Earlier this year, we tested a Mazda CX-9. So when we heard that we were getting a CX-7 Grand Touring in the CNET garage, we braced for more of the same, only smaller. The tiny Mazda crossover didn't disappoint; the CX-7 has a lot in common with the CX-9, particularly in the cabin tech department.
However, like a scrappy little brother, the CX-7 works hard to differentiate itself from its larger sibling. On the road, the CX-7 feels faster and more connected to the road, though this comes at the expense of a little ride harshness. Everything we liked about the CX-9's interior has been concentrated and refined in the CX-7, including the Bose audio system.
Having proven that it's worthy of moving out of the shadow of the CX-9, does the CX-7 have what it takes to compete in the rapidly growing crowded crossover SUV market? We put it to the test to find out.
Test the tech: Soul of a sports car?
According to Mazda, all of its vehicles have "the soul of a sports car." While we're not inclined to believe this claim wholesale, we were impressed enough with the larger CX-9's handling to believe that the smaller, lighter CX-7 may stand a chance at delivering the "zoom-zoom" that Mazda's always talking about. So we decided to take the CX-7 on the same mountain route we used for our VW Tiguan test.
Around town, for the first leg of our trip, the CX-7's great steering feel and easy-to-modulate brakes had an opportunity to shine. Maneuvering through downtown San Francisco's thick traffic, the CX-7 felt composed. Taking off from a dead stop, turbo lag was nearly imperceptible, though not completely eliminated. The onset of power is nowhere near as dramatic as that of the Tiguan, which comes on like a light switch about 3,000rpm. Instead, the CX-7 delivers power evenly and predictably.
As we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge into the north San Francisco Bay Area, we had an opportunity to test the CX-7's high-speed manners. On the highway, the CX-7's suspension sure demonstrates the traditional sports car harshness. While it does a good job of muting road noise and isolating the cabin from expansion joints and cracks in the road, the Mazda's suspension is firmer than we expected for a small SUV. The suspension 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.
Finally, we'd reached the foot of the mountain and started up the twisty roads. The CX-7's 258 pound-feet of torque made the charge up the mountain easier than the Tiguan. A wider powerband also means that the Mazda could run through the twisty portions with less shifting from the six-speed transmission, which we'd left in automatic mode. Rounding the turns, the CX-7 handled exceptionally well for a crossover, but it still understeered like a pig. The responsive steering and firm suspension made it relatively easy to correct, but we still felt that the power steering was slightly overboosted.
Reaching the halfway point of our mountain run, we realized that we weren't really looking forward to the descent. Driving the CX-7 in the mountains just wasn't as fun as it was with the Tiguan. The light steering effort and firm suspension tuning that made the CX-7 a joy to drive around town had become annoying on the mountain's poorly maintained roads. Keeping the CX-7 on track in hairpin turn after hairpin turn took a great deal of concentration. The mountain clearly wasn't the Mazda's natural habitat. However, there was no way home but down, so we pressed on.
Reaching the far side of the mountain, we were greeted by the familiar coastal highway, with its sweeping turns, pristine asphalt, and spectacular views. This was, without a doubt, the best part of the trip and the type of road where the CX-7 felt most at home. The Mazda was able to settle onto its stiff suspension and keep flat through the turns, without the body roll we'd experienced in the hairpin turns of the mountains. Suddenly, driving the CX-7 was fun again.
Cruising down the coast, we felt--if only for a moment--that there might be something to Mazda's claim of "the soul of a sports car." The CX-7 has the heart. Mazda's crossover certainly feels sporty in the power and the handling departments, as long as you don't push it too hard.
In the cabin
Upon settling into the CX-7's driver's seat, the first thing we noticed was just how German the aesthetic was. With black as far as the eye could see and tasteful silver plastic trim here and there, we'd begun to think that perhaps we had somehow found ourselves back in the VW Tiguan. While Mazda had managed to match the German aesthetic, the CX-7's interior build quality was found to be lacking in a few places. For example, in certain places, the plastics that make up the center console feel cheap and hollow to the touch.
Cheap plastics surrounding the shifter are exceptions to the Mazda's generally attractive interior.
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.
The 2.3-liter turbocharged engine offers fantastic power, but subpar fuel economy.
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.