By on December 27, 2010

With the 2007 model year introduction of the CX-7, Mazda arrived late to the compact crossover party. And when you arrive late, you’d better bring something special. To this end, the CX-7 combined swoopy styling and a standard turbocharged engine, making it arguably the sportiest offering in the segment. After an initial burst, during which everyone who really wanted one bought one, sales have been modest. In a bid to broaden the CX-7s appeal, Mazda added a non-turbocharged four as part of a 2010 refresh. But if you take away one of the few things that made the CX-7 special, is there any reason to buy one?

The CX-7’s styling remains much the same after last year’s refresh. The crossover’s nose is a little more blunt than earlier, with a new band of chrome along the upper edge of the lower grille to take it a quarter-notch upscale. But the fender bulges, steeply raked windshield, and basically ovoid shape remain the same. People who liked the look of the CX-7 before will still like it. And those who didn’t still won’t. The i Sport’s 215/70HR17 tires appear lost within wheel openings sized for low-profile 19s, and do the CX-7 no aesthetic favors. Low profile tires have become so common, it’s almost hard to believe 70s are still around.

Why such unsporting tires on the i Sport? Well, within Mazda’s current naming scheme, which rivals BMW’s in its capacity to confound, “Sport” means one step up from the SV, with the latter much more prevalent in dealer ads than on dealer lots. So “Sport” essentially means “base.”

Inside, the CX-7’s styling has been refined, with minor tweaks to the trim, but you’ll probably have to compare before and after photographs to spot the differences. For example: the bands of chrome that outline the sides of the center stack no longer connect at the bottom to form a U, and have been joined by additional bands of trim in gunmetal blue. This interior remains more attractive and interesting to look at than the segment norm, but with all manufacturers focusing more and more on design the gap has been closing.

The largest change: the dash now humps up a bit over the top of the center stack to open up space for a pair of small, four-inch LCD screens. One of these houses the optional rearview camera display and, in the Grand Touring, the navigation display. Compared to the 2007-2009’s seven-inch display it’s much smaller, especially when you factor in that it’s also farther away, but located closer to the driver’s sightlines. And no doubt cheaper, though how expensive is a seven-inch LCD these days? The original display in the new location would be much better than either thus far offered alternative.

The large, steeply raked windshield and the windowlettes that flank it make for a driving position that’s more minivan than SUV. The seats front and rear are firm and fairly comfortable. There’s more shoulder room than in other compact crossovers, such that the CX-7 feels almost mid-sized from the driver’s seat. But paradoxically there’s less legroom than in the average compact crossover. Still enough for the average adult, but the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 surprise (and delight?) in this area. Cargo volume is similarly compromised by the ovoid shape yet still adequate.

Compared to the competition, the CX-7’s 2.5-liter four is down about twenty horsepower (161 at the 6,000 rpm peak), and it must accelerate about one hundred additional pounds (3,496). In practice, even with a five-speed automatic (the RAV4 benefits from an additional cog) acceleration is thoroughly adequate, if a bit buzzy at low rpm. Fuel economy is about 21 in typical suburban driving, though as high as 26 along one casual stretch. For those who desire more of a rush (at the expense of fuel economy) the 244-horsepower boosted four remains available, and mandatory with all-wheel-drive. Honda and Toyota offer all-wheel-drive with the normally-aspirated fours in the CR-V and RAV4. The 2.5 performs well enough in the CX-7 that I wonder why Mazda doesn’t do the same.

I was underwhelmed by the Mazda CX-7’s handling when I first drove it about four years ago. The exterior styling promised considerably more entertainment than the chassis could deliver. Adding tires with tall, ride-oriented sidewalls does not help. So equipped, and further saddled with slow steering, the CX-7 feels large and soft. Ride quality is generally good, though some roads unsettle the chassis. Overall, this is the rare Mazda that trails its competition in terms of driving enjoyment.

With the $1,750 Convenience Package (sunroof, rearview monitor, automatic climate control, power driver seat), the 2011 Mazda CX-7 i Sport lists for $25,340. A little pricey compared to a similarly equipped car—a Mazda3 s costs over $2,000 less while being more economical and orders of magnitude more fun to drive—but within a few hundred dollars of the CR-V and RAV4. Based on responses to TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey, the CX-7 got off to a rocky start back in 2007, but has since improved to average for both the 2007 and 2008 model years. (Much lower sales in recent model years have resulted in insufficient sample sizes.) Many of the earlier problems involved the turbocharged four. With the non-turbo 2.5-liter engine the CX-7 should be reliable.

