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Driving the Mazda CX-7 – Driving Zooms, Package Compromises

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Metropolitan Hawk
We’ve reported on the CX-7 several times previously. In fact Mazda’s Jeremy Barnes was featured in a walkaround of the CX-7 in our second-ever video cast. Now AutoPacific has driven it in the rolling Virginia countryside outside Washington DC.
Mazda compares the CX-7 with the likes of the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4. They also mention vehicles like the Nissan Murano. Certainly, CX-7 may have some similarities, but it is a very different type of vehicle.

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On the plus side, CX-7 has very distinctive styling. Mazda describes it as a combination of sports car and SUV. They say it has the image and driving performance of a sports car – or maybe a sports coupe – and the utilty and capability of an SUV. CX-7 certainly looks different from SUVs and sedans. And it is a useful piece – functional.
Shinsuke Kawasaki, head of the Mazda product development team for CX-7 used the descriptive term “Metropolitan Hawk” to convey the sense of what he wanted to his colleagues. Yes, CX-7 is an SUV, but an SUV for the city. CX-7’s targets were to 1) have advanced emotional styling, 2) have exceptional driving performance, and 3) to suport a user’s urban lifestyle. It is an SUV for a person wanting individualistic transportation, not necessarily a joiner.
Its off-road pretentions are mild (using essentially the same AWD system as on the MazdaSpeed6) and Mazda did not provide any opportunity for off-roading. Darn.
CX-7 Powered by Turbo 4-cylinder
Mazda’s conclusion going into development of the CX-7 is that SUVs over-deliver on family and under-deliver on performance. Matching Mazda’s Zoom-Zoom image, Mazda set out to make the CX-7 a different type of performer. Surprisingly, it is powered by a turbocharged 2.3L 4-cylinder with 244-horsepower. Now, a turbo four is not what is expected in an SUV (except that Acura is launching the RDX SUV with a turbo 4 at about the same time), but this engine does pretty well. Little turbo lag, spritely performance, little torque steer. At high RPMs it gets a bit raucous – does not have the sophistication and finesse of a Volkswagen 2.0L Turbo 4-cylinder for instance. We would have opted for a V6, but Mazda’s 2007 CX-9 7-passenger SUV gets Ford’s 3.5L DOHC V6 with 265-horsepower. The CX-7’s turbo four is a clear differentiator. Not bad, but unexpected.
But there are negatives. These are not killing points, but if Mazda had really heeded the input from folks who want a more useful sporty car and might consider an SUV, they wouldn’t have missed on some important points.


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2007 Ford Explorer Sport Trac

The First Sport-Utility with a Truck Bed is New for 2007
With the new-for-2001 Sport Trac, Ford was the first to put a short pickup bed on the back of an SUV passenger cabin, then based on the Ranger just as prior Explorers were. The shape has not taken off like gangbusters, but Sport Trac has managed to sell between 48,500 units and 83,600 units most years, with little marketing support behind it. And its owners are enthusiastic enough to have created a fan-based web site (www.mysporttrac.com) and an annual two-day rally in June (Ford will support one of the two days this year). Along with the annual Louisville meet, centered around the truck’s production location, there have been regional meets all over the country. Since its launch, sales have dropped below 40,000 units only twice, and in 2005 this was in part due to a short production year.

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Not only are there enough buyers who appreciate this combination and enough opportunity for sharing components for Ford to keep it alive and bring us the second generation Explorer Sport Trac for 2007, some in the competition have borrowed from the playbook. GM takes on this configuration compete amongst full-size crew-cab pickups, and include the Chevrolet Avalanche/Cadillac Escalade EXT and Hummer H2 SUT, though GM adds a mid-gate for hauling even longer loads. Honda’s Ridgeline goes most directly up against the latest Explorer Sport Trac. If Dodge’s Rampage concept (Chicago, 2006) is any indication, they are at least considering playing in this group. The GM products are based on full-size SUVs and Honda looked to the Pilot for a base, though the platform was substantially modified. For now, there aren’t many like the Sport Trac in the automotive landscape, and it competes most directly with four-door crew cab pickups, as do Avalanche, Escalade EXT, and Ridgeline.
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In late March 2006, AutoPacific and VehicleVoice correspondents got the opportunity to climb behind the wheel of the latest Explorer Sport Trac, reaching dealers as these words are being written. Here are our first thoughts.


