IT IS NOT NEWS to anyone that SUVs are blitzing the market. For the month just gone, and the previous one, and for much of the past year, sales of SUVs have nearly doubled the sales growth of other market sectors.
Last month, SUVs were up a staggering 44.1 percent (over March 2009) and up 34.3 percent year-to-date. Sales growth of that order is rewriting record books.
And, by and large, it is family buyers who are scooping them up. It is a growth that has all-but killed the conventional family ‘wagon’.
There is now a Kluger or a Territory where once Dad parked the Kingswood ‘Vacationer’; and a CRV or Captiva in the carport instead of a Camry wagon.
It is not because SUVs are economical, mostly they’re not (many as poor as the Kingswood in fact); nor because they’re cheap, nor because the rigours of Australian family motoring demands a high-stepping, back-roads-bustin’ all-wheel-drive.
No, it’s something else. Fashion? Yeah. Versatility? Certainly. Robustness? Maybe.
But handling? No. Few offer the on-road dynamics of an equivalent sedan. Many, in fact, are pretty ordinary at the wheel: a bit slow, a bit spongy down below, and more than a little top-heavy.
And some – a mess of bulges and clumsy lines, half bath-tub and half rhinoceros - look like… well, crap.
But not Mazda’s CX-7. Smart, swoopy and alive with personality, this is an SUV you can admire for its style. More to the point, it can be admired even more for the experience it offers at the wheel. City or country, this is one decent drive.
It comes in three distinct and quite different mechanical configurations: the CX-7 Classic, front-wheel drive only with a 2.5 litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine; the CX?7 Diesel Sports powered by a 2.2 litre turbo diesel engine with six?speed manual and Active Torque?Split AWD system; and Classic Sports and Luxury Sports models, powered by Mazda's 2.3 litre DISI Turbo engine via a six?speed 'Activematic' auto transmission and Active Torque-Split AWD.
Standard safety equipment across the range includes six airbags - dual front, side and curtain - DSC, traction control, anti?lock braking, emergency brake assist, and reversing camera with a 4.1?inch colour multi information display.
When you’re buying a family car ostensibly for a bit of adventure, one that you can take off the beaten track with the kids and their assorted detritus in tow, having ample space inside would seem to be a minimum requirement.
No problems with the CX-7 here: getting a family-sized load comfortably belted, stowed and battened-down inside those fashionable lines is easily achieved.
There is tons of room up front in that sweeping glass-house and good head, leg and shoulder space for three juniors (or adults at a slight pinch) seated in the back.
Lift the rear tail-gate and there is also surprising space under the CX-7’s edgy chopped roofline. It will, as we found, easily carry the family’s holiday clobber for the weekend at the farm. And, with the luggage screen in place, shield things from both the sun and unwelcome prying eyes.
So, for that most basic of requirements for a mid-sized SUV – its ability to swallow a family – the CX-7 comes up trumps.
More to the point, it does so without looking like a shoe-box and with more than a dollop of sporting style.
That ‘style thing’ is a real plus for the CX-7: slide in behind the smallish chunky wheel, take in the steeply-raked screen and sloping bonnet, and it makes you feel good. In this driver’s seat, you’re not left feeling like you’ve buried your soul under the tedium of family responsibility.
The style-driven exterior is carried over into the interior. The wide two-tiered dash is very appealing, the style of the centre console that sweeps up and into the dash is crisply modern and well laid out, and fit and finish is typically Mazda (in other words, damned hard to fault).
On the down-side of things, there is little to report. The shift gate looks a tad bland, and we found the leather seats of the tester a little slippery and flat in the squab, but these are very minor niggles.
They are quickly forgotten when you point the CX-7 out of the city and onto the highway. It is out here, with the white lines flashing under the wheels and the rushing blur of the fence posts ticking off the kilometers, that the real character and the elusive strengths of the CX-7 emerge.
On nearly any surface it is as hard to fault as it is to wrong-foot. For the way it tracks the contours of the road without harshness and jarring, for its short but elastic initial compliance, for its balance and the way it communicates at the wheel, its underpinnings are little short of superb.
It is also quiet, with very little intrusion of road noise – apparent only on the coarsest of surfaces – and wind noise is effectively banished.
