REVIEW DATE: 16 Aug 2007
Is there a market for a hugely powerful lifestyle 4x4 that nobody's ever heard of? Mazda seems to think so. Andy Enright finds the interesting CX-7 a hard sell
If you believe the hype, crossover vehicles are the new rock and roll. These are the vehicles you need if you are a twenty or thirtysomething and look like you've just stepped out of a Gillette advert. You kitesurf, you BASE jump, you are implausibly attractive to the opposite sex and you need all-wheel drive, lots of horsepower and a steeply raked windscreen to underscore these facts. In truth, you are possibly none of the above but that doesn't mean you can't appreciate a car that can get the goods home from B&Q and blow Nigel from field sales in his BMW 318Ci into the weeds while you're at it.
You might have kids, you might have a time share in Les Arcs. Either way, you need something fun and something with a bit of capability. Mazda contends that you need a CX-7. Now it's up to you to see whether you agree.
Let's start with the big numbers. Most lifestyle 4x4s front up to the party packing 160bhp or so. Mazda isn't interested in any of that flyweight nonsense. Yes, a diesel CX-7 will be available in due course but for the time being, you'll just have to make do with 258bhp of all-wheel-drive power, courtesy of the 2.3-litre turbocharged engine lifted from the stealth bomber Mazda6 MPS. It'll punt the CX-7 off the line with real verve, the sprint to 60mph being notched off in 7.8 seconds, while a top speed of 130mph is a testament to the muscle of this motor.
With a six-speed transmission and peak torque of 380Nm at just 3,000rpm, the CX-7 is quick off the mark, although there is some turbo lag to contend with and the soundtrack of this turbo four isn't exactly the most charismatic. Most of the time, the CX-7 operates in front-wheel drive mode but should you ladle on the power, the active torque-split four-wheel-drive system will divert drive to the rear wheels too. A taut suspension setup and decently weighted, if slightly sticky feeling, steering allow you to exploit the power on challenging roads.
"The CX-7 is as good as it really could have been for the price Mazda charges"
The CX-7 will net a few sales purely on the basis of the way it looks. Probably the most striking aspect of the car is the steeply-raked windscreen. Most SUVs have a rather bluff frontal aspect but the CX-7 has the sort of screen angle that wouldn't look out of place on a Lamborghini. The overall effect is to give the Mazda a very sleek, purposeful look and to instantly rid you of any possible notion that the thing can be taken off-road. Which is just as well, as the ground clearance is minimal.
There is a lurking suspicion that the CX-7 is, in fact, built of other Mazda bits. The engine we know is borrowed from the Mazda6 MPS. The front wings look purloined from the RX8 and when you drop inside, the steering wheel looks as if it's been nicked from the MX-5 production line while the workers were looking the other way. The interior is nicely finished although some of the interior materials are a bit Elizabeth Duke at Argos. Space in the rear is adequate but the rear seats aren't endowed with any sliding or reclining features. At least they do fold forward to form a flat load floor.
The rather cheap-feeling interior treatment is forgivable in the light of the £23,960 asking price. If you want this sort of power but a better finish to the cabin you'd need to fork out over £34,000 for a 3.0-litre BMW X3 so it's churlish to grumble. Besides, the UK specification CX-7 comes absolutely dripping in standard equipment. Heated leather seats, 18-inch alloy wheels, stability control, traction control, xenon headlights, climate control and a Bose Premium audio system with six-CD auto changer, MP3 capability and no fewer than nine speakers are all on the team sheet. Options include parking sensors, an iPod adaptor, scuff plates and metallic paint.
The CX-7's closest spiritual rival, the Nissan Murano, is only a KFC Variety Meal off £30,000 so it's likely that the Mazda will make further inroads into the Nissan's already unspectacular sales figures but this is not a big market niche. The jack-of-all-trades approach exemplified by the Mazda CX-7 runs the very real risk of satisfying nobody in particular.
The big hurdle the CX-7 is quite unable to overcome is ongoing running costs. Despite the attractive upfront price, this is a big, relatively heavy vehicle that's powered by a turbocharged petrol engine, all of which equals a quite hefty thirst. Mazda quotes a combined fuel economy figure of 27.7mpg. Whilst I wouldn't wish to cast doubt on the veracity of this claim, it's worth bearing in mind that 'real world' economy figures are often markedly lower than the published numbers. For what it's worth, the stated extra urban figure - the sort of fuel consumption you'd expect on a longer run - is quoted as 34.9mpg. Make of that what you will.
Carbon dioxide emissions of 243g/km make the CX-7 a pricey car to tax and business users will take one look at that number and start searching for entertaining diesel-powered alternatives. As a result of these running costs, it's hard to predict sterling residual values for the CX-7.
The CX-7 is as good as it really could have been for the price Mazda charges. It's quick and well screwed together, there are plenty of buttons to press and it even manages to be good-looking while remaining decently practical. It's far from perfect though. The thirsty petrol engine, high emissions and low brand awareness all count against it being a significant player in the 4x4 market.
As is always the case, you get what you pay for. Want a more characterful engine, sharper handling and a plusher cabin? Then fork out £35,000 or so for a BMW X3 3.0si. If you're paying less, you'll need to make some compromises and the CX-7 manages those compromises reasonably well. Its overriding problem is that the market for this sort of vehicle is extremely small. Nibbling a tiny slice of a meagre pie seems to be the CX-7's lot in life which is a shame for such an intriguing vehicle.
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