For decades Mazda has struggled to survive, periodically aspiring to become a first-tier auto maker but each time falling short. Their successes have followed from emphasizing the fun-to-drive qualities of much of their cars. But the enthusiast market just isn’t large enough, especially not in the compact crossover segment. Problem is, remove the turbocharged four from the CX-7, and what little excitement the CX-7 offered along with it, and there’s no compelling reason to buy a CX-7 instead of a CR-V or RAV4 unless you really like how it looks. And if you care about how it looks, you’re going to want to replace those 17s.

Mazda provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review

Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive reliability and pricing data.

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35 Comments on “Review: 2011 Mazda CX-7 iSport...”

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    For decades Mazda has struggled to survive, periodically aspiring to become a first-tier auto maker but each time falling short. Their successes have followed from emphasizing the fun-to-drive qualities of much of their cars. But the enthusiast market just isn’t large enough, especially not in the compact crossover segment. Problem is, remove the turbocharged four from the CX-7, and what little excitement the CX-7 offered along with it, and there’s no compelling reason to buy a CX-7 instead of a CR-V or RAV4 unless you really like how it looks.

    Exactly.  I really like Mazda but I’m an enthusiast, I stop and stare every time I see a Mazda 6 V6 wagon or an RX-8 or something by Mazdaspeed.  But again, I’m an enthusiast.  And the enthusiast market is only a certain size and in my eyes, much of what Nissan sells also covers the same market.  Shall we call it; “Cars that handle better than most family men expect.”

    • 0 avatar

      Agree 1K%.
      And that car staring is what we car nuts do, when others around us just don’t get it.

      The only exception is the 3. It seems to be everywhere today, even here in the Ozarks of SE MO.
      I still don’t know why the 6 doesn’t sell. I think the look wears so much better than the Hyundai whose futuristic lines are over the top and seem to grow old fast.
      I was one of the lucky ones. I ALMOST was overwhelmed by the CX7/s looks initially.
      But I test drove it and something seemed wrong. The take off was not the zoom-zoom SUV I didn’t see coming.
      The sound was a little harsh.
      And it had a weird dash with A pillar windows that bothered me.
      Since then I have been happy I did not get one.

      I am actually surprised the little 2.5 can move this thing. I don’t even like it in the 6 without a stick.

    • 0 avatar

      Same here dan.  Have a soft spot for the V6 Mazda6 Wagon and came darn close to buying a Mazda6 5-door hatch back in 2005.  I loved the car and its driving dynamics, plus the versatility of the well hidden hatch but I didn’t like the Mazda dealers I was working with, who wouldn’t give me anything, I didn’t like the insurance rates, the crash test results, or its reliability.  I have no regrets – but as an enthusiast I love almost everything Mazda makes.  Sadly this nation of car buyers lap up Corollas faster than McDonalds French fires – it is sad.

    • 0 avatar

      I stop and stare every time I see a Mazda 6 V6 wagon

      I did just that the other day. The red 6 wagon looked particularly fetching with a light dusting of snow. My friends didn’t know why I suddenly stopped.

    • 0 avatar

      I bought my 04 Mazda6 new in December 04, and got a great deal. Other than no sun roof, it was exactly what I wanted: V6 with a manual.  I still love it today.  Sure I would like more power, who wouldn’t.  Obviously, the Mazda6 doesn’t handle like the RX7 I owned years ago, but it has a trunk that swallowed everything my wife can think of to take on a one week trip with room for more.  I also test drove a Mazda3, RX8, and several other car makers’ offerings in the same segments.  Mazda had the most enjoyable cars across the line-up by far.  I just don’t understand why more people don’t buy Mazda.  Do they feel guilty if they have an enjoyable time driving their car?

    • 0 avatar

      I bought one last July, the car is pretty quick for a suv, but the handling is ok, nothing terribly exciting.  The gas consumption is probably average for something of this size, I’m averaging around 19 in the summer and 17 in the winter, mostly city driving.
      The one thing that I might do in a couple of years, is get  lower profile tires and eventually maybe even stiffer shocks.  I used to own a 300Z, a Rx-7 a late eighties Prelude, a Crx Si and assorted boring sedans, the CX-7 for me is the third best looking car I have owned and the least sporty of the cars that had any kind of sport car pretensions.
      But for a vehicle that can haul this many people and some packages, I am very happy with my decision.  Ironically I actually did’nt look that carefully when I was buying the car and thought I bought the base model with the non-turbo engine.  For the extra forty or fifty bucks in gas I am spending every month, I am getting a bit more zoom!

  • avatar

    The size of the wheel is not the problem, its the ride height. This is a wagon in SUV clothes, it will never go off road so why the height penalty? Oh that’s right… to see better, the commanding view of the road impresses people that get behind the wheel, especially women who tend to buy these things. Removing the turbo proves that “zoom zoom” is nothing more then marketing BS from Mazda. Either your building sporty vehicles or you not. Toyota has bland down pat so don’t even try to go there.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      So does anybody make a “lowering kit” for this vehicle?  I LOVE station wagons.  :)  Perhaps we’ll get a “Mazdaspeed” edition?

