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article details
Author Jeff Palmer
Categories Competing Makes, TOV Road Test
Create Date November 23, 2006 09:49
Last Update December 06, 2006 09:18
The SUV with the soul of a sports car?

When Mazda first showed their CX-7 at the New York Auto Show, it was like deja vu. I thought somebody had snuck an RDX into their display and swapped badges. A quick glance of the spec sheets brought little clarity to the situation. Clearly there are some differences and Acura is somewhat loathe to even acknowledge the CX-7 as competition, but the comparisons are inevitable. After spending a week with the RDX over the summer, I've been anxious to try a CX-7 and I finally had a brief opportunity to do so.

The CX-7 that I sampled was about as loaded as they come - it was a Grand Touring AWD model with the Technology package. As equipped, it carries a sticker of $32,005. Without going into the gory details, this equipment level puts it roughly equivalent (on paper) to the RDX Tech model - leather, moonroof, great audio system with in-dash CD changer, DVD-based Navi system, Xenon headlights, etc... The CX-7 even throws in a keyless ignition system - that's an upscale touch not even matched by a full zoot MDX. On the other hand, Mazda forgot to fit a proper dual zone climate control system on the CX-7 - this is an almost unforgivable oversight in my household.

So right off the bat it sounds like the CX-7 is already the better buy. I mean, same equipment for $5000 less, right? Well, sorta. The CX-7's interior is a pretty nice place to be in general, but once perched in the driver's seat you can glance around and it doesn't take too long to spot areas where cost savings were realized. There are hard plastics on the door panels, much of the interior trim, and some inexpensive looking painted plastic pieces where you might otherwise see real metal. Jumping into an RDX you can easily see where Acura spent at least some of that $5k. Then there's the navi screen. Of all the vehicles I've driven, this one seems to be the lowest grade LCD panel I've seen yet. It has relatively poor contrast, the colors look dingy, and it's not particularly crisp - almost like one of those cheap passive matrix LCD displays. I've not seen this complaint mentioned anywhere else, so something makes me think there may have been a problem with the display on this particular vehicle. The HVAC controls are arranged fairly logically below the navi screen, but the system's display is detached in an info panel that also displays the audio system info at the top of the center stack. I didn't listen critically to the 9-speaker Bose stereo with any reference materials, but it bent my ears in a pleasing manner, filling the cabin with a rich sound. I guess my main nitpick with it would have to be that the volume knob is so small and twiddly, and where's the MP3 input jack?

Like the RDX, the CX-7's chassis is quite good. The steering feels nicely weighted and I got the impression that the CX-7 was actually slightly better balanced than the RDX with less of a tendency towards understeer (on throttle, or off). The RDX understeers off the throttle, and a lot of the time on the throttle, but there are moments when SH-AWD finally chimes in and in these situations, the RDX (finally) feels superior in terms of handling. If Acura could calibrate the SH-AWD to come into play more frequently then it would probably be the clear winner here. The CX-7s AWD system operates pretty much transparently - the CX-7 feels quite neutral, which is generally good, but it would be even better if it would rotate a little better when you're hard on the throttle. More torque bias to the rear would go a long way here, but the RDX probably needs this even more. The CX-7's ride quality is generally pretty good - perhaps a bit more compliant than the RDX, but this added compliance doesn't seem to upset the handling of the vehicle significantly. The CX-7's body rigidity was pretty good but it didn't quite seem to match the RDX's {cliche alert} "carved from a block of granite" feel.

