Mazda CX-7

Mazda has tried to give its latest model 'super zoom-zoom' handling, 'advanced emotional' styling and a sporty look. John Simister is intrigued by a car for every purpose....

Price: from about £25,000, on sale April 2007
Engine: 2,261cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, direct injection, turbo, 260bhp at 5,500rpm, 280lb ft at 3,000rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: (estimated) 135mph, 0-60 in 6.8 seconds, mpg and CO2 not yet known
Specifications are provisional

Form follows function, we are told. Not any more it doesn't. Is the car you see here a 4x4, or is it not? Mazda's new CX-7 is a car for people who are so confused and fragmented by modern life that they just don't know what they want any more.

A 4x4 should be for clambering over tricky, low-grip surfaces. But if you're doing that, you won't be going fast so your car will not, if it's designed with genuine fitness for purpose, have a racy roofline and a 260bhp, turbocharged, 2.3-litre, direct-injection engine. But the CX-7 has all of those things, not because that is the best way to design a car, but because that is what people think they want.

Maybe that's all right. Who am I to preach purity in car concepts? We all know that most people who buy 4x4s simply want the high seating position, the space, the usefulness and maybe even the sense of power they give to the insecure. Maybe people want those things mixed with pace and a sporty-looking style to create a kind of mega-hot-hatch on stilts. So here it is.

Just two minutes into the press presentation room in Washington DC (the CX-7 is being launched in the US before it reaches Europe in a year's time), and it's clear how subjectivity has flattened objectivity. This is a car for people who like it, not people who require it. "Sporty! Sturdy! Sleek!" shout the message boards. The CX-7 has "Super Zoom-Zoom Steering and Handling" and "Advanced Emotional Styling". The interior features a two-layer dashboard with a "floating feel element". The programme manager Shunsuke Kawasaki named his design team the Metropolitan Hawks. No, really he did ­ and he's wearing the T-shirt.

So I shall try to recalibrate my head. Here, in fact, is a car for every purpose: slippery surfaces, fast cruising, twisty roads, seeing your way through town traffic, carrying four passengers with ease, carting stuff for some sort of active lifestyle thing. It's a 4x4 that isn't square-cut or clumsy or outa-my-way aggressive. It's a 4x4 primarily to improve its roadholding and handling, not to tackle off-road tracks or impress people with the possibility of so doing. Leave the dogma aside; I could like this car.

The CX-7 is the perfect example of a car-category-fusing crossover. Mechanically, it's mainly a Mazda 6 MPS, complete with the "active torque split" four-wheel drive system that diverts up to 50 per cent of the engine's ample efforts to the rear wheels when needed. The "active" part means it responds to messages from sensors measuring speed, braking force, cornering force and others by apportioning engine output as needed, rather than waiting for one end or the other to lose grip. It's more like the four-wheel-drive system you find on a Mitsubishi Evo IX than on a Jeep Cherokee, adding to the CX-7's fun-to-drive credentials.

Mazda created the CX-7 with the US market uppermost in its mind, and this shows in parts of the design. From the outside, it's very striking, with its giant front air-scoop, raked-back windscreen and waistline rising over muscular-looking wheel-arches. The tail is high enough to make the optional reverse-parking video screen useful. The presence is substantial, without seeking to dominate.

Inside, the US tastes show up more. If you're unfortunate enough to sit in the back of this five-seater, you might not lack space ­ there's enough width for three ­ but you will feel very second-class. The door trims are plain, solid, hard plastic ­ about as luxurious as a New York yellow cab. Mazda's research found that US buyers regard the rear load space as more important than the back seats. The seats fold forward very easily, though; just pull a lever and they do it all by themselves. They neither slide nor recline, however.

The ambience is rather better up front, as you would hope. There's that "floating feel element" thing, of course, which is the way the instrument panel and centre console sit on a fall-away backdrop, and the lower part of the facia top and the upper surfaces of the door trims are detectably padded. All is neatly designed and assembled. But it's a shame about the hard windscreen pillars and super-cheap fibrous roof lining. The steering wheel (taken from the MX-5 sports car) isn't adjustable for reach, just rake. But there are good things. The Bose stereo option, for one.

And for another, how the CX-7 feels to drive. On this rests its credibility as a driving-pleasure machine, and it passes the test. That said, my test car is a US-spec CX-7 with a six-speed automatic transmission and an engine with power reduced to a still-substantial 244bhp to suit it. There will be no autos in the European range at first, but it's worth noting that it's a smooth shift and it works well in the Tiptronic-type manual mode.

As you might expect, the automatic transmission takes the edge off the pace. Some of those 244 horses don't seem to be pulling their weight. But I know from the Mazda 6 MPS that the full-power version of the engine, matched to a six-speed manual, goes very well indeed. The CX-7 so powered should feel similar, as it's not much heavier.

Anyway, there's enough energy available to make good use of the CX-7's surprisingly capable dynamics. At first it feels a bit inert, with stodgy steering and little zoom-zooming, but up the pace and find some bends, and the Mazda comes alive. It stays quite level when cornering with vigour, grips well, and if you accelerate hard out of a corner you can even feel the tail edge out as power is sent its way. That kills any tendency for the nose to run wide, and it makes the CX-7 an agile, interactive car. The steering sharpens up, too.

It drives as it looks, then. And an impressive part of this is that the CX-7 is surprisingly serene and supple over bumps for a tall car that doesn't lean much. Mazda is pondering firming the suspension for Europe, thinking (wrongly) that we all have roads as smooth as those in Germany, but it would be a mistake. It's fine the way it is.

One snag, though. The turbocharged petrol engine is all very exciting, but most people want a good diesel in this type of car. There isn't one yet, but in a couple of years' time Mazda will offer the 2.0-litre unit used in the Mazda 5 MPV. At that point there may also be a little facelift which, among other things, will probably include more steering wheel adjustment and, crucially, some softer interior trim.

With a diesel, the CX-7 could be quite a success. As it is now, it will merely be exclusive. I do find myself liking it, though. Even if it is almost an SUV.

The Rivals

Nissan Murano £29,995

The CX-7's closest conceptual rival is bigger and more expensive, and has a 3.5-litre V6 engine. It looks terrific ­ almost like a concept car ­ and is very good to drive. There's plenty of space, too.

Subaru Forester 2.5 XT From £22,040

Like the Mazda, this has a four-cylinder turbo (a flat-four related to the Impreza WRX unit) that delivers 230bhp and amazing pace. It looks like a traditional SUV, but is massively better to drive.

Toyota RAV4 2.0 From £21,250

This new, bigger model has moved away from the RAV4's compact roots, but has space and sophistication. Pace is disappointing with this petrol engine, and the ride can feel a little restless.

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