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.