- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

Until the introduction of the 2007 CX-7, Mazda has been forced to campaign in the light-truck and SUV segments with thinly disguised versions of its corporate partner Ford’s products. The Tribute owes its DNA to the Ford Escape and the B-Series pickup to the Ranger.

The CX-7, however, is all Mazda. Although with Ford’s release of the Edge, the two brands will again offer very similar vehicles, they will be based primarily on Mazda engineering rather than Ford’s. Stylish in appearance and skewed decidedly toward performance, the CX-7 is a midsize crossover that succeeds in fulfilling Mazda’s “zoom-zoom” mission.

Every CX-7 comes equipped with a 244-horsepower 2.3-liter turbocharged inline four lifted from the MazdaSpeed 6. Likewise the silky six-speed automatic with driver-shift mode is also taken from Mazda’s sporty flagship sedan. Well suited for this size wagon, the engine and transmission combo provide responsive, determined acceleration.

Most CX-7s will be front drivers, but for $1,700, all-wheel drive can be added. An intuitive system, it directs all engine output to the front wheels until it senses some wheel slip and then as much as 50 percent of power can be redirected to the rear wheels.

Strictly designed for foul weather as opposed to off-roading, the AWD makes no provision for a low-range gear. It’s engineered solely for added stability and more predictable handling on slippery pavement.

Fuel economy isn’t the best in segment, but it isn’t the worst either. In fact, it is about average. The Environmental Protection Agency rates it at 18 miles per gallon in town and 24 mpg on the open highway. This won’t motivate Sierra Club members to activate their emergency phone tree to send out the alarm, but a few similarly sized crossovers such as the six-cylinder Toyota Rav4 and the six-cylinder Hyundai Santa Fe do better in squeezing out an extra mile or two from each gallon of gasoline.

Because of the single engine/transmission package, the three different trim levels are just that: trim levels. The $24,310 Sport anchors the lineup, providing power accessories, air conditioning, cruise control, 18-inch wheels, four-speaker audio system with CD player and a 40/60 split fold-down rear seat. At $26,060 the Touring trim adds leather seating with front-seat heaters and power-adjustable driver’s seat.

At the top of the CX-7 heap is the Grand Touring at $28,860. It adds automatic climate control, Grand Touring-specific leather seating, leather-wrapped steering wheel with piano black accents, xenon headlamps and aluminum alloy wheels.

With one simple checkmark, buyers can swell both content and the total price. The optional Technology Package tacks $4,005 to the bottom line. With it come extras such as a power moon roof, upgraded nine-speaker Bose surround-sound audio system, a DVD-based nav system with rear camera, remote start feature and an in-dash six-disc CD changer.

Safety features abound. Every CX-7 is equipped with front seat side-impact and full side-curtain air bags. Ventilated antilock disc brakes are behind each wheel. Traction control and electronic stability control are also standard.

A tire-pressure monitoring system keeps an eye on the air pressure in each tire.

A fully independent suspension makes life on the highway more carlike. Again, the architecture is derived from Mazda’s cars.

Unlike a number of competitors, the CX-7 underpinnings are a bit taut. A small percentage of comfort has been traded for tighter handling. Wallowing less in the turns than your typical crossover, the CX-7 corners with sporty aplomb.

Moreover, the steering is acutely responsive, delivering just the right amount of resistance based on speed and driver input. Stops are sure and straight as befits a sporty performer.

Although the rear seat will prove a little cramped for taller passengers, in general the cabin is roomy. Even 6-foot-plus drivers can stretch out behind the wheel. With the rear seat in place there is nearly 30 cubic feet of cargo space. Fold the entire seat down and it balloons to 59 cubic feet. The top-hinged liftgate provides a large opening and low liftover for loading and unloading cargo.

Logically arranged and sharply styled, the instrument panel is pleasing to the eye. The chiseled design employs texture and relief to create appeal. The three-pod gauge package looks as though it could have been lifted right out of the RX-8. There are plenty of cup holders and storage cubbies too.

The center console contains a storage area sufficiently large to tempt you to drop a pebble into it to see how long it takes to hit bottom. Mazda also took the time and energy to engineer the steering wheel so that the horn button is in its center where it always was before air bags.

Radiating tremendous curb appeal, the CX-7 looks as good as it drives. Its styling is forward-looking, yet not gimmicky. Its powertrain is more than competent, delivering enthusiastic performance.

Mazda has done an admirable job of blending SUV convenience with an agility that simply can’t be found in many of its competitors. Mazda bills itself as a maker of sporty cars. The CX-7 adds a crossover to its resume of sporty vehicles.

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