In spite of a few issues, sitting in the CX-7's cockpit was a pleasant experience. The leather seats were comfortable. The chunky steering wheel felt good in our hands, with buttons and switches that were easy to activate with the thumbs. Equipped with the optional technology package, our CX-7 came packed with tech options, including a touch-screen GPS navigation system with rearview camera, Bluetooth hands-free calling, and a Bose audio system.
The heart of the CX-7's cabin is the touch-screen navigation system. This is the same system that Mazda has available in its entire line, so we've had a great deal of time working with it. While we still think the system has a relatively steep learning curve, no longer think that it's an insurmountable one. We do like the system's fast routing and responsive interface. The fonts and graphics are easy to read, if a little dated. We especially like how the system shows the next three upcoming turns and distances as you navigate.
The system disables many menu options while the vehicle is in motion, such as destination entry or setup. This is a feature that will no doubt annoy some, but we feel it is ultimately better for safety.
While we have warmed to the navigation system, we still find the Bluetooth hands-free system frustrating. Setting up the system requires breaking out the instruction manual to figure out what you need to say. The process really gets annoying when trying to import your phone book, because you can't. Instead, you must individually transfer contacts and assign a voice stamp to each of them. Perhaps our expectations are too high, but in a world where a $99 Bluetooth speakerphone such as the Parrot Minikit Slim can handle automatic import of contacts and retrieve them without the need for a voice stamp, Mazda's system is lacking.
Audio from the navigation system and Bluetooth hands-free system flows through the Bose surround system, along with music from a six-disc CD changer with MP3 playback capability, optional Sirius satellite radio, an auxiliary input hidden in the center console, and an AM/FM radio. Nine speakers and 240 watts of power split between the nine speakers, make for a surprisingly balanced auditory experience. Using the default settings, we found the bass to be strong, but not overwhelming, and highs and mids to be crisp and clearly defined. There was a little distortion heard at high volumes, but only at levels too loud to be listened to comfortably anyway. Although the CX-7's system has two fewer speakers and 56 fewer watts than the CX-9's Bose system, we liked the sound of the CX-7 better, possibly because of the smaller cabin and better acoustics.
Under the hood
The CX-7's suspension is proof that Mazda is at least trying to make good on the "soul of a sports car" promise. With tight handling and communicative steering, it's easy to pilot the CX-7 through twisty mountain roads and crowded parking garages. On the highway, the CX-7 does a good job of muting road noise and isolating the cabin from expansion joints and cracks in the road. Overall, the Mazda's suspension is firmer than we expected and doesn't do a great job of absorbing the harshness of larger bumps. Thankfully, the CX-7's responsive handing will make short work of dodging bigger potholes and weaving through traffic.
Mazda has equipped the CX-7 with a 2.3-liter turbocharged and direct injected four-cylinder powerplant similar to that of the Mazdaspeed3 sport compact. In this incarnation, the engine outputs 244 horsepower and 258 foot-pounds of torque. Around town, the engine feels more than adequate and downright zippy under the hood of the CX-7.
Again, we're inclined to compare the CX-7's performance with the VW Tiguan, with which we were absolutely enamored. While the Tiguan is down 0.3-liter of displacement and 44 horsepower, it is also slightly smaller and lighter than the CX-7. The Tiguan's engine is peakier with lots of power at the top of the powerband and almost none on the low end. The CX-7, on the other hand, is less dramatic with its power delivery, spreading the torque more broadly across the powerband for more usable power. This lack of turbo lag and the power surge makes the CX-7's engine feel less like a small, turbocharged four cylinder and more like a small V-6.
There's a lot to like about the CX-7. Aesthetically, the CX-7 takes everything that we loved about the CX-9's looks and distills it into a more efficient and more attractive package. The interior is, with a few exceptions, on a par with the competition from Europe. Mazda has done an exceptional job of tuning the turbo four-cylinder engine to feel like a small V-6.
Of course, with V-6 power, comes V-6 fuel economy. The CX-7 manages a weak 16 city mpg and 22 highway mpg. For comparison, the Nissan Murano averages 18 city mpg and 23 highway mpg with a 3.5 liter V-6. The whole point of turbocharged direct injection is to improve fuel economy, so these low fuel economy numbers are disappointing.
Starting at $24,570 for a bare-bones CX-7 2WD Sport model, the MSRP jumps to $27,370 for our Grand Touring model, which adds leather seats, chrome trim, larger 18-inch wheels, and Xenon headlamps, among other features. Buyers in cold climes may want to add $1,700 for the all-wheel-drive system. Technophiles will definitely want to spec the tech package, which includes the fantastic-sounding Bose audio system, the touch-screen navigation with rearview camera, power moon roof, and Mazda's keyless entry and start system for a $4,485. Our model came with scuff plates and an undercarriage protection package (which is odd for a vehicle that will spend its whole life on-road), bringing the price as tested to $34,175, including destination charges.
We've drawn many comparisons between the VW Tiguan and the Mazda CX-7, but which is the better buy? Both vehicles are handsome-looking crossover SUVs. Performance is also very good in both vehicles. Equally equipped with navigation, all wheel drive, leather, and premium audio, the VW will cost about $2,400 more than the Mazda. That $2,400 doesn't include Bluetooth hands-free system, which isn't available as a factory option on the Tiguan. Although the Mazda has more cabin space and better tech, the Tiguan's better fuel economy and build quality make it a slightly better long-term investment.