Mazda CX-7 i Sport – Where less is more

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Sometimes less is more. Take Mazda’s 2010 CX-7 for example.

The compact CX-7 crossover has been on the market since 2007, a stylish entry that fits nicely into the company’s decade-old Zoom-Zoom theme. Since its inception four years ago, the CX-7 has had only one engine option, a turbocharged 4-cylinder that makes 244 horsepower and an impressive 258 pound-feet of torque.

The CX-7 was a favorite of auto writers from the get-go because of its sprightly performance measured at around 7.5 seconds from 0-to-60, its snappy sports-car-like handling and its six-speed automatic.

But this enthusiasm hasn’t been shared by would-be buyers. The CX-7 is a bit pricey compared to the more popular competitors, and even more daunting from the viewpoint of the young family, is the added expense of premium gas compounded by rather lack-luster gas mileage measured at 18 city/25 highway for front-wheel drive and 17/23 in all-wheel format.

But sales have been slipping since its first year on the market. Last year sales were down to 20,500. Compare that number to the segment leading Honda CR-V (191,000), Ford Escape (173,000) and Toyota RAV4 (149,000). Both the Escape and the RAV4 have optional V-6 engines, but they live on their bread-and-butter 4-cylinder offerings. The CR-V has just one choice, a standard four.

Mazda has never sought triple-digit sales for the CX-7. But it would like to reclaim some market share. In light of that goal, the Japanese company is betting that less may actually be more with the CX-7.

Officials have reached the conclusion that many families shopping in the segment may be more interested in a frugal four-cylinder engine than an upscale turbo.  So for 2010 Mazda is offering less — a naturally aspired 2.4-liter 4-cylinder making 161 horsepower and 161 lbs.-ft. of torque matched to a five-speed automatic — in hopes it turns into more (sales). It burns regular gas and mileage is significantly better at 20 mpg city and 28 mpg highway with two-wheel drive called the i Sport; it is not offered in all-wheel drive.

The i Sport vehicle we drove was well appointed with a base price of $23,240 including destination charge. That’s a saving of about $3,500 over the least-expensive turbocharged edition. That price just may steer more people to the CX-7, which is still one of the segment’s real head-turners when it comes to styling both inside and out, with exceptional build quality for a non-luxury segment vehicle.

Standard equipment in the i Sport may be all that most people want including 17-inch alloy wheels, full power accessories, air conditioning, tilt-telescoping steering wheel, a four-speaker stereo with CD and Bluetooth connectivity, cruise control and leather-wrapped steering wheel. The standard cloth seats in our test vehicle were upscale and attractive.

We would add two options to the vehicle that are worth the money (they were included on our test car). The Sport Convenience Package for $1,750 brings automatic climate control, a multi-information display with a very clear, useable rearview camera, power moonroof, eight-way power driver’s seat and heated front seats. The other feature that’s a “must have” is Sirius satellite radio at $430. That would bring the bottom line to a still affordable $25,420.

The CX-7 is still available with the turbocharged engine in s Touring and Grand Touring trim levels, with a choice of two-or-four wheel drive. The top trim s Grand Touring with all-wheel drive comes in just under 34 grand.

Regardless of trim, the CX-7 buyer still gets the styling that was derived from the company’s RX-8 sports car. The CX-7 was created with a steeply raked windshield, which at 66 degrees is reclined even more than the RX-8, and with prominent front fenders and bulging wheel arches that come directly from the RX-8 design. A massive black air intake under the prominent Mazda nose gives the front of the CX-7 an aggressive stance.

The sports car theme continues inside. Chief Designer Iwao Koiuzumi pointed out at CX’s introduction several years ago that because of the windshield rake, the driver is moved back to create decent head room much like the RX-8. This also produces a cockpit-like feeling — an RX-8 feeling — for the driver. “We sought a relaxed but sporty cockpit,” Koiuzumi said.

The three-spoke steering wheel looks identical to the one found in the Mazda MX-5 roadster and the front seats are designed to hold passengers in place during aggressive driving, much like those found in Mazda’s sports cars. We liked the power driver’s seat option because, together with the standard tilt and telescoping steering wheel, we had no trouble reaching an optimum driving position.

The dashboard is clean, but sporty, with clear gauges housed in three protruding chrome-ringed clusters directly behind the steering wheel. To eliminate the picnic-table look of the wide expanse of dashboard that comes as a by-product of the raked windshield, Mazda designers created a very neat upper deck that extends across the entire instrument panel.

So you are probably wondering about performance with the new engine, which sacrifices 83 horsepower. Sounds like a lot, and, indeed, performance is not the same. But that’s not to say it isn’t adequate and that the average driver won’t find it acceptable.
At the low end, the i Sport feels sprightly in stoplight to stoplight hops. We had to push it a bit to rapidly get to speed on a four-lane road, but it feels little different than the Honda CR-V or Honda Element.

Mazda has also detuned the handling aspects of the crossover, but we found the steering well weighted providing a good feel of the road. The ride seems a bit on the stiff side compared to others in the segment, but we had no problem in this regard. Throttle response is up to Mazda standards. It’s still a nice, easy vehicle to drive.

Perhaps the biggest downside to the CX-7, and this is true regardless of trim level, is the small storage area. Luggage capacity is a solid 29.9 cubic feet behind the seats, but expands to only 59 cubic feet with the seatbacks folded. If you are not into carrying big loads, than the i Sport should suit your needs.

We think Mazda has done a good job creating the less expensive trim level. Our test vehicle with just a couple of extras listed for $25,690 including destination charges proving in this case less is indeed more.

Base price: $23,240; as driven: $25,690
Engine: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 161 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 161 @ 3,500 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 108.3 inches
Length: 184.3 inches
Curb weight: 3,496 pounds
Turning circle: 37.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 29.9 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 59 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 16.4 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 28 mpg highway, 20 mpg city
0-60: 9.8 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Chevrolet Equinox

The Good:
• Sharp styling
• Quality interior
• Fuel efficient 4-cylinder

The Bad:
• Minimally competitive storage space

The Ugly:
• Having to give up the turbo for affordability