Associate Editor

Best Value winner Mazda CX-7 stacked up pretty well when its moderate price was considered.

Best Value winner Mazda CX-7 stacked up pretty well when its moderate price was considered.


The CX-7 may have failed to impress to the same extent as some of the far-more-expensive models (duh), but when price (about $32K) was considered, well, let's just say it looked a darned sight better. The Japanese carmaker has high hopes for the CX-7, which was specifically designed for the North American market. Chief Designer Iwao Koizumi, whose previous projects include the 1995 RX02 show car, calls the CX-7's design theme "advanced frontier."

Mazda claims the aerodynamic efficiency of the CX-7 is "best-in-class for coefficient of drag." Ribbed covers attached to the center underfloor area help improve aerodynamics. And the 66° windshield angle is sleeker than those in many sports cars, let alone SUVs, the company boasts.

The aggressive grille and prominent front fenders attest to its Mazda identity. And the side profile reveals a rising belt line, curved roof, and bold fender arches. From the rear, round tail lamps and large dual-exhaust outlets continue the sporty emphasis. The CX-7 targets young drivers as evidenced, for example, by a lockable center console that can hold a laptop computer.

Under the hood, a version of the turbocharged, intercooled, 2.3-liter, four-cylinder, direct-injection engine that powers the MazdaSpeed6 sport sedan puts out 244 hp at 5,000 rpm. The new turbocharger's refined inlet port enhances throttle response at low rpm and reduces boost lag. When the driver nudges the throttle, the company claims, acceleration is similar to that of an engine almost twice its size. Engine torque peaks at a low 2,500 rpm when 258 lb-ft of torque is available. At least 99% maximum torque is maintained all the way to 5,000 rpm.

A six-speed Sport AT automatic transmission delivers full-manual control. Judges used adjectives such as "fun to drive," "quick," "responsive," and "sporty" to describe their driving experience. And, yes, one judge used "Zoom Zoom" to describe his exhilaration behind the wheel.

The SUV comes with either front-wheel drive or Active Torque-Split All-Wheel Drive. The latter uses a computer-controlled coupling and rear differential to deliver up to half the available torque to the rear wheels, on demand. Sensors monitor engine information, individual wheel speeds, ABS operation, and Dynamic Stability Control for better torque distribution.

A touchscreen DVD-based navigation system with voice commands and a rearview camera system are available options. Buyers can choose a Bose sound system that includes nine speakers, 240 W of amplifi-cation, six-CD changer and Centerpoint surround system with five-channel digital imaging. The keyless entry and start system lets users unlock the doors and start or stop the engine without removing the key from their pocket. The same device operates the front power windows and optional moonroof.

A majority of judges found the backup video camera helpful and easy to operate. Even so, one judge said he had to guess the distance to the vehicle behind (during a parallel-parking exercise) and was very surprised when he got out and saw there was only about an inch between the two vehicles.

When asked for his general impression of the CX-7, judge Ron Mesic said, "Evaluating the CX-7 against Cadillacs, Lincolns, Audis, and a Mercedes made it feel cheap and a little harsh. But you can buy two, or even three, of these for the price of one of those. I think the CX-7 is a good value, with strong feature content for the money."

Though several judges thought that the SUV didn't handle as well on the obstacle course as some of the other vehicles, the majority thought it was a good car for the money.