I was out on bus-stop duty this morning, sending the offspring off for another day of public-school pedagogy, when one of the other parents zoom-zoomed by in his Mazda CX-7 to drop off his son. And once again I was taken by the mid-size crossover's eye-catching design.
It's perhaps the least trucky-looking SUV/crossover on the market, wearing sheet metal that, in an alternative universe somewhere, wouldn't be out of place on a Mazda MAZDA3 hatch. There are lots of swoopy curves, and the CX-7's front end manages to avoid the "big mouth" grille style now seen everywhere from the Audi Q5 to the Mitsubishi Outlander. The proportions of Mazda's crossover are also a bit different from those of its rivals.
Compared to the popular Chevrolet Equinox, for example, the CX-7 is about an inch wider and an inch and a half shorter, with the Chevy being about three inches longer. That doesn't sound like much, but it makes a surprisingly big difference in the vehicles' stances. The Mazda looks like it's ready to live up to its corporate billing as the crossover with "sports-car style," while the Equinox, if one were to just go by appearances alone, could easily be mistaken for an actual SUV. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
After all, the Equinox rang up a stellar 132.8 percent sales increase for February, moving an impressive 8,061 units last month. The CX-7, at its current pace, might not tally that many sales overall until we hit May or so. Mazda's crossover did see a February sales bump, with numbers up 14.1 percent, but that represented just 1,796 sales.
So there's actually a glass half full/glass half empty situation here. Yes, the CX-7 is doing better than it did in 2009, but no, it's not selling near the quantity needed for Mazda to be successful in the U.S.
Consider this: The best-selling crossover/SUV for every major automaker in the U.S. is each company's prime CX-7 competitor. For GM, it's the Equinox; for the Blue Oval, it's the Ford Escape; the Toyota RAV-4 does the trick for Toyota; Honda relies on the Honda CR-V; and the South Koreans put up the Hyundai Santa Fe and the Kia Sorento.
But Mazda's top-selling non-car so far this year doesn't happen to be the CX-7, but the much larger Mazda CX-9, just as it was in 2009. True, the bigger Mazda leads by a mere 107 units so far in 2010, and topped the CX-7 by less than 1,000 sales last year, but the split isn't even close for the other automakers. The Equinox outsold its bigger sibling, the Chevrolet Traverse, by about 2,200 units in February alone.
Notably, in addition to being some 15 inches longer than a CX-7, the CX-9 also features a much more traditional exterior design. It's much less curvy, its front end is just different enough from the CX-7's to lose its distinctiveness, and its proportions are significantly further toward the traditional end of the crossover spectrum.
All of which is is a long way of getting to the fact that Mazda is now strongly considering one of its next-generation four-cylinder diesels for an upcoming option on the CX-7. The automaker currently offers a turbodiesel I4 engine in its European models, so it wouldn't be like Mazda was starting from scratch on the project. And the technologically advanced "Sky D" clean diesel, introduced at last year's Tokyo Motor Show by Mazda, seems to be a winner.
The company claims it will be 20 percent more efficient than its current four-cylinder diesel, which helps today's Euro-spec CX-7 achieve mileage ratings in the upper 30s on the European testing cycle. The best the current U.S. model can achieve is an EPA line of 20 mpg city/28 mpg highway. But the thing is, fuel efficiency isn't the real problem here. The Mazda's 2010 EPA results hold up well against just about every CX-7 opponent except the Equinox, capable of achieving 22/32 in its EPA ratings.
Unless Mazda does something about the CX-7's sheet metal, a new powerplant alone '” unfortunately '” might not be enough to attract new customers to one of the few truly unique designs on the market today.