A brisk, agile compact 4x4 for driving enthusiasts and, as such, a bit of a rarity

What’s is it?

Another new small SUV, and this time a sporty one – meet Mazda’s CX-7.

The market for compact SUVs has grown a bit of late. No fewer than 10 models have been introduced to it, or significantly overhauled within it, over the last 18 months alone, and the likes of the Volkswagen Tiguan, Renault Koleos, Vauxhall Antara and Ford Kuga are now but a blink away.

Were Charles Darwin alive and interested by junior 4x4s, he’d probably forecast a period of fierce natural selection. The weak, ill-conceived and overpriced will die out, while the handsome, capable and versatile live on to, err… inherit the car park. And the new Mazda CX-7 should be among the lucky ones, because it’s one of those rare diamonds-in-the-rough – a 4x4 that’s great fun to drive on the road.

What’s it like?

Well, it’s not a typical small 4x4 by almost any measurement. It’s a high-spec five-seater sold by Mazda UK as such, as a rival for the more expensive Honda CRVs, Toyota RAV4s and Land Rover Freelanders. And it’s roughly the same size as those cars – but that’s where the similarities end.

Unlike most 4x4s, the CX-7’s actually quite nice to look at; a gently sloped windscreen, curved roofline and kinked belt line give it a genuinely interesting-to-behold profile.

Secondly, there’s no standard-issue four-cylinder turbodiesel under the bonnet. Instead, the CX-7 runs the same 2.3-litre petrol turbo that you’ll find in the marque’s 3- and 6 MPS models. That gives it almost as much power as a 3.0-litre BMW X3 and a damn sight more torque, and allows it to sprint to 62mph in a fleet-feeling 8.0 seconds.

With the objective of serving up a spirited driving experience, Mazda Europe did a great deal of work on the Japanese-spec CX-7; they’ve given it a new six-speed manual gearbox, strengthened the body, tuned the chassis, fitted stronger anti-roll bars and adapted the steering rack for better feedback – and their hard work has paid off.

The CX-7 is no slouch, especially in the mid-range, and although it’s chassis is set-up to feel taut rather than compliant, it strikes a well-met compromise between body control and ride comfort.

This 4x4 feels rigid at all times; it steers with direct, solidly weighted precision, corners flatly, accelerates ardently, and with an active four-wheel drive system that’s quick to channel power rearwards when wheel slip is sensed at the front axle, you’re never short on grip to accompany your thrust.

Should I buy one?

That depends on your outlook – and on who pays your fuel bills. If you’re a rationalist, you’ll have difficulty getting past the fact that the CX-7 will cost a sight more to run than a diesel Toyota RAV4 or Honda CRV, and for all its good looks and driving thrills, probably isn’t as practical as either of them, let alone a Hyundai Santa Fe or Chevrolet Captiva.

But then the Mazda CX-7 isn’t intended for rationalists; it’s for enthusiasts. For parents with picnic baskets and pushchairs, who never wanted to give up their Golf GTis and Ford RS Turbos, and bemoan the fact that used Porsche Cayennes aren’t on their company car lists.

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If that sounds like you, we think you’ll like the CX-7 very much. It’s the Ford S-Max of the small 4x4 segment; the car that delivers a proper feisty drive where we’d almost given up on one ever appearing.

Matt Saunders

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