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Wheeeeeez! 2006 Buick Lucerne – Hurt by Details

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AutoPacific staffers were all prepared to tout the new Buick Lucerne as one of the products that will revitalize Buick and help the brand regain its position as the thinking man’s Cadillac. In many ways, the Lucerne delivers, but it is held back by some fundamentals and too-obvious cost reductions.
On the positive side, the Lucerne looks good. While its styling does not turn heads, the car is pleasant to look at. The interior is very spacious and the trim is well-styled. Outward visibility is excellent to the front and sides but somewhat limited rearward due to Lucerne’s high rear deck.

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The trunk is gigantic. It looks capable of carrying a set of golf clubs for every occupant.
The ride of the Lucerne is well-controlled and supple at the same time. Cornering is flat when not pushed. As Jaguar describes it, they would probably admit the Buick rides with “aplomb”. Quietness is a forte of this big car – nice job on wind noise and road noise control.
Attractively Priced Big Buick for Mature Audience
The price is very attractive. While base pricing starts at about $26,000 for the base Lucerne (including freight), you can load one up to over $35,000. The $35,000 car includes a 4.6L Northstar V8 with 275HP. The car we had for evaluation was the mid-range V6 – a 3.8L V6 with 197 horsepower and a 4-speed automatic transmission – with a price point just shy of $30,000. All in all, this Lucerne is a pretty good value.


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Saab 9-5 – Promise Missed

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Our VehicleVoice colleague Jim Hossack posted a blog giving his brief comparison of the Dodge Charger R/T and the Saab 9-5 sedan. Hossack was impressed by the Charger and undrewhelmed by the 9-5.
Saab 9-5 Compared to a Dodge Charger R/T – Unfair!
The fact that the 9-5 is priced about $5,000 higher than the Charger R/T did not help. While the base price of the 9-5 is about $35,000, the as-equipped price of the 9-5 tested was just shy of $42,000. The Charger R/T price was about $37,000 – what a deal. The price of the 9-5 is even more embarrassing when you note it is powered by a 2.3L turbocharged 4-cylinder engine putting out 260-horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. Not too shabby, but when you compare the more pricey Saab against the brute 340HP 5.7L HEMI V8 with 390 lb-ft of torque, 9-5 is pretty tepid.
Sure, the Saab’s turbo puts out more than 100HP per liter – impressive if you are a Euro-fanatic – but the sheer horsepower of the HEMI feels better in its delivery.
Yep, it’s not a fair comparison. The 9-5 is supposed to be a highly finessed European sport sedan and the Charger is a blatantly American large, powerful sedan without sophistication. Yet, somehow, for $5,000 less, the Charger is an infinitely better deal. And with the Charger at about $37,000 you even get a rear seat DVD player.

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With these kinds of comparative relationship existing, the reason for the existence of the 9-5 really has to be called into question.


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When a Manual Becomes Automatic

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I learned how to drive with a manual transmission. My instructor, a former racing driver turned attorney, explained how important it was to have control over the gears and to not assume anything – or to leave chance to an automatic transmission. I loved shifting when I started driving, and yes, it did make me feel as if I had more control over the vehicle. Once, during a rainstorm, my “total control” did put me (aged 16) and my BMW 1602 askew in somebody’s front yard. With that exception, I have always enjoyed driving a car with a manual transmission. I must be lucky, as my wife feels the same way.

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A Typical 6-Speed Stick

Yet, manual transmission cars have been on the decline for many years, notably here in America. Drivers here seem to prefer the lack of exercise required when sitting on the highway or freeway with 200,000 of your closest neighbors sharing the same lane and destination. And recently, when searching for a new car, I’ve come across more and more situations where a manual transmission just wasn’t available.