    • 0 avatar

      Wagon in SUV clothes indeed. Test-drove this before buying my i30cw / Elantra Touring. The Touring had just as much passenger space and cargo room, but was peppier, more agile, and more fuel efficient. And $4000 less. I only considered the CX7 after the 2.5L engine was made available (the turbo MPG is just too atrocious), so IMO that was a good move. The looks are definitely an advantage over the CRV and RAV4 and make the CX7 a contender as a more upscale alternative. But indeed it needs bigger rims if it wants to impress and AWD on the 2.5L if it wants to be a practical all-weather mover.

    • 0 avatar

      I like the looks of the Rav4.
      Purchased a 6cyl. for my sister in ’07 and she raves about it and its power.
      I just can’t get past the way the rear gate opens on the road side when parked.

    • 0 avatar

      Trailertrash, can you explain to me why the RAV4 rear door has what looks like tacked-on plastic strips around the spare tire? It looks terrible, like they couldn’t figure out how to mold a metal door correctly and had to resort to a patch job. The CRVs with the outside spares (before the latest version) don’t need that, or any other cars with door-mounted spares for that matter. I always took this as Toyota getting lazy with their engineering or taking it for granted that people don’t care about how their cars look.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    Back in ’07 we were very interested in the CX-7. An accident at sea ruined the first Canada-bound 1,200 of them. Then there were questions about the reliability of the turbo and Mazda quality in general. Our interest waned.
    We wound up with an Infiniti FX35. No regrets.


    • 0 avatar

      Good move. I had an 07 AWD and I hated that car. Slow, even with the turbo, lucky to get 20 mpg on a 90% freeway commute, tippy handling and suprisingly hard to get out of the (slightly) snowy driveway in the morning. I have no idea what I was thinking when I bought that thing.

  • avatar

    Has Mazda made any money on this thing? Wouldn’t have been cheaper to make a Mazdaspeed6 wagon and go Legacy GT fighting? Or jack up said wagon and go lurking for Outbacks and XC-70s?

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Wouldn’t have been cheaper to make a Mazdaspeed6 wagon and go Legacy GT fighting?
      God I wish it had been.  Oh wait, the Legacy GT wagon isn’t made anymore either.  :(

  • avatar

    I looked at one of these a couple of years ago, and was blown away by how bad the fuel mileage was. How can such a small vehicle guzzle so much gas? Might as well drive a Tahoe.

  • avatar

    The “problems” with the CX-7 in terms of reliability stem from one source–LACK OF MAINTENANCE. I deal with these cars every day, and in each and every instance of engine problems, infrequent oil changes are to blame.   Interestingly, the same basic engine in the Mazdaspeed3 and Mazdaspeed6 do not have these issues because their owners are more enthusiasts, and as such are more into maintenance than the typical SUV owner.    I do think that the 2.5i should have had an AWD version available, but there IS a 2.5 AWD Tribute in the line.

    • 0 avatar

      The DISI Turbo 2.3 engines go “zoom zoom boom” in the Mazdaspeed3 and Mazdaspeed6 with depressing regularity. The rods just plain aren’t strong enough for even stock power. We’re changing the synthetic oil every 4000 miles but that’s just to try to get goodwill out of MZR when it blows up. It doesn’t actually fix the problem. The turbocharger spools up at 2000 RPM or so, while the variable cam timing and fuel maps are still firmly in economy mode. It operates right on the edge of detonation in normal driving.

      My mother now drives a MS6. It is an utterly terrific car but we’ll have to live knowing that it will probably blow up between the end of the 60,000 mile warranty and the 200,000 miles we want the car to last. It’s terrible, the car that does everything won’t be able to do it long. It’s a grown-up Evo, an S550 4-matic with simpler controls, and it will end up at Millis Used Auto Parts long before we want it to.

      Mazda could have an excellent reputation for reliability. If all they built were simple, four-cylinder, Miatas, Twos, Threes, and Sixes, two wheel drive, limited slip, manual transmission, they’d be known as the company that hit the gap Honda left behind.

    • 0 avatar

      Unfortunately, the Zoom Zoom Boom is more common than it should be. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a current owner of a 2007 Mazdaspeed6, and everything that Chappy said above is true. The car is not built for long term service. Actually the car (mine at least) detonates regularly in normal operation.
      The chassis is stiff and handles well (though the suspension does not befit a $30k car), but the motor and AWD system are half-baked at best. My wife is driving ours right now to make sure that it lasts just a little bit longer before we trade it for something else. After three dealer visits in the past 6 weeks, and poor dealer service I’m sad to say that this has been my first Mazda, and it will be my last. As an enthusiast I really wanted to make a go of it, but there are too many factors conspiring against the long term reliability of this car.

