In the Autoblog Garage: 2007 Mazda CX-7 GT AWD

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After a few days of driving the 2007 Mazda CX-7 GT AWD, I was reminded of a college buddy who had broken up with a girl he described as his ultimate dream date. She was good-looking, funny and even pleased his Mom. But my friend was tired of financing her $4-a-glass Zinfandel habit while he drank $2 draft. And that's kind of how we felt about the CX-7. Its beautiful design, high-quality interior, willingness to zoom-zoom all night long and actual usable utility is, unfortunately, totally overshadowed by its $4-a-premium-gallon gas habit.

So it was with mixed feelings we broke up with the copper red mica SUV. We're already missing its buttery-soft black leather seats, the kick-you-in-the-pants turbocharged four and the looks of incredulity from friends and family when they saw it. But we're not missing the costly gas pump visits.

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Let's just go ahead and get that gas issue out of the way so we can focus on the good things in the relationship. The CX-7 had a drinking problem. It really liked to empty a tank. We drove 445 miles during our short time together, covering scenic highway drives as well as mundane commutes in city traffic. We enjoyed those miles, but at the end of the week, the day before the breakup, we realized our beloved car was getting only about 14 mpg. Yikes! And because of the champagne-tastes of its turbocharged heart, that was 14 miles to every gallon of $4 premium. Meaning we spent about $90 on gas for the week, which is not that much worse than the EPA's new rating for the car, 16 city, 22 highway.

But let's move on to happier things, like that high-quality interior we mentioned. Mazda is known for passing on its sporty genes to everything it touches, and the CX-7 inherits them, too. But Mazda should just as well be known for its lux interiors. The CX-7's dash and doors are made of a soft-touch plastic that one admiring friend equated to leather. Seats and steering wheel, however, are wrapped in the real thing. Their soft, black surfaces are a pleasure to touch and the seats are also soft and comfortable. The faux croc print center inserts were a bit gaudy, though. We'd have liked a little more depth to the seat cushion and stiffer side bolsters, but the 8-way power driver's seat eliminated most reasons to complain. Leg and headroom front and rear were ample, and with the child seat installed behind the driver, two adults might have fit beside it.

The lockable center armrest lifts to reveal a gaping storage bin for cabin clutter, and includes a power port for your electronic gadgets. Unfortunately, and surprisingly, the CX-7, a model only a couple of years old, doesn't have an auxiliary input jack. Luckily buyers can choose the iPod integration module for $149. Even though our tester didn't have that option, we found ample auditory entertainment on the in-dash Sirius radio and from the right pedal. Sound output was OK, but more bass would make for a richer audible experience.

Fit and finish were impeccable, as you would expect from a $30,660 car. Something else you expect in this price range, but don't get in the CX-7, is lighted vanity mirrors. Front windows and the sizable sunroof are a one-button operation open and close. The automatic climate control was also a set-it and forget-it luxury. The 6-disc changer, however, was slow to load and unload, but we're betting the satellite radio and (if purchased) iPod controls get way more use.

The instrument lighting can be toggled between red or a redish-purple, and the GT version gets an odd blue LED mounted near the rearview mirror. It dimly shined on the shifter, but did little to actually illuminate.

We are, of course, reviewing this from a family perspective, so the child safety seat went in the day we got the car. NHTSA and other safety organizations strongly suggest child seats be installed in the center of the back seat. Mazda, however, does not make this simple in the CX-7. Most cars, including this Mazda, have the LATCH system, which consists of metal loops buried between the seat cushion and the seat back. Two hooks on the child seat attach there to firmly hold it in place. A third hook is designed to go over the top of the seat and attach at the back to another LATCH loop.

The CX-7 provides center loops on the rear seat, but not a center loop behind the seat. Unless you're willing to perform a bit of origami-like maneuvers on the cargo area floor cover, you'll need to put baby on either the left or right. It's not unsafe, just not the safest position recommended. If you bring home one of these vehicles, either have someone at the dealership demonstrate proper center installation, or, better yet, have them do it.

