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Two years ago, we took a spin in the 2009 Mazda CX-7 s Grand Touring and found the turbocharged SUV to be quite fun to drive, if a bit disappointing in the cabin tech department. A lot can change in two years, but when the 2011 Mazda CX-7 i Touring showed up in the CNET garage, we expected more of the same, despite a new front end to match Mazda's new design language.
However, the CX-7 that we were handed the keys to was not a turbocharged, all-wheel-drive s (although that model is still available). Rather, it was a toned-down, naturally aspirated i model. With a less powerful engine and two fewer drive wheels, we had our doubts that the CX-7 could live up to its new sports-car-inspired aesthetic, but also had hopes that our fuel-economy gripes could finally be put to rest.
As SUVs in its class go, the CX-7 is, in our opinion, one of the most attractive. Drawing from Mazda's sporty design language, the crossover features a relatively low ride height for vehicles in its class and an aggressively raked profile that doesn't stop rising from the tip of its front bumper to darn near the B pillar. So far, the CX-7 has managed to avoid the gigantic goofy grin that forms the face of the smaller Mazda 3 and 5 models--which is probably a good thing, when you consider the size that grin would have to be to fill the CX-7's massive front bumper.
The CX-7 isn't what you'd call cavernous, but we were able to fit a partially disassembled couch into its hatch.
Two nice side effects of the Mazda's low ride height--aside from handling benefits, which we'll get back to--is that the CX-7 prints smaller than it actually is and has a fairly low load-in height. This reviewer was able to single-handedly load a two-seat couch into the vehicle with the rear seats folded flat. The driver's seat did end up a bit too close to the steering wheel for comfort, but the CX-7 exceeded our initial estimates when the hatch closed securely behind the bulky bit of furniture.
Power and performance
The 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine provides enough power that the SUV doesn't feel sluggish, but not quick enough to be called peppy. Stepping up to the s trim level replaces that engine with the 2.3-liter turbocharged mill from the Mazdaspeed3. This engine is a good for an energetic ride in the smaller hatchback; we expect that it would prove more than sufficient for motivating the CX-7. With our current 2.5-liter, naturally aspirated configuration, power flows to the front wheels through a five-speed automatic transmission. Without looking at the specs, we could have sworn that the CX-7 was converting torque with a CVT, the shifts are that smooth and the power delivery that rubbery. If you're looking for a self-shifter that won't upset the cup of coffee you sip on your morning commute, this is the one. If you're looking for a gearbox that gets out of its own way when asked to quickly downshift and accelerate, keep looking.
We observed a combined fuel economy of 22.1 mpg over the course of our testing, landing on the low end of the EPA's estimated 20 city and 28 highway mpg for our front-wheel-drive configuration. Step up to that more powerful 2.3-liter turbo and you'll drop down to 18 city and 24 highway mpg. Add all-wheel drive to the mix and you're down even further to 17 city and 21 highway mpg. With the price of fuel rapidly rising at time of publication, we were beginning to feel a bit better about our CX-7 i's decently performing yet quite thrifty engine.
While power may not be the CX-7 i's strong suit, handling is a place where Mazda vehicles usually shine. It's no MX-5 Miata, but the largish CX-7 does seem to shrink when navigating its natural, that is, urban, environment. Emergency lane changes are quick and free of drama and while highway off-ramps were tackled with a bit of lean, the crossover never got out of sorts. This is clearly not the sort of SUV we'd take off-road or on our favorite country back road, but the CX-7 wove smoothly through traffic on the highway and deftly dodged inattentive drivers in parking lots.
Audio from the Bose Centerpoint surround-sound audio system isn't bad, but there is something odd about the quality. Perhaps it's the speaker placement, perhaps the crossover between the dash-mounted tweeters and the door-mounted woofers, but the sound simply doesn't fill the cabin when you're listening to music or spoken word. Regardless of how we tweaked the sound settings, the audio source seems to be float somewhere far in front of the driver's seating position. Perhaps this odd staging is by design, but we never found ourselves really enjoying the music. This issue was compounded when listening to voices on talk radio and podcasts, which seemed to take on a tiny, hollow quality. We recall really enjoying this Bose system when we tested the 2009 model, so perhaps something was not quite right with our tester.
