Launched late last year, the initial demand for Mazda's CX-7 was so great that models had to be rushed to the dealers before members of the press even got a chance to sample it. And we're not used to that.
Now, three months later, we've had the chance to drive what Mazda firmly believes is not an SUV, but rather a sports car/SUV hybrid built in the infectious spirit of "zoom-zoom".
In South Africa, CX-7 enters what remains one of the fastest growing segments in a market showing signs of steady decline. Sales in the small SUV segment were up by more than 3 000 units on 2006, and percentage market share increased from 2.4 to 3.3% over the same period.
Driving the newcomer confirms it is an SUV with the soul of a sports car. Only one derivative is sold in South Africa and its power is provided by the 2.3-litre Disi turbo engine sourced from the Mazda3 MPS. In the crossover SUV, it produces 175 kW at 5 000 r/min and 350 Nm at 2 500 r/min.
This is mated to a six-speed Activematic gearbox. A manual transmission is offered in Europe and while this unit is not planned for SA, the local subsidiary will consider the manual based on customer demand.
However, after driving the vehicle on Wednesday, I can understand Mazda's reluctance to introduce a regular manual transmission.
Activematic is probably as exciting as a manual, while allowing the ease of an automatic transmission when you just couldn't be bothered to depress a clutch. Switching gears at the limit reveals an SUV that is a spirited performer, although the sporty essence could perhaps be enhanced with the incorporation of paddleshifts on the steering wheel...
But even in automatic mode, this crossover SUV remains entertaining with intuitive kickdowns for overtaking and under sudden acceleration.
And it is fitted with the Active Torque Split all-wheel drive system used on the Mazda6 MPS, which continuously monitors road conditions to distribute torque between the front and rear axles, ensuring the SUV remains surefooted in even the tightest of corners.
Quite the entertainer
Its McPherson strut and multilink rear suspension arrangement has been tuned for high performance antics and, considering its inherently higher centre of gravity, CX-7 handles alarmingly well.
There's virtually zero body roll and the vehicle exhibits a decided squat on apexes, urging you to push the performance envelope. Incidentally, this could also be attributed to CX-7's aerodynamism - it has a drag coefficient of only 0.34.
On the road, the steering, which is light and breezy for the most part, firms up nicely when there is some hustling to be done and responds well to inputs from the driver.
Apparently CX-7 is quite capable off road too, with Mazda quoting a ground clearance of 206 mm and approach and departure angles of 20.1 and 24.9 degrees, respectively. Unfortunately, the journalists present were not able to test these capabilities.
However, since drivers are likely to spend the bulk of their time inside the cabin, I'm happy to report that the crossover is particularly well equipped in this department.
The cabin is comfortable, with a choice of either black or beige leather offered for the interior, while instruments and facia layout are typically Mazda with red-dialed instruments and an ordered centre hangdown. Quality of the materials used seems fair, too.
Its features list is long. CX-7 comes equipped with mind-blowing sound thanks to an awesome MP3-compatible BOSE sound system, climate and cruise control, power sliding glass sunroof, front fog lamps and other goodies including a really big (and lockable) cubby beneath the centre armrest and front seat warmers.
Standard safety equipment includes ABS with DSC dynamic stability control, EBA emergency brake assist, EBD electronic brakeforce distribution and TCS traction control and front, side (for the front occupants only) and curtain airbags.
Mazda's SUV comes with a five-year maintenance plan (services are at 10 000 km) and sells for R359 990.
Aimed squarely at the established Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, BMW X3, Nissan X-Trail and Murano, Land Rover Freelander 2 and Hyundai Tucson, this segment is about to get interesting.
Murano is admittedly bigger (physically), but Mazda hopes its CX-7's styling will attract this Nissan buyer as the company hopes to sell about 50 units per month.