One more note on the child seat. Those heated, buttery-soft leather seats were made to coddle your back side in near-luxury comfort, not a hard plastic child seat. The night before we returned the car, the child seat came out. Left behind was the distinct impression of a hard plastic child seat. By morning, the leather had somewhat returned to its intended state, but it wasn't perfect. Parents should keep this in mind when deciding between leather and cloth options. There are tricks out there you can use to protect your seats, but most of them increase the leather's protection while reducing the child's.

Overall, safety is taken care of. Air bags surround all occupants, and Mazda engineers created a vehicle that passed NHTSA crash tests with no problem. The NHTSA gave the CX-7 five stars in all its crash tests, and four for rollover, indicating a 14% chance of tipping. Those numbers are for the two- and all-wheel-drive models. Standard safety features include stability control, four-wheel ABS, traction control and tire pressure monitors.

The stroller test was also no trouble for this SUV. Shoved in the back, our Graco didn't even fill up half the space either sideways or longways, leaving room for groceries, luggage, kegs, etc. Leave baby at home, fold the rear seats, and you've got huge room for cargo. Tie-downs in back keep things from shifting around and a sliding cover hides your valuables. The spare tire and jack are beneath the reversible rear floor cover, which is carpeted on one side and hard plastic on the other.

Being a typical guy, I like gadgets. The gadget I like most on the CX-7 fit in my pocket. Keyless entry is offered from Mazda, but was not installed on our tester. However, the switchblade key fob did offer a nice surprise. Push the door open button twice and hold it to see the car's windows lower and the sunroof slide open, which lets out hot air while you walk across the smoldering desert of your local mall's parking lot Unlike remote starters, no gas is wasted, which is appreciated in this vehicle. When you park, insert the key into the driver's lock, turn and hold, and all windows and sunroof close. Nice and simple.

Driving the CX-7 is mostly pleasurable. The CUV rides smoothly on open highways and handles itself very well around town. My wife complained that in stop and go traffic, she was bothered by a slight hesitation when starting from a stop. I felt it, too, but was bothered less by that than by the nasty turbo lag. Pulling into traffic, or switching lanes is no problem with this vehicle's 244-hp motor sourced from the MazdaSpeed6, but you need to time it just right. The first time I goaded the CX-7, the kick in the butt took me by surprise. To minimize the delay and the lurch of the turbo lag, we found using the manumatic to drop down a gear or two ahead of making our passing manuevers helped spool up the turbo. It's something a manual-transmission driver would know to do, but something anyone who grew up with only automatics would have to learn.

Speaking of the manumatic, it's better than some we've driven, but still a bit on the nannyish side. It forces upshifts too soon to be sporty and wouldn't allow 6th gear until too late to help with fuel economy. The system was presumably programmed to protect the all-aluminum four-cylinder, but the best use of the manumatic is when you need that lower gear in traffic, which is something that could just as easily have been accomplished with a simple PRNDL.

Our tester had the AWD option, which, due to 90-degree weather and an extended regional drought, we were pretty much unable to test in any meaningful way.

Everyone who saw the CX-7 loved the look, the feel, the ride, the sound, the way the sun glinted off her curves and reflected in her shiny, crystal-like headlights. But mention the premium gas, and the admiring gazes quickly turned to looks of dismay and emotional betrayal. Mazda had a potentially huge hit in the CX-7, until premium gas started costing more than milk. We think the turbo-four is unnecessary, and would be better replaced with a smoother, less hungry, larger displacement 4-cylinder or a small V-6. A hybrid four would be even more welcome, and would complement the car's sleek, modern design very well.

If you can afford to feed it, the CX-7 could be the family man's Miata. If baby formula and diapers already have the family budget stretched thin, wait until the CX-7 gets a powertrain that doesn't swill the Dom like there's no tomorrow. Until then, we'll look wistfully at our photos and wonder what could have been.

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