2012 Mazda CX-7 Review

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Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
February 20, 2012

If you'd rather not be seen in a minivan and think most crossovers are a snooze to drive, the 2012 Mazda CX-7 is a great alternative.

The Mazda CX-7 was a bit ahead of its time back when it was first introduced, for 2007. At that time, most automakers still felt compelled to include rugged design cues, or some claim of off-road ability in their crossover vehicles, even though everyone knew that they were seldom if ever taken off the pavement. But the Mazda CX-7 has always focused on the pavement--and curvy roads, in particular--offering a little more excitement than most in this class, both behind the wheel and in its design.

A couple of years ago the CX-7 received a mild refresh, as well as a more economical engine choice and more affordable models. But its sporty, rakish appearance continued mostly unchanged. The 2012 Mazda CX-7 continues with a swept-back, high-shouldered look that still appears contemporary, including a steep 66-degree windshield incline. Inside, the CX-7's design is different than other crossovers, with a simple, sporty look, dressed up with just a bit of bright trim.

The 2012 CX-7 is offered in two different models: The 'i' trims get a 161-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and five-speed automatic transmission, while 's' models come with a 244-horsepower, turbocharged direct-injected 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine. The 'i' comes in front-wheel drive only, while the 's' models can be had with either front- or all-wheel drive. Overall, the turbo engine in 's' models is still the better match for the racy look and feel of the CX-7, but most drivers will find the 2.5-liter to be just fine. The turbo engine makes its peak torque starting at 2,000 rpm, so acceleration with the automatic feels strong and almost seamless, but the tradeoff is a slightly coarser sound. Handling on either model is excellent, and it's a joy to drive on backroads even if the steering isn't quite as nicely weighted as the smaller Mazda3 (or even Mazda5 minivan). 

Review continues below

Inside, the Mazda CX-7 has a nice, upright driving position, with firm, supportive seats that are good for a wide range of sizes. In back, the CX-7 isn't quite up to the standard of rival models; it's barely wide enough for three adults--which is to be expected--but the low position leaves knees elevated and a general shortage of legroom. If you fold the seatbacks forward you'll find 70 inches of flat cargo floor--good enough for moving small pieces of furniture, but not all that large, due to the rather high cargo floor and downward-sloping roofline.

Safety ratings for the 2012 Mazda CX-7 remain mixed. Even though the CX-7 has all the safety features you'd expect in this class, it gets worrisome 'marginal' ratings in both rear impact (whiplash-related) and roof strength (rollover-related).

Base SV and Sport models are reserved for the 'i' powertrain, but both powertrains can be had in Touring or Grand Touring trims. The Touring models essentially step up to leather upholstery, while Grand Touring models get automatic climate control, a SmartKey entry system, a moonroof, heated mirrors, the nav system, rain-sensing wipers, blind-spot monitoring, and xenon HID headlamps. Bose Centerpoint audio is optional, as well as a touch-screen, voice-activated navigation system. A Bluetooth interface is included on most of the lineup but missing from the base SV.

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2012 Mazda CX-7

Styling

The 2012 Mazda CX-7 has been with us for several years now, but is lines make it still one of the more distinctive and zoomier crossovers.

Crossovers are slowly getting sleeker and more streamlined, but the 2012 Mazda CX-7 was a pioneer in that regard when it was launched six years ago. It's rakish, with a sharply angled windshield and swept-back lines over the wheel arches. Two years ago, Mazda mildly tweaked the CX-7's front fascia and rear lights, with a larger grille and an enlarged logo. Still, the creases, fender bulges, and relatively low lines of the hood remain as they were when it was launched in 2007.

Inside, the styling of the interior matches the mix of sportiness and utility conveyed by the exterior design. The cabin got some updates two years ago as well, with bright metal accents that give the instrument cluster and console more panache. The gauges are hooded, as in a sport sedan, and the steering wheel holds controls for both the sound system and the integrated Bluetooth voice control for mobile phones. As before, an upper shelf contains the displays for both audio and climate control--putting them as close as possible to the driver's field of view. Adjacent are either a navigation screen (in full color) or a monochrome display for the trip computer.

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2012 Mazda CX-7

Performance

Even the base 'i' model of the 2012 Mazda CX-7 performs well and out-handles pretty much any other crossover.

The 2012 Mazda CX-7 offers a pair of engine options, as it has for a couple of years now. The base 'i' model uses a 161-horsepower, 2.5-liter four that transmits its power through a five-speed automatic transmission. That engine is only offered with front-wheel drive. The more powerful 's' model fits a 244-hp, 2.3-liter four that's both turbocharged and direct-injected. It can be specified with either front-wheel drive or the all-wheel drive that's often expected of crossovers in colder and snowier climates.

The racy lines of the CX-7 may seem a better match for the image of a turbocharged engine, but in reality, many drivers will find the base 2.5-liter engine just fine if they're willing to forgo all-wheel drive. The turbo is remarkably tractable, with 90 percent of its peak torque available at engine speeds as low as 2,000 rpm, and a broad torque curve from there up to 5,000 rpm. The more powerful turbo engine in the 's' model, however, is noisier and coarser-sounding than the more refined 2.5-liter base option. Even under a full load, the base engine feels only slightly taxed--meaning buyers need to decide whether full-on power is worth the tradeoff in noise and fuel consumption.

