- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2006

Two distinct trends are at work in the automobile and truck world today.

One is the increase in the number of small, fuel-efficient cars such as the Toyota Yaris, Chevrolet Aveo, Kia Rio, Scion xA and Honda Fit. The other is the proliferation of car-based four-door hatchbacks designed to resemble sport utility vehicles, but without the off-road capability.

Included in that category, new and established, are the Jeep Compass and Patriot, Acura RDX, Dodge Caliber, Toyota RAV4, Saturn Vue, Pontiac Torrent, Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, Nissan Murano, Honda CR-V and Hyundai Santa Fe. The lines among them are blurred, but they share hatchbacks, five-passenger seating and a tall, SUV-like profile.

Another new example of the genre is the 2007 Mazda CX-7, which the Japanese company is marketing as a “sports crossover SUV.” It is the first of two new vehicles in the category. The other is the CX-9. To help you sort them out, remember that the CX-7 holds five persons and the CX-9 is designed for seven. Got that?

You could argue that both the small cars and the SUV-like crossovers are the result of escalating gasoline prices. But that would not be accurate because it takes far longer to develop a new car than it does for gasoline prices to spike at neighborhood service stations.

No, the CX-7 and similar vehicles are more of a response to the dawning realization in the car-buying public and the corporate hallways that most people do not need a giant, truck-based SUV to combine function with driving pleasure. It likely is true, as General Motors contends, that the full-size SUV, as well as other truck-based sport utes, will continue to be fixtures in the marketplace, mainly because there are people who need big room, power and four-wheel drive to haul trailers and their stuff. There also are customers who actually venture off-road, or feel safer in a truck, or who simply like the idea of intimidating smaller vehicles.

Though its design is that of a hatchback — Mazda eschews the term — the CX-7 has a sleek, modern look with flowing lines, a wide stance and prominent fenders. The windshield is canted at a steeper angle than those on some sports cars.

The CX-7 is available with either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, both of which should be helpful in foul weather situations. The all-wheel drive automatically ranges from 100 percent power to the front wheels to a 50-50 split between the front and back wheels.

Motivation comes from a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that also is used in the Mazdaspeed 6 sports sedan. With turbocharging, it develops 244 horsepower, delivered through a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode. No manual gearbox is available.

Not surprisingly, the CX-7 is not nearly as quick as the Mazdaspeed 6, owing to fewer horsepower but mainly to the fact that, with all-wheel drive, the CX-7 weighs nearly 2 tons. Still, it’s vivacious enough to avoid any embarrassment in traffic, and it does not feel challenged in most driving environments.

Premium fuel is required to extract the maximum horsepower. The government fuel economy rating is 18 miles to the gallon in the city and 24 on the highway. You’re likely to get less than the city number if you keep your foot in it.

With rack-and-pinion steering and a taut suspension system designed for driving dynamics, which favors control over a soft ride, the CX-7 exhibits sports-sedan handling, which makes it entertaining to drive on curving mountain roads but seems a bit out of character with its up-high driving position.

However you categorize it, the CX-7 offers midsize passenger room (99 cubic feet) with a cargo capacity of 30 cubic feet. The cargo floor is reversible for hauling grungy items. If you fold the rear seat down, the cargo area expands to 58 cubic feet, with a cargo bed nearly 6 feet long. It is listed as a five-passenger vehicle, but it’s really for four because the center-rear position lacks places for body parts such as feet.

Three trim levels are available: standard, touring and grand touring. With front-wheel drive, the standard model starts at $23,750. Included in that price are six air bags, tire-pressure monitoring, 18-inch wheels, traction and stability control, antilock brakes with brake assist, air conditioning, power windows and locks, cruise control and a stereo system with a CD player.

With a full load of options, including leather upholstery, Sirius satellite radio, automatic climate control, high-intensity headlights, fog lights and a $4,005 technology package with a navigation system and keyless starting, the CX-7 Grand Touring edition topped out at $34,750.

The keyless starting doesn’t offer much in the way of advantages. It consists of a credit-card-sized remote control that has buttons for locking and unlocking the doors. You can keep it in your pocket or purse while you’re in the car, but you still have to reach down to the steering column and twist a knob that is shaped just like a receptacle for an ignition key.

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