Even the two-wheel-drive version has a lot to offer
Mass-market sports utility vehicles have undergone many changes since large numbers of returning World War II vets embraced civilian versions of their rugged military Jeeps.
Over the past six decades or so, SUVs have ranged from large Chevrolet Suburbans to small Subaru Outbacks and everything in between. Just about the only thing they have in common is the all or four-wheel-drive systems that allow them to handle bad road conditions better than two-wheel-drive vehicles.
But in recent years most SUV manufacturers have begun offering two-wheel-drive versions of their vehicles as the entry-level models. In addition to the lower purchase prices, a primary reason for this has been rising gas prices. Two-wheel-drive vehicles get mileage than their four-wheel-drive versions, which are heavier and have more moving parts.
With gas prices exceeding $4 a gallon in 2008 and now approaching $3 again, two-wheel-drive SUVs are proving popular. Dodge even dropped the all-wheel-drive option from its Caliber crossover this year. So don't assume every SUV you see is all-wheel-drive. Even the hurkiest-looking ones might be no better in bad weather than a conventional family car these days.
But that raises a basic question - what is the point of a two-wheel drive SUV anyway? In general, they are more expensive than small or mid-size cars. They are not as roomy as minivans. And even the most economical of them do not get the mileage of some five-passenger sedans.
The two-wheel-drive version of the Mazda CX-7 helps answer these questions. For starters, it is a very good car - stylish, well-built and fun to drive.
Though first introduced in 2006, the swoopy lines still look fresh and contemporary. The redesigned 2010 model features a larger, more aggressive grill that emphasizes its sporty styling. The 17-inch alloy wheels on our test model were well proportioned for the bulging fenders, and looked good parked at the curb, too.
The interior is spacious, well laid-out and features simple, easy-to-use controls. The materials and fit-and-finish is up to Mazda's traditional quality standards, which tend to be a little higher than most equivalent imports. The heated cloth seats in our test model were comfortable and supportive.
Lifting the rear hatch reveals an impressive amount of cargo space. Not as much as a station wagon or minivan, but then again, some drivers would never be caught alive in such family-oriented vehicles. That may help explain the popularity of two-wheel-drive SUV - they are practical without looking too sensible.
Our test model came with the 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine that is standard in the Mazda6 luxury sedan. Although only rated at 170 horsepower, it proved plenty powerful for both around-town and freeway driving. A turbocharged 2.3-liter inline four with 224-horsepower is also available,but the 2.5 should be more than adequate for most drivers, especially when mated to the smooth-shifting five-speed automatic transmission that we had.
Our model also retained a major advantage of its four-wheel-sibling - good ride height. The two-wheel-drive CX-7 sits higher than virtually all but the most upright cars, offering good views of surrounding traffic. The height also keeps the aforementioned air dam above curbs.
About the only drawback was mileage. At an EPA-rated 24 miles per gallon in mixed driving, the CX-7 is not as economical as some conventional sedans. But it is better than most SUVs, including the majority of two-wheel-drive versions from other manufacturers.
Facts and figures
• Test Model: 2010 CX-7.
• Manufacturer: Mazda.
• Class: Mid-size SUV.
• Layout: Front engine, front- and all-wheel-drive.
• Style: Five-passenger, five-door wagon.
• Power train: 2.5-liter inline 4 (170 hp); 2.3-liter turbocharged inline 4 (244 hp).
• Transmissions: 5-speed automatic; 6-speed automatic transmission.
• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 20/28 (as tested).
• Price: Beginning at approximately $23,900 (price as tested $25,900).