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Mazda CX-7 2.3T

Click to view picture galleryMasters of Zoom-Zoom motoring,
  Mazda, bill their CX-7 Crossover
  as combining sports car handling
  and performance with the size and
  presence of a Sports Utility Vehicle...”

AS TO THE FORMER, THE 258BHP 2.3-LITRE TURBOCHARGED and intercooled DISI powerplant under the CX-7's wide bonnet provides a generous serving of power and torque 280lb ft of torque at 3,000rpm. We're talking here almost as much bhp as a 35,300 3.0si BMW X3 and quite a bit more torque (BMW: 272bhp and 232lb ft at 2,750rpm). More than enough to ensure the CX-7 lives up to the 'performance' part of its billing.

Top speed is 130mph and it sprints off the line to hit 62mph in 8 seconds. DISI, should you need to know for the next pub quiz, stands for Direct Injection Spark Ignition. More useful to know is the fact that it is the same petrol-fuelled engine that powers the go-faster Mazda6 MPS and Mazda3 MPS variants.

As such the CX-7 possesses a level of performance that is appropriately in keeping with its sporty looks. Think Porsche Cayenne, then go curvier and you'll be on the right track. The CX-7 rides high on smart 18-inch alloys tucked under smoothly blistered wheel arches. A steeply-raked front screen and tapering glasshouse with rear privacy glass edged with chrome and a prominent 'kicked-up' belt line over the rear wheel arch, deep doors and a purposeful front-end give it 'attitude' and seen in a rear-view mirror, it's mean and menacing.

It's also sleekly good-looking and appears far more expensive than its 24,595, fully-specced purchase price. As it swishes past, overtaken drivers won't be surprised to spot the two large-bore chromed tailpipes, one protruding from each corner below the CX-7's rear bumper.

In a world awash with choices, Mazda has made decision making refreshingly simple: the CX-7 is only available in one (albeit very well-kitted) spec, with a single engine choice. The only option, in fact, is the paint finish. Integral to that single spec are five doors. This justifies the Sports Utility bit of Mazda's description. The CX-7 is more than a pretty shape — it's also an attractive compromise between an SUV and a family-sized sports hatch.

Inside, the CX-7 is a genuine five-seater and there's plenty of space for five adults to travel in comfort. The semi-sporty design front seats are accommodatingly wide but supportive (in particular around the upper back/shoulder areas) and leather upholstery is standard. The driving position is commanding, with unspoilt visibility out, and the driver enjoys a six-way adjustable powered seat with manual lumbar support. The three-spoke leather-rimmed steering wheel has remote audio control buttons and is finished in high-gloss black to match the fascia and door inserts; it's also rake-adjustable. Both front seats are also heated — just a single stage, but nonetheless effective.

The well-loaded standard kit continues with automatic climate control air conditioning, cruise control, front and rear parking sensors, power windows (one-touch auto down) and a custom-built BOSE Surround Sound audio system with a 6-disc in-dash autochanger, nine speakers and noise compensation so you can indulge in a 360-degree sound field. You also get electric, heated door mirrors and automatic Xenon headlights with washers and rain-sensing wipers.

Both ergonomically and style-wise, the CX-7's interior is strikingly smart with classy, lustrous piano black inlays in the doors and to the centre stack that houses the foolproof audio and comfort controls. The easy-to-read dials have red graphics on black backgrounds. Set into the top of the fascia above the centre console is a narrow display strip for the driver's information system. Other stylish touches include well-considered satin chrome highlights. Cabin storage is also well addressed, with ample neat storage solutions and the sun visors extend sideways to cover the windscreen's usually missed top centre spot.

The rear seats are equally comfortable, thanks to a good backrest rake angle. Split 60:40, the 'Karakuri' split-folding rear seats fold with sublime ease at the pull of a lever in the boot (and no need to remove the head restraints), converting the 455-litre boot into a flat load platform 1,758mm long with a load capacity of 774 litres.

Another really useful, practical touch is the load area floor that flips over from carpeted to waterproof plastic for the times you have to carry wet or muddy items. The boot floor also folds back to reveal extra out-of-sight storage. For families with younger children, both outer rear seats have Isofix fasteners; the front passenger airbag can also easily be switched off using the key.

If you must fit a third passenger into the middle position of the back seat, the low transmission tunnel makes sitting easier and more comfortable for them. If not, two rear passengers can make good use of the centre armrest. For the record, there's loads of headroom in the back and ample leg room (with knees well away from the front seat backrests) for adults to stretch out even with a 5' 11" driver and front passenger.

But the CX-7 has more up its sleeve than just family-friendliness and will satisfy keen drivers who traded in their Golf GTi or equivalent for pushchairs and child seats, but who still savour a spirited drive. Before launching the CX-7 to Europe, Mazda went to a lot of trouble to make sure it would entertain enthusiastic UK drivers. Upgrades included a new close ratio six-speed manual 'box, stronger bodyshell, chassis tune-up with meatier anti-roll bars and more feedback from the steering. Then they went off to check it out at the Nurburgring and fine-tuned it.

The results speak for themselves. The CX-7 drives like a sports car. Amongst SUVs, perhaps only Porsche's Cayenne handles better. Despite a firm-ish chassis set-up to benefit ardent driving, the CX-7 manages a happy compromise between taut body control and ride comfort. The steering is precise and with an on-demand four-wheel drive system there's always a surfeit of grip — torque is normally sent 100 per cent to the front wheels but up to 50 per cent can be channelled to the rear wheels on a slippery surface. Corners are taken flatly and stability on quick, twisty roads is reassuring.

While it is not a full-blown off-roader (its Active Torque Split system is primarily intended to enhance on-road grip in all weathers), should you need to take the CX-7 off the blacktop you'll find it is surprisingly competent in the rough and copes easily with slippery surfaces and mud-filled ruts.

Another place you appreciate the CX-7's inherent stability is on the motorway. At fast motorway speeds it feels confident ad it's easy to forget you're in a high-riding vehicle. Cruising under 3,000rpm at the legal limit in top gear, the CX-7 is hushed, but you do need to keep a careful eye on the speedometer. Gear ratios are well stacked and with low-down torque there's plenty of oomph for safe overtaking. Particularly on motorways, you rarely need to drop down a gear to get clear of slower-moving traffic.

Official fuel consumption figures are 20.5, 27.7 and 34.9mpg respectively for urban, combined and extra-urban cycles. Over the course of a week's brisk, mixed driving we recorded an acceptable 25.1 with a best of 30.8mpg. C02 emissions are 243g/km which means you pay the top whack of road tax at 400 for the year.

Safety is well covered with — in addition to the on-demand four-wheel drive — Dynamic Stability Control and a Traction Control System along with the usual ABS with Electronic Brake-force Distribution and Emergency Brake Assist. Should the worst happen, there are dual front, side and front and rear curtain airbags. The brakes, discs all round and ventilated at the front, do a first-class, fuss-free job. To the extent that you use them without even noticing them.

It's always satisfying to find a car that 'does what it says on the tin'. Mazda's CX-7 is one such car and, yes, it really does combine sports car handling and performance with the size and presence of a Sports Utility Vehicle. Should you buy one? Well, you've just read that it's a competent, safe and comfortable vehicle so I guess that you need to book your own road test... and then decide! —

Mazda CX-7 2.3T
| 25,595
Maximum speed: 130mph | 0-62mph: 8 seconds
Overall test MPG: 25.1mpg | Power: 258bhp | Torque: 280lb ft
CO2 243g/km | VED Band G 400 | Insurance group 15E