Even though it's been around since 2007, the Mazda CX-7 sports the latest version of Mazda's styling theme, and it still looks sleek and fresh. The bulbous fenders are inspired by the RX-8 sports car. The headlights jut into the tops of the fenders, and Mazda uses a small grille above the bumper. This leaves substantial mass below the bumper line that's lightened by a black eggcrate grille flanked by large air intakes, that double as housings for the foglamps on some models.
The side view appeals with wheels pushed to the corners and a super-fast windshield sweeping back over tautly drawn side glass. Side mirrors separate the front door glass from an odd-looking, wind-wing-like, but fixed, tiny piece of glass at the base of the A-pillar. The beltline rises as it moves rearward, kicking up just before the severely blistered rear wheelwell before tucking in between the steeply sloped backlight and the sculpted back end. Full-round, easy-to-grab door handles ride the crest of a soft bulge connecting the tops of the fenders. They're chrome plated on the Grand Touring model. An understated crease highlights the lower door panels, skipping over the rear tires to continue around the bottom fold of the rear bumper.
The rear aspect is plain, with a modest optional spoiler sitting atop the backlight, itself resting in a gentle dip in the liftgate. A large, seamless bumper stretches the width of the back end, above single (for i models) or dual exhaust tips (for s models).
The interior of the Mazda CX-7 makes no less of a statement than the exterior, and with much the same result. Some design features work well, others not so well. Overall, the CX-7 seems chunky and a bit complicated, and not as friendly and functional as the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4.
The two-part dash for example. The upper part is a ridge stretching across the top of the dash that's supposed to make the front seat passenger feel included in the interior's dynamic. It includes a Multi-Information Display with orange characters in most models, but preferable full color our more expensive Grand Touring; it also shows the image from the standard rearview monitor. The MID screen is only 4.1 inches diagonally, though, making the image from the rearview camera and the navigation screen a bit hard to see. There's no turn-by-turn display with the navigation (or if so we never saw it), but it wasn't confusing to program, at least.
Functions on the MID are controlled by five buttons on the right side of the steering wheel. The navigation system, too, can be controlled at the steering wheel. It takes some getting used to, and we're not sure if it's less distracting or not. You don't have to stretch your arm, but you do have to move your eyes around more.
One benefit of the two-tiered dashboard, says Mazda, is that the screen is up and away, so drivers won't have to take their eyes off the road. It does, however, require looking back and forth between the steering wheel and MID.
Below the top tier is a more traditional dashboard. This lower part, the designers say, is intended to play to the driver, concentrating on the interfaces necessary for managing the car. All the pieces for this are there, so the job is doable, but the way everything is put together doesn't make it all that easy or appear that seamlessly integrated. Large buttons and knobs are used, but their arrangement and assigned functions are not always intuitive. However, we like that the radio can be turned with its own knob that spins to select channels.
Beyond the novel design, the instrument cluster is heavily hooded, stylishly compartmentalized and softly lit. The dashboard, door panels, and center console are largely plastic that looks nice but smacks of cost containment, in our $34,000 vehicle. The steering wheel, borrowed directly from the sporty MX-5 Miata with its much more confined cockpit, feels sporty but small in the CX-7 SUV.
Our s Grand Touring was equipped with the Blind Spot Monitoring System. It illuminates lights in the side mirrors when vehicles are traveling in the CX-7's blind spots, and if you attempt to change lanes when it thinks cars behind you are too close, it will beep at you. Like every BSMS we've ever known, the false alarms were frequent. Once, in the fast lane, it read the guard rail as a continuous car in a blind spot, and stayed steadily on for a mile.
In interior space, the Mazda falls between Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 in front-seat legroom and rear-seat headroom, but has the least rear-seat legroom by a substantial two inches, with 36.4 inches. The Kia Sportage beats the CX-7, with 37.9 inches.
Seat comfort is average. The seat-bottom cushions offer decent support, and substantial front-seat side bolsters are fitting for a vehicle with sporty aspirations. There's manual lumbar support with the loaded Grand Touring, which we used effectively during one 240-mile run in the rain at night, always good for back stress. The padded center armrest sits about the same height as the front door armrests, allowing a comfortable posture for long drives.
The rear seats favor two passengers over three, a reality reinforced by the two contoured seatbacks and absence of a head restraint for the center. The CX-7's good rear headroom is assisted by a thin, low seat cushion. Good headroom, at the price of closeness between knees and chin.
The kicked-up beltline and tapered cabin constrict vision toward the rear, and it's also compromised in front. Even with the driver's seat at its highest adjustment, the rakish hood falls below the sight line of a six-footer, requiring cautious navigation in tight spaces. The available video camera helps the driver spot objects behind the vehicle when backing up, including short metal posts, other cars and children on tricycles.
Storage is adequate. The front center console's lockable bin is deep enough for a laptop computer and includes a secondary power point for that purpose. The glovebox is small but lockable. Fixed door pockets are shaped to hold a water bottle. Two cupholders fill the space in the front center console between the shift gate and the storage bin Illuminated vanity mirrors are located in the sun visors.
Rear seat passengers get no door pockets, but magazine pouches are provided on the backs of both front seats.. The fold-down center armrest in the rear seat also provides two cupholders.
Both the CR-V (73.0 cubic feet) and RAV4 (72.9) hold a lot more cargo than the CX-7 with the rear seat down. The CX-7 holds just 58.6 cubic feet, but that's still more than the Kia Sportage's 54.6.
Only the RAV4 can be ordered with a third-row seat, giving it accommodations (however meager) for seven passengers. The CX-7, on the other hand, is the longest, lowest, and widest of the four; which gives it the dubious distinction of providing the least interior space for the most exterior bulk. However, the CX-7 has the best aerodynamic performance of the group.