Do you have the patience to hear about one more SUV? How about one of those annoyingly nebulous SUV/crossover/whatever vehicles? At the risk of having you turn the page right now, we'll tell you that the new Mazda CX-7 is an SUV-like thing that tries to be sporty. We know, you've heard that before, with the BMW X5 and X3, the Infiniti FX45, the Porsche Cayenne, the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, and some lesser lights as well.
Look past the obvious-the RX-8 wannabe front fenders, the hop-up windowline, and the bulging rear wheel arches-and you notice that, unlike every other entry in this overcrowded field (save perhaps the FX45), the CX-7 has not a single flat plane anywhere on its body. The front end is radically swept back, the windshield sports the fastest rake in its class, the roofline takes a dive aft of the B-pillars, and even the greenhouse features some major tumblehome and tapers in toward the rear. This thing isn't just styled, it's shaped.
The CX-7's engine is equally radical. Borrowing the Mazdaspeed 6's direct-injection, 2.3-liter turbo four-a high-strung engine with an all-or-nothing, turbo-dependent power delivery-and pairing it with a manu-matic transmission sounds like an absurd choice for SUV duty. After driving the CX-7, we'd say it's merely unusual. In this application, the engine has traded away 30 hp and 22 lb-ft for improved driveability, yet it's still able to push the CX-7 along with verve while returning semirespectable economy ratings of 18/24 mpg (with all-wheel drive). But the throttle response is hardly linear, and the engine note will never be mistaken for the smooth spin of a good V-6.
The CX-7's sporty chassis tuning suffers no such downside. Its most immediately endearing quality is the steering response, which is direct, linear, and nicely weighted. SUVs that don't heel over in corners are no longer a novelty, but even in those vehicles you're keenly aware that a lot of weight is riding way up high. The CX-7 is a bit lower and lighter (under two tons, anyway), and it manages to escape that high 'n' heavy feeling.
Naturally, the CX-7 isn't quite as roomy as some of the boxier entries, even though it's longer and wider than the Mazda Tribute, and there's no third-row seat. (That's coming in the CX-9, which was recently unveiled at the New York auto show.) The CX-7's below-the-windowline cargo space is reasonable, but its tapered greenhouse and sloping roofline cut into maximum capacity. If hauling stuff is your priority, you have a herd of more suitable SUVs to pick from. The CX-7 instead makes a case for itself as a tall, sporty wagon-and, for less than $30,000 (exercising a modicum of options restraint), it's notably cheaper than the other sporty crossovers at the auto mall. That's how you wedge your way into an overcrowded field.