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.
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.