  • avatar

    Doesn’t the Tribute count as a compact crossover?  If so, wasn’t Mazda actually pretty early to the compact crossover game?

    • 0 avatar

      I’m on the fence with the Escape and Tribute. Because they were among the first entrants, they’re somewhere between an SUV and a crossover. Taller, with chunkier styling. If the Tribute were fully a compact crossover, then the CX-7 would be entirely redundant.

      It’s also unclear how much they should be considered Fords or Mazdas. I think the initial platform development and a certain amount of the engineering was performed by Mazda. Even so, it’s hard not to think of the Tribute as a rebadged Ford rather than as a true Mazda.

    • 0 avatar

      Depends who you go by. Dunno about Mazda, but Ford has always insisted (and continues to insist) the Escape is an SUV, not a crossover. That means the ill-fated Freestyle was Ford’s first crossover marketed as such, but there was no Mazda equivalent until the Edge/CX-7 came around.

      I suppose the RAV4 and CRaVe were also marketed as SUVs at first, since CUV was not a well-known term, but I think the fact that their manners were so carlike is ultimately what made them so popular.

  • avatar

    Another example of form over function IMHO. Thanks for the review Michael. Glad you made it out of West Virginia alive. LOL

  • avatar

    The 3 is fun to drive? You must not be talking about the base model. The ’09 rental I drove for a week was a penalty box – except a real penalty box doesn’t vibrate, and you get to beat the snot out of someone before you get in, rather than spending an hour in the Avis line.

    Also, people respect you when you get out of a real penalty box…

    • 0 avatar

      If you’re looking for isolation in a compact car, drive one from any other manufacturer.
      If you actually want steering feel in a modern car, a sophisticated suspension that moves the game on from the double wishbones in old Hondas, a great limited slip, drive a Mazda3 and Mazda6.

  • avatar

    I agree with you on the underwhelming styling.  The interior also looks like it’s lagging behind Ford now that the Edge has updated Sync and Touch.  With Mazda’s marketing and credibility with car enthusiasts, I thought they would do well to compete against the Tiguan and Juke with a Mazda 3 based city-ute.

  • avatar
    Sam P

    I’ve always liked the styling of the CX-7 – one of the few crossovers I’d actually care to live with. Pity to hear that they’re so unreliable.

  • avatar

    I really wanted to like this car, thinking it the perfect compliment to my RX-8.  In then end, I decided the Speed 3 is a far better value.  Mazda did good.

  • avatar

    “The DISI Turbo 2.3 engines go “zoom zoom boom” in the Mazdaspeed3 and Mazdaspeed6 with depressing regularity. The rods just plain aren’t strong enough for even stock power.”              Sorry, that’s not been MY experience at MY dealership, and we service a LOT of these cars. There were a few instances of injector leakdown causing hydrostatic lock resulting in bent rods, but besides infrequent oil changes, engine mods have been the main cause of engine failure.    And even in my shop, we had ONE MS3 engine rod problem. No other MS3 or MS6 engine failure. As in NONE.  All other DISI issues were oil change interval related.

    • 0 avatar

      So my two recalls and two further TSB’s that the dealer wouldn’t take care of until I specifically printed the sheet and took it in were oil change interval related? Good to know…. Because one of them, left unaddressed, would have caused the exact issue mentioned above.
      My Speed6 is 100% stock and has had nothing but issues. I’ve owned quite a few cars in my life (20+) and I’ve never owned a car that has seen a dealer service bay as frequently as this thing.

  • avatar

    We leased a 2007 FWD Grand Touring in May ’07 and put 40+ thousand on it before turning it back in.  I loved the look of it, very comfortable on trips, and had no issues at all after a couple of initial TSBs for the climate control unit, ECU mapping, and door seals during the first six months.  We’d average 24’ish mpg in routine use (suburban + freeway, in our case), saw upper 20’s on light-footed highway driving, 18 or so in lead-footed use (four score and above in Western states).  After it all, I still don’t get the original choice of a complicated, expensive, turbo-four for this vehicle; it really needs a nice, torque-y V6 for its intended user base, or couple the turbo-four with a manual (not that doing so would make sense for its 90th percentile target market RAV4/CRV shoppers).  As configured, it was all-too-easy to catch the turbo napping, like when waiting in traffic for a spot to make your left turn…”punching it” delivered too little just off idle (even after the ECU change), and it made for some nervous, thank-God-for-side-impact-beams moments while waiting for the boost to build. One learned to “pre-stage” with some NHRA-style left-foot-braking if a quick launch was needed. 

    Oh, and the stock tires were crap in the snow; shocked at how immobilized it was in our first minor snowfall, I mounted Nokians each winter thereafter and had no issues. 

  • avatar

    No stick shift = 0 interest.

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