The slightly leftfield Mazda CX-7 has become a serious contender with a diesel engine at last

The CX-7 first appeared as Mazda’s MX-Crossport concept at the 2005 Detroit motor show and the full production version was then shown the following year at the Los Angeles show. Together with the larger, and closely-related, seven-seat CX-9 (not destined for Europe), it was Mazda’s first foray into the crossover SUV market.

Giving its new SUV an X-tag is a blatant attempt by Mazda to convince buyers that the CX-7 heralds from the same origins as the iconic MX-5 and innovative RX-8. Mazda claims, however, that the CX-7 represents a new niche in SUVs, delivering the advantages of an elevated cabin but with the driver-focused dynamics of a smaller, more conventionally sporting car.

The CX-7 was launched with a turbocharged petrol engine which was both fast and thirsty. A more sensible diesel engine is now offered

All very promising, but not exactly new as plenty of SUVs have claimed the same thing. Look deeper, though, and the CX-7 does represent some originality at least in its positioning if not in its concept, with dimensions that place it between a mid-size SUV and the larger X5 brigade. For those convinced they need an SUV but are not yet prepared to stop having fun, the CX-7 could be worth a look.

When it was originally launched, the only option was a feisty 256bhp four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine which gave the car a significant performance advantage over a number of its rivals. Today, the only option is the rather more frugal four-cylinder 2.2-litre diesel engine and a manual ’box. Many drivers of SUVs of this size prefer auto boxes, so the CX-7 rather stands out in this sector for a lack of a self-shifter.

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Mazda CX-7 rear lights

Unlike a fair proportion of Mazda’s product range, the CX-7 is not closely related to any Ford. Other than some common parts with the US-market Ford Edge SUV and the Lincoln MKX, the platform is unique. In other words, the CX-7 is not a reworked S-Max/Mondeo chassis and is therefore not related to its Land Rover Freelander rival.

Its MacPherson strut front suspension is instead related to one employed on a Japanese market-only Mazda MPV, and a multi-link arrangement at the rear is similar to the one which features on the Mazda 5 MPV. A series of modifications have been made to tailor the CX-7 to European roads and driving preferences, including tweaks to ESP, the tyres and the steering.

The CX-7 looks like a sporty SUV, and it delivers

The appeal (or otherwise) of the CX-7’s styling is a personal judgement, but in our opinion the design scores a number of triumphs. It camouflages its SUV proportions with flowing lines, particularly the steep-raked A-pillars, while the pronounced front and rear wheel arches make clear reference to the firm’s more sporting models. All in all, the CX-7 looks much crisper and sharper than some of the SUVs in this category.


Mazda CX-7 dashboard

Looking at the CX-7’s size and name, you would be forgiven for thinking you’d find a third row of seating lurking in the boot. You won’t. So with just five seats to fit into a bodyshell that’s 4675mm long and with an accommodating 2750mm wheelbase, the CX-7 should offer reasonable cabin space, and it does.

There’s room for adults both up front and in the back; our only space-related criticism being that if the driver has his chair set to its lowest position there is little foot space for rear passengers. 

Its hard to fault the quality and construction of the cabin

Surprisingly, boot space is less impressive; at 455 litres with the rear seats up, the CX-7 carries less than a Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V or Land Rover Freelander. However, Mazda’s ‘Karakuri’ 60/40 split rear seats are exceptionally neat: they can be folded flat by pulling a handle in the side of the loadbay.

The cabin’s design is refreshingly clean and equipment specification is excellent. As with other Mazda models, there’s a crispness to the dash layout, with tidy circular vents and heater controls. The quality of the materials, though, don’t always match that of Audi, Land Rover or Infiniti, but the finish is generally good.

Leather, electric seats, climate control and a superb nine-speaker Bose stereo are all standard. There’s also an impressive list of safety equipment. The only downside is that Mazda has squeezed a tiny 4in colour sat-nav screen into the dash-top display. This is hard to read and the screen graphics are crudely drawn.

