’s a generous cargo hold behind the rear seat that can easily be expanded thanks to 60/40 split folding seats.
The CX-7’s most impressive devices are on the Touring and Grand Touring models, but even the Sport offers a package with heated seats, automatic climate control and a power sunroof. Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity is standard on all but the SV, while i Touring and s Grand Touring models deafen their occupants with a nine-speaker Bose Centerpoint Surround Sound audio system. Unfortunately, while there is an auxiliary input jack for your iPod, there is no USB port to allow control of said iPod. Also on the options list are a backup camera, rear-seat DVD entertainment system and remote engine start.
Mazda does offer a built-in navigation unit as standard equipment on the s Grand Touring, but we wouldn’t use it. The small screen is overburdened with information, and the maps don’t have the same clean, easy-to-understand layout as found on a Garmin or TomTom navigation unit. Programming the system via the steering wheel’s toggle switch is also rather annoying.
Performance & Fuel Economy
Mazda offers two engine options for the CX-7: a normally aspirated 2.5-liter 4-cylinder and a 2.3-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder. Models designated with a lower case "i" are powered by the 2.5-liter engine, which develops 161 horsepower and 161 lb-ft of torque. It’s not the most powerful in its class, but the 2.5-liter is robust with acceptable acceleration, although high-speed passing maneuvers require a bit of patience. Available only on front-wheel-drive models and only with the five-speed Sport automatic, the 2.5-liter returns an EPA estimated 20 mpg city and 27 mpg highway.
The 2.3-liter Direct Injection Spark Ignition (DISI) turbo is the more desirable engine, producing 244 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. Although similar to the engine in the Mazdaspeed3 performance hatchback, the CX-7’s engine uses a different turbocharger to provide more power at lower rpm and to make the driving experience more V6-like in the way power is delivered to the wheels. The 2.3-liter turbo is available on s Touring and Grand Touring trims and can be equipped with AWD; it also uses a six-speed Sport automatic in place of the base model’s five-speed. The only downside to this engine is its fuel consumption, which the EPA rates at 18/24 mpg for the front-wheel-drive model and 17/21 mpg with AWD. During our test drive, we saw city figures closer to 15 mpg and highway mileage no better than 22.
The 2012 Mazda CX-7 has all the safety features one would expect in this price range, including front side impact and side curtain airbags, electronic traction and stability control and ABS. Mazda offers a blind-spot monitor but only on the top model, the Grand Touring. The CX-7 performed fairly well in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash test, although it received only a marginal rating in the roof strength rollover test.
To get the CX-7’s ride and handling closer to a Mazda6 than to a Toyota 4Runner, Mazda engineers spent considerable time tweaking the car’s suspension and fine tuning the engine. The result is a mid-size crossover SUV that is fun to drive and competent on winding roads, yet still able to deliver a smooth, controlled ride that most people want in a car. The 161-hp i models won’t win over enthusiasts, but they are affordable and as much fun to drive as their more powerful s trim siblings. With the turbocharged engine at work, the CX-7 has the power to match its moves. Acceleration is good, and there is plenty of additional power on hand when the driver demands it. The 2.3-liter DISI turbo spools up quickly and quietly, leaving only a slight hint of lag before the rush of turbocharged power reaches the wheels. As a bonus, the turbocharged engine runs on regular gasoline, not premium.
Other Cars to Consider
Nissan Murano – The Murano offers more upscale features, a better navigation system and more horsepower. But the CX-7 costs less and delivers slightly better fuel economy.
Kia Sorento – The Sorento has a larger interior, offers more high-tech features, gets better gas mileage and has a much longer warranty. On the flip side, the CX-7 drives better than the Sorento, and we think its styling is more youthful.
Ford Edge – The Edge offers similar interior dimensions but with more cutting-edge electronics, more unique features (like the panoramic sunroof) and more powerful engine choices. However, to get all these things you’ll pay much more than for a similarly equipped CX-7.
As much as we love the content and price point of the 2.5-liter i Touring model, there just isn’t enough power under the hood to satisfy the way we think most people will want to drive the CX-7. We also don’t understand why Mazda doesn’t offer all-wheel drive on the i models, something most competitors offer. For these reasons, we would recommend the s Touring. It’s reasonably priced, offers AWD and can be equipped with most of the Grand Touring’s features.