There is nothing particularly startling down below, McPherson struts up front and a multi-link rear, but Mazda engineers have it superbly tuned and controlled.
After a week at the wheel, including a few serious ‘punts’ with the CX-7 on the fly, it never once exposed itself. Dynamically, its sophisticated chassis control is at least a match for much more fancied and expensive AWD machinery.
Whatever the road and condition of the surfaces, from freeway table-tops to gravel back-roads, as a versatile light-duty all-wheel-drive, the CX-7 is without doubt one of the better handling and more satisfying drives in the segment.
Thanks to that all-wheel drive grip, it tracks arrow true and its turn-in performance belies its high stance and vertical mass. When pushing hard, it doesn’t shift its mass to load up on the leading outside wheel as some SUVs are prone to do.
Ok, so that’s the chassis, and it’s better than good.
The drive train however – a 2.261 litre 16-valve DOHC direct-injection petrol turbo mated to the six-speed 'Activematic' auto – is not such a happy tale to tell.
The figures, on paper, look alright: 175kW @ 5000 rpm and 350Nm @ 2500 rpm. And, while 'undersquare' with a long stroke – 87.5mm x 94.0mm – it will happily rev its head off, redlined at a wailing 6750rpm.
But frankly, while it is quick enough if you are prepared to keep the revs right up, it is underpowered.
You notice this in two key parts of the driving experience: the first, when overtaking and you find you have the pedal mashed to the floor before things start to happen; the second, when filling up at the petrol pump.
Putting a smallish turbo-driven petrol donk to work moving the CX-7's 1798 kilograms gives it a fearsome thirst. After a week of mostly country kilometers (and just two runs through the city), we could manage just 12.7 l/100km.
This really isn’t good enough and made a little worse by its premium 95RON diet.
If the trade off was rip-snorting acceleration, you’d perhaps be happy to go with it – but, although the turbo up front tries hard and makes the right satisfying noises, rip-snorting it is not.
Simple physics demands a bigger engine, or the diesel. The petrol ‘four’ simply has to work too hard.
Perhaps family drivers with a light right foot might find little for complaint. It is engineered for economy with very tall gearing (at 100km/h it is ticking over at barely 1850rpm) and Mazda claims 11.5 l/100km (as compared to the diesels's 7.6 l/100km); but put a load in the back and it feels every extra kilogram.
It feels sharper if you take things in hand and shift manually: there is whole lot right about the Activematic auto, it is decisive if left to its own devices and fun to use with crisp shifts if paddled manually.
But, at the end of the day, the CX-7 Luxury Sports is a great car with the wrong engine. You have to think that the extra low-down torque of the diesel (which we have not yet driven) would be the better match.
We had the 2.3 litre turbo-driven CX-7 Luxury Sports AWD under test. It adds Bluetooth® (hands?free compatible), maintenance monitor, sat nav, trip computer, leather seats and a host of other little luxuries to a well-priced and generously-configured range.
Sitting on 19-inch alloys, the Luxury Sports looks fat. And after one week at the wheel we were convinced: this is one fine car.
In fact, there are so many things right with the CX-7 Luxury Sports that its one leading failing becomes a particular disappointment.
But let’s start with its strengths - with all the things that are right and why the CX-7 is such a well-rounded and quite special car: let’s start then with ‘the drive’.
So, where does the CX-7 Luxury Sports sit in the scheme of things?
It has all the spaciousness, versatility and benefits of an SUV tucked into very appealing sleek 'arrow-head' lines.
It is alive at the wheel and has the sporting feel, handling and sophisticated underpinnings of much more expensive contenders.
And, with a new pricing structure announced by Mazda late last year, the CX-7 across the range is now even better value buying: the CX?7 Luxury Sports at $45,990 (plus on-roads) has been reduced in price by $1,940 over the equivalent outgoing model and adds $1,040 of additional equipment.
So, despite our missgivings about the petrol turbo engine, we think Mazda's CX-7 is one of the best built, most appealingly styled, one of the best drives and one of the best buys in the segment.
It is, quite simply, a fine car.
Our suspicion is that the diesel would be our choice (we'll confirm that, or otherwise, after testing), but if the extra time at the bowser doesn't bother you too much, you'll be very well satisfied with Mazda's CX-7 Luxury Sports.