This is one of those areas where on paper, the CX-7 seems to hold an advantage. From a power and torque perspective, the numbers are pretty much a wash, but the CX-7 utilizes Direct Injection, which in theory should provide for more consistent performance and improved throttle and turbo response. Also, the CX-7 has a 6-speed automatic, which should result in improved efficiency and performance. In practice, it doesn't always quite work out that way. First of all, the positives. Boost onset in the CX-7 occurs much sooner than the RDX. There's still a lag from a dead stop, but it's only about half as much as the RDX. Now, my experience in this regard could be 100% attributable to the difference in weather conditions - when we tested the RDX the temps were in the upper 80s to low 90s and humidity was quite high. For the CX-7, the conditions were far more favorable - a sunny, clear day in the low 40s and very low humidity. Secondly, the CX-7 seems to behave a little bit more linearly at part throttle than the RDX. You get a reasonably progressive and predictable ramp of torque on the CX-7 in everyday driving situations. With the RDX we found that it was a little difficult to temper the motor in everyday driving situations. In contrast to the RDX, boost onset delay is easy to bypass with very mild brake torquing in the CX-7. With the RDX, to get any effective brake torquing requires technique that qualifies as abusive treatment. This means it's easy to set up a hole shot away from a stoplight in the CX-7, and not so much in the RDX. Now for some of the negatives. I don't care what is reported in the specs, at full boost, the CX-7's motor doesn't feel as strong as the RDX's, period. Not even with the benefit of the 6-speed automatic transmission, nor the vastly favorable atmospheric conditions we had for the CX-7. Around town it feels like it trails the RDX a little bit in terms of peak thrust, but on the freeway is where I felt a much more noticeable difference. The CX-7's motor felt surprisingly flat when called upon to execute passing maneuvers, even with a starting speed of only 60-65mph. Part of it is that the CX-7's transmission seems to hesitate briefly but then once it's in the appropriate gear, the motor just doesn't really scoot it along all that briskly. The RDX feels on the quick end of the SUV spectrum while the CX-7 feels pretty much average. One final note about the CX-7's 2.3L turbocharged motor - the Acura's K23 has it beat in terms of refinement with a few exceptions - the RDX's cooling fans are very loud, particularly at initial startup or whenever the A/C is switched on, while the CX-7's motor purrs without the roar of the fans more often than not. Also, the CX-7's turbocharger and blowoff valves operate nearly invisibly, in contrast to the constant whooshing sounds that emanate from the RDX's engine bay. One final gripe/peculiarity - the CX-7's TCS system can be intrusive in low speed corners - you'll feel a bit of pulsing in the power delivery as the throttle is cut to deal with bumps that induce a bit of wheelspin. This would almost be acceptable if you could actually defeat the TCS system, but to "turn off" the TCS, the vehicle has to be nearly stopped and I didn't run through every scenario, but the only way I could get the TCS system to shut off was when the transmission was in Park or Neutral. And when I finally figured that out, I found that the TCS system re-activates itself once you exceed some low speed threshold. So it's quite frustrating that you can't actually defeat it for any beneficial purposes in terms of performance.

Interior Comfort
The CX-7's interior proportions are very similar to the RDX. Both the RDX and CX-7 have comfortable seats that offer moderately aggressive bolstering for spirited driving. The CX-7's wheel is a little plain to look at but feels pretty good underhand. The rear seat of the CX-7 is pretty comfortable - the CX-7 rear seatbacks are more "full-sized" than the RDX's so they are slightly more comfortable. The RDX's seatbacks seem to be shorter, so if the headrests are pushed all the way down they sort of gouge you in the upper back when you first sit in the RDX - moving the headrests up improves this situation, but the taller rear seatbacks of the CX-7 avoid this situation altogether. Leg and toe room are acceptable in both. Interior sound levels seem to be pretty similar to the RDX, though I noticed a surprising level of wind noise audible at the top of the windscreen from speed as low as 40mph in the CX-7.

It's no big secret that I don't really see a lot of rhyme or reason to this segment of vehicles, but the market research types are predicting growth in this segment over the next 3 years, so if they're right, then there should be a good number of people considering vehicles such as the RDX, CX-7, X3 and others. I haven't (yet) tried the 2007 X3, so I can't really comment on how it compares to these two, but with seat time in the Mazda and the RDX I have a better understanding of Acura's positioning of the RDX in the marketplace and the gap in pricing is easier to appreciate than the differences perceived from a glance at the spec sheets. That's not to discredit the CX-7 by any stretch - it's a fine vehicle and delivers good value for the money, but for those who are looking for a more upscale choice and a bit more performance, the RDX is probably worth the upgrade cost.

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