Curbside Classic: 2007-12 Mazda CX-7 – How Hard Can It Be To Make A Crossover? (Part 1)

(Inspired by J.P. Cavanaugh’s series, “How Hard Can It Be To Make A Minivan”, here’s a new series about crossovers that for whatever reason weren’t as successful as they could have been.)

In isolation, the CX-7 may seem like a well-thought-out crossover from the Zoom-Zoom brand. Its styling was edgy and distinctive, it had a gutsy turbocharged four-cylinder engine, and it was just a smidge larger than compact SUVs like the Toyota RAV4. Put it up against its CX-5 successor, however, and you can see how Mazda missed the mark.

For starters, let’s look at those dimensions. Less than an inch separated the CX-7 from its successor in most interior dimensions and the same applied when comparing the CX-7 to the smaller Tribute (the CX-5 actually had more rear legroom than the CX-7). Perhaps to insulate the Tribute, Mazda had made the CX-7 bigger in external dimensions – it was a good 10 inches longer than most compact SUVs – but its extra size wasn’t really reflected in the cabin. Where the extra size was felt, however, was in curb weight – the CX-7 weighed a hefty 3900 pounds in all-wheel-drive guise, 200 pounds more than the later, lighter CX-5.

The CX-7’s extra weight plus the lingering Tribute arguably necessitated its powerful engine, a 2.3 turbo four. This engine was also used in the Mazdaspeed 3 and 6 (aka 3 and 6 MPS) although here it used an Aisin six-speed automatic. With 244 hp and 258 ft-lbs and a 0-60 time of around 7.5 seconds, the CX-7 was one of the most powerful crossovers in its class although it required a diet of premium fuel. Quite a bit of it, too: the CX-7 achieved a combined 19 mpg (18 with AWD), just one mpg off of the larger, three-row CX-9. For context, the other rocketship in this class – the Toyota RAV-4 V6 – achieved 21-22 mpg combined. So much for six-cylinder power but four-cylinder economy.

The RAV-4 V6 also put its power down more quickly and smoothly, the CX-7 suffering from some turbo lag. The Toyota also drank regular and proved to be more reliable. Owners report the CX-7 turbo often suffers from timing chain faults, oil leaks and turbocharger faults, the powertrain falling below Mazda’s usual high standards of reliability and durability. A RAV-4 was a safer choice.

Ah, but this is a crossover from the Zoom-Zoom brand. And true to its reputation, the CX-7 was quite a good steer for a crossover and certainly superior to a RAV-4. Mind you, the ride was a bit firmer than rivals and, as is common for Mazdas, it was a tad noisy. Nevertheless, the CX-7 had communicative steering, well-controlled body roll, and superior handling to almost everything in its class.

The CX-7’s rear suspension was borrowed from the Mazda5, while the front suspension was a wide-track version of the Mazda6’s that was also used in the third-generation Mazda MPV not sold outside of Asia. The optional all-wheel-drive system was borrowed from the Mazdaspeed6 albeit without its limited-slip differential. Other major parts of the CX-7, like the steering rack and floorpan, were unique.

Then there was the styling. With its wedgy profile and flared wheel arches, it looked more futuristic and sportier than its generally upright, SUV-reminiscent rivals. The interior was attractive, too, sharing a familial resemblance to the larger, unrelated CX-9.

In markets like the US and Australia, the CX-7 was priced directly against the RAV-4 V6. This made sense considering the cars’ comparable performance. But as the Tribute aged into irrelevance, Mazda realized they could broaden the CX-7’s appeal by offering a less powerful entry-level model. Coinciding with a facelift in 2010, a naturally-aspirated 2.5 four-cylinder was made available. It produced 161 hp and 161 ft-lbs and, unsurprisingly, felt rather sluggish given the weight of the car.

The availability of a cheaper entry-level model (in the US, $2k cheaper than the turbo) gave CX-7 sales a nice bump in North America. Sales doubled in Europe (albeit from a low base) not just because of the new 2.5 but also because the CX-7 now had an available diesel there, a 2.2 four producing 170 hp and a stout 295 ft-lbs. It was introduced to the Australian market but its lack of an auto option limited its appeal here.

In 2011, Mazda sold 35,641 CX-7s in the US market. That was its second-highest number yet and it was several times higher than the Tribute which, by then, was posting absolutely abysmal sales numbers. Still, rivals like the Nissan Rogue were doing a lot better. The CX-7’s replacement, the aforementioned CX-5, would hew much more closely to its rivals in terms of powertrains, dimensions and pricing.

It paid off: European sales have seen a five-fold increase over the CX-7, while the CX-5 surpassed 100k annual sales a few years ago in the US and shows no sign of slowing down. In Australia, where Mazda outsells every other Japanese brand bar Toyota, the CX-5 has also stormed to the top of its segment; the CX-7 was often in the overall Top 20, the CX-5 is never out of the Top 10.

Mazda tried doing something a little different with the CX-7, giving it a racy engine and styling and trying to slot it between staider compact and mid-size SUVs. As they found, a direct replacement for the moribund Tribute would’ve been more successful. Mazda missed the mark with the CX-7 but, fortunately, they have recovered quite nicely with the CX-5.

Featured 2010-12 CX-7 photographed in Windsor, QLD, Australia in March 2018.

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 2010-19 Lincoln MKT: How Hard Can It Be To Make A Crossover? (Part 2)

Curbside Classic: 1993 Chevrolet Astro – How Hard Can It Be To Make A Minivan? (Part 1)

Curbside Classic: 1995 Ford Aerostar – How Hard Can It Be to Make a Minivan? (Part 2)

Curbside Classic: 1990 Oldsmobile Silhouette – How Hard Can It Be To Make a Minivan? (Part 3)

Curbside Classic: 1995 Honda Odyssey EX: How Hard Can It Be to Make a Minivan? (Part 4)

Curbside Capsule: 1998 Mercury Villager GS – How Hard Can It Be To Make A Minivan? (Part 5)