Sports car or sport-ute? Spend a few hours behind the wheel of Mazda's new CX-7 and you might start to wonder. And with good reason, for while the Japanese maker's Miata and RX-8 are the classic examples of "zoom-zoom" engineering, the CX-7 is likely to make you forget you're driving a crossover.

If you include the Tribute, Mazda has already been playing in the fast-growing crossover segment, a category that is expected to outsell conventional sport-utility vehicles this year. But the Tribute, a thinly-disguised version of the Ford Escape, never really did much for the Asian marque, never really fit into the sporty niche Mazda has been carving out for itself any more than the boxy MPV minivan. The CX-7 -- along with the CX-9, the big brother due out early next year -- make up another breed entirely.

As chief designer Moray Callum is quick to admit, there are limits to what you can do with the shape of a sport-utility vehicle or crossover -- at least if you intend to provide any usable headroom for the folks in the back seats. Nonetheless, you know, at first glance, there's something different about the CX-7.

Sure, at 69 inches, the crossover stands a lot taller than a Miata or RX-8, but the flowing shape captures the sporty theme that now runs through the expanding Mazda lineup. There are the bold, honeycomb grille, the steeply raked windshield, and muscular wheel arches. The tail tapers gently, just enough to gel the visual theme, but without cramping cargo and passenger space or crimping rear visibility. Use the easy-to-reach latches and you get a full 70 inches of flat floor space with the rear seats down.

Callum's designers pulled off a neat trick working with program manager Shunsuke Kawasaki, who envisioned a vehicle he dubbed the "metropolitan hawk." What's come to market strays surprisingly little from the original design sketches that guided the project.

One of Kawasaki 's key goals was to make the CX-7 look a lot more lavish than the $23,750 base price might suggest. Outside and in, Mazda worked up some elegant touches, including the refined piano black accent pieces (which first appeared on the much more expensive RX-8). That said, the automaker did cut a few corners, here and there, with some chintzier plastic pieces, but they tend to show up in out-of-the-way corners.

Mazda worked up three versions of the new crossover, starting with the Sport, a mid-range Tourer, and the heavily loaded Grand Tourer. Even the base CX-7 is reasonably well-equipped. "No stripper here," boasted Mazda VP Jay Amestoy. Add all the options onto the top-line model, such as navigation, and you'll nudge $32,000.

That's an attractive price range, all the more so once you get a chance to drive the CX-7. We spent a day wandering through the rolling hills and winding back roads of Virginia, as well as the cramped and crowded streets of Washington, D.C. The crossover handled both challenges with equal aplomb.

Sweeping through the countryside, we couldn't help but admire the 7's well-planted manners. Okay, it's not a Miata, but it felt good, zipping around tight corners with only the barest hint of body roll. The crossover's hydraulic power steering system subtly increases effort as road speed increases, providing very good road feel.

The real test came as we misread a sharp corner, entering quite a bit faster than we'd have liked. The four-wheel discs, anti-lock and stability control all came together seamlessly, through Mazda's Vehicle Dynamic Control system, scrubbing off speed in a hurry before easing us through the turn.

On city streets, the CX-7 offered near wraparound visibility a reasonably tight turning radius and those brakes proved perfect for the stop-and-go of early rush hour.

Going into the inevitable background briefing, we had to wonder why Mazda decided to stick with a relatively small-displacement four-cylinder engine. With a curb weight of 3929 pounds, one might reasonably expect a V-6, at least as the up-model option. Mazda officials might as well have told us, "Just wait."

On the road, the automaker's intercooled, turbocharged, 2.3-liter DISI engine more than justified itself. The acronym stands for Direct Injection, Spark Ignition. Gearheads will recognize that equation, though the DI side is more commonly found in modern diesel engines - which also use compression, rather than spark, to ignite their air/fuel mixture. The DISI system blasts that mixture deep into the combustion chamber and, according to Mazda engineer, this results in a nearly ten-percent increase in torque and horsepower.

That powertrain is the same one offered on the sporty MazdaSpeed6, incidentally, though for the sedan, it is tuned to deliver another 30 horses. But there's no sense that Mazda has sold the CX-7 short. At 244 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, the numbers look good on paper, and feel even better on the road.

There was another advantage to going with a turbo four, program chief Kawasaki added. The smaller engine, with its top-mounted turbo, lowered the overall weight of the new crossover, while also improving weight balance. At 18 mpg city and 24 highway, mileage is reasonably good, at a time when fuel economy has again become a point of concern for American buyers.

While the turbo four is incredibly competent and far more than adequate, we'd still like to get a little more power. Could a MazdaSpeed version of the CX-7 be in the works? It would be welcome.

Along with the three trim levels, the CX-7 is offered with either a front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive powertrain configuration. The $1729 AWD system is normally biased forward, with 100 percent of torque aimed at the front wheels. But when needed, up to 50 percent can be shifted to the rear tires. Mazda makes no claims about the CX-7's off-roadability. Then again, even the most serious SUVs seldom see anything rougher than a gravel road, so we don't see this as a flaw.

There's been some debate about the familial lineage of the CX-7. Mazda aficionados may recognize the basic shape of the new vehicle, which was broadly hinted at in the form of the MX-Crossport concept vehicle. But as with many other Mazda products, the Japanese maker worked closely on the development of the crossover with its partner, Ford Motor Co.

Some reports have suggested CX-7 is little more than a rebadged version of the U.S. maker's own new crossover, the Edge. Such claims draw righteous indignation from Kawasaki and his team. True, there are some technical similarities in the underlying architecture of the two vehicles, "But they are not identical, by any means," Amestoy took pains to point out.

Nor, he added, is the upcoming CX-9 just a 16-inch stretch of the CX-7. For the three-row crossover, Mazda has developed yet another new platform, though in the mix-and-match world of today's vehicle designs, there are, of course, a number of shared components.

Defining the term, "crossover" is like trying to put a frame around smoke. There are car/truck crossovers, truck/truck crossovers, even car/car crossovers. But we've experienced few vehicles that put the concept to such good use. The CX-7 is stylish, sporty and functional. As much as any vehicle in the Mazda lineup, it delivers that promised "zoom-zoom."

Mazda's new offering will face some tough competition out there, including the likes of the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. The CX-7 is likely to give the big guys a serious run for the money.

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