The Bose-branded audio system sounded OK for music playback, but talk radio and podcasts took on an odd, hollow quality.
Audio sources on our i Touring trim level were few in number. There's a six-disc CD player, an AM/FM radio, and an analog auxiliary input located deep in the center console. The terrestrial radio is notable in that it possesses a time-shift feature that allows you to temporarily pause live radio broadcasts for brief periods of time and resume with the touch of a button. Also standard is satellite radio, which is a sore spot in Mazda's tech packages. The system seemed to have a hard time maintaining a connection to the satellites. This is an issue that we've seen in many of the previous Mazda vehicles that we've tested, so we're blaming the hardware here, not the service. Even with a clear view of the sky, the signal would intermittently cut out momentarily, much to the annoyance of our passengers. Additionally, we were unable to view station metadata (artist, title, station name), which we're also blaming on the poor satellite connection.
USB and iPod connectivity are not available without a step up to the s Touring or s Grand Touring trim level. You'll also have to step up to an s Grand Touring if you want the keyless entry and start system or navigation. That navigation system, by the way, is the same flash memory-based system that we tested in the current-generation Mazda3. It uses a combination of the small 3.5-inch information display at the top of the dashboard and controls mounted on the steering wheel. Frankly, this seems like a step down from the larger touch-screen-based navigation system of the previous generation, but we liked Mazda's new navigation system in the 3 so we're sure that we could get used to it in the 7. Check out our review of the 2010 Mazda Mazda3 s Grand Touring 5-Door for more details about what to expect there.
Two information displays grace the brow at the top of the CX-7 i Touring's dashboard, but if you want navigation, you'll have to step up a few trim levels.
Even though the i touring trim level isn't available with navigation, it still features the screen for it, which is used to provide fuel economy information, give the driver access to vehicle settings, and, when the vehicle is in reverse, act as a tiny rearview camera display. Considering the size and placement, drivers are not going to want to use this display as their primary rearview window, but the extra view out of the back does help. A secondary monochromatic display just to the left of main information display is where you'll find audio source and climate control information. Without USB connectivity, our audio source information alternated between "No station info" thanks to the wonky satellite radio connection and a blank title screen for the auxiliary audio input or Bluetooth audio stream.
Bluetooth connectivity comes as part of the i Touring trim level (but not on the most basic i SV model) and features basic hands-free calling and A2DP stereo audio streaming. You can pair the system with a compatible handset using an easy-to-understand set of voice commands. True voice recognition is not a part of the system, so you have to stick with the preprogrammed prompts or manually assign voice tags to frequently dialed numbers--no phonebook sync is available. Phone calls were clear enough and easy to understand with audio coming out of the Bose surround system. However, the quality of audio piped over the Bluetooth connection for stereo music playback was just a bit lower than the same source using the analog aux-input.
Mazda's CX-7 is an oddly packaged vehicle. The i Touring package is the best trim level that you can spec if you want to keep the more efficient 2.5-liter engine, but you are not given USB connectivity or navigation as factory options at this level. In fact, our $27,385 CX-7 i Touring doesn't offer any factory-installed options that we'd recommend; you get what Mazda gives you. So, potential buyers of the smaller of Mazda's two SUVs--no, we don't count the Tribute either--have to choose between high tech and high efficiency. We'd like a bit more choice than that.
|Model||2011 Mazda CX-7 i|
|Power train||2.5-liter, 4-cylinder|
|EPA fuel economy||20 city, 28 highway mpg|
|Observed fuel economy||22.1 mpg|
|Navigation||at s Grand Touring trim only|
|Bluetooth phone support||basic voice command, no phonebook sync|
|Disc player||6-disc CD/MP3|
|MP3 player support||analog 3.5mm auxiliary input|
|Other digital audio||standard Sirius satellite radio, Bluetooth stereo streaming|
|Audio system||Bose Centerpoint surround|
|Driver aids||rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$27,385|