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Cross purpose

With the CX-7, Mazda has attempted to create an SUV that goes, and feels, like a sports car.

There was a time when it was quite acceptable for SUVs to handle like a beach ball full of wet porridge, but those days are gone.

Outside of men who wear flannelette and fish hooks in their hats, Australian buyers of urban trucks are desperately in awe of “car-like dynamics”.

This means that, essentially, they don't want an SUV at all. They just want a really big car with a high chair in it.

The modern SUV, typified by Mazda's CX-7, is so much more car than off-roader that it demands a new acronym, Sports Utility Car perhaps — which would provide the plural a bunch of SUCs.

Mazda folk have distilled the essence of these vehicles as “a car-like driving experience while retaining command-of-the-road driving position”.

The result is something that looks, from front and rear, like a Mazda3 on stilts. Funnily, though, from side on the pinched headlights make it look like a Ford Focus writ large.

But you've got to love the shape of the glasshouse, or the “unique window graphic” as they call it. Overall, it's a slick, sleek bit of SUC-ing up.

The interior is roomy, rattle-free and reasonably stylish, except for the strange crocodile-skin strip down the middle of the seats, which are comfortable rather than luxurious.

Mazda has attempted to create an SUV that goes, and feels, like a sports car — which is like building a snow plough that spits out ice sculptures.

Or, as CX-7 program manager Shunsuke Kawasaki novelly puts it, this is a car that's more Keanu Reeves than Arnold Schwarzenegger.

A cruel person would take this to mean Kawasaki's creation is a talentless but pretty dullard. He may have been in Speed, but that doesn't mean he's quick.

Unfortunately, Kawasaki-san didn't explain whether he meant the Reeves of Bill And Ted fame or his later work (in The Lake House, for example), so it's one to ponder.

Fortunately, the car is more convincing than the actor, with a wonderfully taut chassis, minimal body roll for a high-riding vehicle and a handy ride/handling balance, even on rough gravel.

Really big impacts do upset it more than a proper off-roader — but you don't get many really big impacts in Woollahra, so that should be fine.

The CX-7's steering is also pretty sharp, although it's obviously not in the league of a Mazda6 MPS, for example.

It does, however, share that car's engine, a 2.3-litre DISI turbo with 175kW and 350Nm, all of which is available at just 2500rpm, meaning it surges hard — and a little noisily — off the line and accelerates meaningfully. Well, meaningfully for a SUC: the sprint to 100km/h is dismissed in 8.5 seconds.

Noise, vibration and harshness are also crushed under the weight of Mazda's technological know-how, although some road noise from the tyres is evident on coarse-chip stuff.

And, despite the CX-7's luxurious size and keen performance, we actually saw close to the claimed 11.5 litres per 100km economy figure.

This must be because I was driving like an 80-year-old farmer with a hangover — my 11.9 litres per 100km was well and truly trumped by a colleague who recorded 14.9 litres and looked at me with a mixture of pity and disgust.

My excuse is that I find driving SUVs, particularly on dirt, as exciting as The Lake House.

On proper roads, however, the CX-7 turned out to be roughly seven times more fun than you would think possible.

The steering is reasonably involving and it corners quite well, until the point where its size and 1745kg weight eventually push it into understeer.

The six-speed auto is a typically Mazda-smooth unit, but it's disappointing that there's no manual option.

This is because the CX-7 was (in case you can't guess just by looking) designed for Americans, and their arms are too fat to change gears.

The Yanks are also quite happy with a skinny spare wheel — but apparently some Australians do take their SUCs out of the city, because Mazda Australia is doing a special fitting of a full-size spare, which will be available from March.

As far as off-road ability goes, this is no low-range mountain-climber. The Active Torque Split AWD system automatically adjusts front-rear distribution between 100:0 and 50:50.

In other words, it's a front-wheel-drive bus, but it can grip and rip — at least a little bit — when it needs to.

Six airbags and a five-star crash rating from the US make it a safe investment as well.

Mazda says the CX-7's competitors will include Toyota's RAV4, Nissan's X-Trail and Murano, and Honda's CRV.

The car comes in two trim levels, with the base model a highly competitive $39,910.

The $45,560 Luxury version throws in fruit like leather seats, a sunroof, heated power seats and a Bose stereo.

Mazda may be a little late on the compact SUV scene, but keen pricing and savvy road manners will make the CX-7 an attractive proposition.

It may be a SUC, but the CX-7 doesn't suck.


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