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Audi Q7 – An Industry Benchmark Beyond Its Interior

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Is Q7 the Benchmark the Industry Expects?
Audi has always been a technology innovator ranging from making full-time all-wheel-drive available across its range decades ago to the first application of an aluminum spaceframe for a production model. In recent years, Audi has been a benchmark in the execution of its interiors. Tasteful, elegant, functional… Audi interior could not be matched by anyone including BMW and Mercedes. Well, can the Q7 achieve benchmark status with its interior and move beyond that with its overall product excellence? Let’s find out.
Ever since the 1996 Audi A4 appeared, Audi’s have garnered a reputation of having the best executed interiors in the business. The company has more than earned this reputation over the last decade with each new model being better designed and better built than the version that preceded it. Over the last three years, the company has taken cost out of interiors of its volume models, but to Audi’s credit this has been done in a fashion that has proven to be all but unnoticeable to the customer and many competitors as well.
Audi NOT a Fast Follower Into SUV Market
One area where Audi hasn’t been at the forefront of the industry is the Sport Utility Vehicle market. While archrivals BMW and Mercedes were chasing down and defining the concept of the German premium nameplate SUV Audi decided to take another, far more timid direction… the SUV-trimmed station wagon. Audi’s Allroad was essentially an A6 wagon with a smattering of the cosmetic trimmings of an SUV. Overfenders, gray cladding and bumpers, air suspension for increased ground clearance and a few bits of aluminum at the front and rear to give the illusion of scrape guards was the limit of the company’s venture into the lucrative and exploding luxury SUV market. By using the same formula pioneered by Subaru when it dressed up its Legacy wagon with some SUV fluff and created the original Outback, Audi effectively stayed out of the X5-ML-RX 300-MDX battle but did so at the expense of total volume.

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Guilty Pleasures – The Three Vehicles I Never Want My Friends To See Me Drive

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Long a car-sick motor head, over the years I’ve cultivated a rather ecclectic (and quite strong) list of likes and dislikes in the vehicles I have owned. Lots of overpowered coupes and sedans, a couple of oddball oversteering rear engined cars with more power than their engineers had envisioned when first they set pencil to paper, and only a single vehicle that could be categorized as a truck. And a pretty poor excuse for a truck at that.
Recently, after discussing favorite “Guilty Pleasure” films with some journalist pals, the topic turned the concept of Guilty Pleasure vehicles. Vehicles you like (or would like) to drive but would never admit it to a friend. At the top of the list were those small, innocous, underpowered economy cars that can be driven at ten-tenths all the time without raising the ire of police or other drivers. Why precisely these came up first is of some small concern to me. Perhaps I need a new set of journalist friends, but I digress.
Next the subject of traditional big American Iron came up. As in large, V8 rear-drive cars with primitive solid axle rear suspension systems better suited to buggies or heavy duty pickups than 21st century land transport. Nothing of any collectible interest or classic in nature, we’re talking about post 1985-metal. At the risk of trading in my VehicleVoice correspondent credentials and my AutoPacific analyst pass, the first of my automotive Guilty Pleasures comes to light, the Lincoln Town Car.


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Goodbye Neon, Hello Dodge Caliber

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Dodge Takes a Chance With a Hatchback. The Caliber is Dodge‘s new compact car entry, going on sale as we write these words. Taking the place of the Neon in Dodge showrooms, the Caliber is offered as a five-door hatchback. Dodge is right on in adopting this new bodystyle; while not a trendsetter in choosing to offer only a five-door hatchback, Dodge is ahead of the curve. Hatchbacks and wagons aren’t poised to overtake sedans in volume, but there is growing demand for vehicles with flexible interiors and these usually take a hatchback silhouette.

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As a hatchback, the Caliber will not see volumes like the Neon (best year, 1996, nearly 140,000 Neons found homes; in 2005 about 113,300 were sold). But success today can be more accurately measured in per-unit profit than in pure volume, and Dodge may find a solid payoff for its risk.
AutoPacific and VehicleVoice correspondents were among the media who got a chance to explore the Caliber up close and take a first spin around the block. Here’s our report.


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