As in most Mazdas, the "zoom-zoom" character really comes through in the handling. The CX-7 is one of the better handling crossovers of any size, and given its height, it holds the road remarkably well. It's hard to make the car lose its composure, even in tight corners with shifting curves. We think the steering could be slightly better weighted and more direct--closer to that of the Mazda5 small minivan--but the CX-7 remains the driver's choice for its ability to hustle through curves with the feel of something closer to a sports car than a family hauler.

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2012 Mazda CX-7

Comfort & Quality

The 2012 Mazda CX-7 won't be at the top of your list if you're looking for back-seat room or cargo capacity.

The front seats of the 2012 Mazda CX-7 are a fine place to spend time. They're firm, wide, and supportive for drivers in a wide range of sizes and shapes. The view out the angled windshield is panoramic as well, due to the upright driving position.

But in the back, it's not such a happy story. Three adults will barely fit across the rear seat, and while there's adequate headroom, they sit low to the floor. That means rear passengers' knees are elevated and there's just not that much legroom.

The rakish design also impinges on cargo space. There's a flat cargo floor 70 inches long if you fold down the rear seat, but the load bay isn't very tall--and you'll find that floor surprisingly high. You can fit a coffee table or a love seat, but measure carefully before you commit to bringing home a large flat-screen TV in its box. Storage cubbies are plentiful, though, and the center console was reconfigured two years ago to make it more useful and usable.

If you're looking for refinement, you'll find the CX-7 keeps noise--from both engine and road--under wraps. It's nowhere near the quietest vehicle in the class, but unlike early versions of the model, it's tolerable. The ride quality is firm, and soaks up potholes and other pavement flaws nicely, without jarring or thumping. Overall, the CX-7 is well assembled, and the quality of the interior plastics and seat upholstery seem to mix sturdiness and refinement.

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2012 Mazda CX-7

Safety

The 2012 Mazda CX-7 includes all the standard safety features you'd expect to find in a crossover, but it has a pair of IIHS safety ratings that may be cause for concern.

All 2012 Mazda CX-7 models include as standard equipment the usual list of electronic safety systems: stability control, anti-lock brakes, brake assist, and tire-pressure monitoring. They are also fitted with front and side airbags for front-seat occupants, and side-curtain airbags that cover both rows of seats.

But while the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the 2012 CX-7 its top rating of "Good" for frontal offset and side-impact crash tests, the vehicle gets only "Marginal" ratings (two steps down) for its roof strength and rear-impact results. Those ratings are cause for some worry.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn't rated the CX-7 under the new, more rigorous crash-testing routines introduced last year, but it garnered a top (five-star) rating for front and side impact crash testing under an earlier testing system. The NHTSA gives it four stars out of five for rollover protection.

Outward visibility from inside the CX-7 is better than in many crossovers, though shorter drivers may still find over-the-shoulder vision problematic when parking. A blind-spot monitoring system is offered as an option on the 2012 CX-7.

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2012 Mazda CX-7

Features

The 2012 Mazda CX-7 is a good value, with good equipment on the base SV trim and all the bells and whistles on the top-of-the-line Grand Touring model.

The 2012 Mazda CX-7 comes in two trim levels and with two engines, but even the least pricey 'i' model with the SV trim doesn't feel like a bare-bones vehicle. That model includes 17-inch alloy wheels, whereas the faster 's' model offers 18- or 19-inch wheels. The fancier Touring and Grand Touring trim levels of the 's' model add further features, including chrome trim on the door handles and turn signals integrated into the door mirrors.

The mid-level Touring trim, including popular leather upholstery, is available on both 'i' and 's' models.

The highest-level trim is the Grand Touring package, which includes heated mirrors, automatic climate control, rain-sensing wipers, a moonroof, SmartKey entry system, xenon High-Intensity Discharge headlamps, and an integrated navigation system with a full-color display. It also includes a Blind-Spot Monitoring system that warns drivers if a vehicle is in an adjacent lane but not visible in the rear-view mirrors.

The only model that doesn't include a Bluetooth hands-free interface is the base SV trim level, and streaming audio via the Bluetooth link is also available. On the higher trim levels, the voice-activated, touch-screen navigation system is optional, as is a premium Bose Centerpoint autio system.

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2012 Mazda CX-7

Fuel Economy

With gas mileage ratings rising every year, the 2012 Mazda CX-7 is no more than passable for fuel efficiency.

Crossovers are likely to compete more and more on fuel economy, with Ford's new Escape offering a range of three more efficient engines, for example. In that light, the 2012 Mazda CX-7 can be considered only as passable for its gas mileage. The most fuel-efficient version is the 'i' model with the 2.5-liter four, offered only in front-wheel-drive form, which the EPA rates at 20 mpg city and 27 mpg highway.

Once you move up to the higher-performing 's' model, with its turbocharged 2.3-liter engine, ratings fall to 18 city, 24 highway for the front-wheel drive model--and an even lower 17 mpg city, 21 mpg highway if you add the all-wheel drive option.

If you're looking strictly for passenger capacity, the company's own Mazda5 small minivan offers both better gas-mileage ratings and more space for passengers and cargo. And its handling is just as good as the CX-7, perhaps better, as well.

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