The cabin’s biggest success is the positioning of the major controls. Despite not adjusting for reach, the steering wheel is set far enough back for most and the gear lever is positioned appealingly close at hand. From this perspective, and with more than a little imagination, the driving position feels more WRC than SUV.


Mazda CX-7 rear cornering

Fitting the CX-7 with the excellent 2.2-litre, four-cylinder turbodiesel engine in place of the potent but thirsty 2.3-litre turbo petrol engine with which it was saddled originally is Mazda’s belated but welcome attempt to level the car's SUV playing field.

In the CX-7 the motor makes 171bhp at 3500rpm and an impressive 295lb ft of torque at 2000rpm, and is linked to a six-speed manual gearbox. It’s also one of the least polluting diesel engines available in the UK, thanks to its Adblue injection system, which uses urea to break down the nitrogen oxides in the exhaust gases.

Mazda can do no wrong with its manual gearboxes - they're always a joy to use

It may not provide the same level of performance as the old 2.3-litre turbo petrol unit, but the diesel engine is a highly credible unit and far more appropriate for the CX-7. Although it sounds like it’s working hard under acceleration and the 0-62mph time (11.3sec) isn’t anything to write home about, there’s plenty of torque on tap which gives the CX-7 strong mid-range shove and easy motorway pace.

The six-speed manual ’box has short throws and the pleasant snickety action of most other Mazdas, although you can’t help but feel that the drivetrain might be even better (and undeniably smoother) with a good auto ’box.


Mazda CX-7 cornering

The CX-7 has always been one of the more sporting, road-biased SUVs, and the latest one is no different. Like the Infiniti EX37, the Mazda puts considerable emphasis on handling, which means it’s firmly sprung and feels astonishingly light and agile for a reasonably big SUV. In 2010, the CX-7’s bodyshell was re-engineered for improved torsional rigidity and refinement, both of which helped contribute to its cross-country ability.

The ride quality over broken urban streets and pitter-patter rural B-roads is good if not exceptional, and any harshness is quickly and effectively damped. So what of the CX-7’s more conventional SUV attributes? Has Mazda combined fine on-road manners with serious off-road credentials? Not even close; in fact, Mazda suggests that CX-7 not be taken off road at all.

The CX-7 gets a keenness to change direction that betters most in the class


Mazda CX-7

Officially, the CX-7 is good for 37.7mpg on the European combined cycle and has a CO2 rating of 199g/km. Urban driving is rated at 31mpg, so in the real-world you should achieve the high 20s, which would be a pretty good result for a car of this size.

As well as being limited on engine and gearbox options, there’s just a single, high spec level, so buying a CX-7 doesn’t involve too much decision making. At £27,580 it’s competitively priced against the Audi Q5 2.0 TDI or Land Rover Freelander TD4.

The Mazda is competitively priced, but there are more economical options in the segment

However, the 170bhp diesel Q5 is only £1500 more expensive, returns 45.6mpg and has a CO2 rating of just 163g/km. Better residuals for the Audi and lower running costs (in both fuel and road tax) make it a better ownership prospect. The same could be said for the Freelander, although it could be argued that both these cars are half a size smaller than the CX-7.


3.5 star Mazda CX-7

With the right engine for this market at last, the CX-7 suddenly looks a little more like a serious contender rather than just a peripheral player. Now you can consider it not just for its striking looks and nimble handling but also because its running costs have dropped to a credible level compared to its lusty but thirsty turbocharged predecessor.

Not everyone will like the unashamed sportiness of its chassis and occasional neurotic feel compared with its European rivals, but the flip side is that the CX-7 is more entertaining to drive than most SUVs, while still being comfortable enough for family duties. But while at least now it’s capable of competing on level terms with a Q5 or Freelander, it is, perhaps, not as desirable and is a more expensive ownership proposition.

The CX-7's odd size and curious brief may limit its appeal, but there are things to appreciate here

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Mazda CX-7 2007-2011 First drives