2011 Mazda CX-7 Driving Impressions

The Mazda CX-7 gets the zoom-zoom award in this class, especially when compared with the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. The Honda and Toyota models focus more on utility than spirit; in fact, they seem downright dumpy and staid, when compared to the CX-7.

A better performance rival is the new Kia Sportage SX, with its 256-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter engine and 6-speed automatic transmission; its styling is sleek like that of the Mazda CX-7, its price about the same (retailing for a bit less), and its fuel mileage 21/25 mpg. Or maybe the Acura RDX, another four-cylinder turbo with an emphasis on handling, although the Acura runs quite a few thousand dollars more.

The Mazda CX-7 is eminently smooth and stable at 80 mph. On winding roads it tracks true, with minimal body lean despite its SUV stature. Being front-wheel-drive based, it will understeer when provoked by excessive cornering speed, but the electronic stability control system shields all but the most lead-footed driver from ever experiencing this.

There is some head toss in quick left-right-left transitions, but not a lot. What's felt more often is a certain jaggedness over bumps, sometimes. The chassis and suspension changes for 2010, making the CX-7 more rigid and stiffer, have improved the cornering but not necessarily the ride, in every situation. Over rough pavement, the suspension is firm while not being stiff, but sharp ruts can be harsh.

And despite more engine and interior insulation in 2010, the tires transmit road noise into the cabin, which otherwise is fairly quiet, even over poorly graded railroad crossings.

The steering wheel, pedals and shift lever are positioned well for sporty driving. Mazda claims that this is no accident, because the steering wheel/shifter geometry replicates that of the RX-8 sports car (though we wonder how). The brake pedal returns a solid, firm feel, and the vented disc brakes deliver reassuring, controlled stops.

The base 2.5-liter engine is well matched to the CX-7, providing adequate acceleration from a stop, though it lacks a bit in midrange punch. It's smooth, and works well with the 5-speed automatic transmission.

The base engine is EPA rated at 20 mpg city/28 mpg highway. You pay for the extra power in the 2.3-liter turbo, with fuel mileage of 17/24 mpg with front-wheel drive and 15/21 mpg with all-wheel drive.

The turbocharged engine has more midrange power than the base engine, making passing a much easier prospect. Power builds smoothly from a standstill, with impressive torque at low engine speeds (torque is that force that propels you from intersections and up steep hills). The CX-7 develops more torque at a lot lower engine speed (258 pound-feet at 2500 rpm) than even the V6 in the Toyota RAV4 (246 pound-feet at 4700 rpm), but that's what turbochargers do for engines. A four-cylinder turbo theoretically makes as much power as a V6 but with better fuel mileage.

The 6-speed automatic transmission shifts well and adapts well to different driving situations. In Drive, the programming logic learns a driver's style and adjusts shift points to match. In Sport mode, it executes manual shifts smoothly, up or down. To change gears manually, slide the shifter into the Sport slot, which is conveniently placed on the driver's side of the primary shift gate. Then simply push the lever forward to downshift, pull it back to upshift.

With either engine, there's some torque steer (where the front tires pull one way or the other, most commonly to the right) under hard acceleration, and we've noticed it in both the front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive models. It's somewhat less in the latter, which redirects up to 50 percent of the power to the rear wheels in extreme conditions.

In addition to our road time in the Mazda CX-7 s Grand Touring, we crept and sometimes blasted through deep mud at an event at the Dirtfish Rally School in Snoqualmie, Washington, called Mudfest, organized by the Northwest Automotive Press Association.

The CX-7 offered great traction even on its road tires, but when the ruts grew 10 inches deep, we steered the CX-7 clear, with 8.1 inches of ground clearance. That's still a good amount, matching the 2011 Jeep Compass, an SUV built more for off-road. The Kia Sportage SX, also at the event, has only 6.8 inches of ground clearance, so it bailed out of the mud long before the CX-7. Besides, the Sportage awd system can't match the traction made by the CX-7.

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