Mazda has a small problem with its rakish, buttoned-down CX-7 crossover. With the 244hp, 2.3-liter turbocharged engine under the hood, the CX-7 delivers on the promise of its sporty styling and nicely tuned chassis. It's definitely one of the more entertaining crossovers to drive, but that fun comes at a price. With more than 3900 lb to haul around, the tightly wound turbo-four sucks gas like a six. The EPA mpg rating for the all-wheel drive CX-7s is an unremarkable 17/23 city/highway.
Opt for the front-wheel-drive version and you'll gain a couple of extra miles per gallon around town, and 3 more on the highway. But you lose some of the CX-7's chassis poise and all-weather capability. The naturally aspirated 161hp, 2.5-liter engine in the front-drive-only, entry-level CX-7i will get you a more respectable 20 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway, but at the expense of performance -- it's 2.3 seconds slower to 60 mph than the Grand Touring.
What to do?
The answer may lie in Europe, where Mazda last year launched a diesel-powered version of the CX-7 that delivers 31.3 mpg on the European combined cycle, suggesting a city EPA number in the high 20 mpg range, and something in the high 30 mpg range on the highway. Ah, but what about performance? Mazda claims the 170hp, 2.2-liter MZR-CD common-rail turbodiesel-powered CX-7 takes about 11.0 seconds to get to 60 mph. That's a second longer than the CX-7i, and 3.3 seconds longer than the Grand Touring. So it's far from offering the best of both worlds. On paper, anyway.
But after a brief drive of the CX-7 diesel in Switzerland a couple of weeks back, we're convinced a U.S.-spec CX-7 diesel has the potential to be one of those rare vehicles that is greater than the sum of its parts. It's not just the gas mileage. It's the torque. With 295 lb-ft on tap at just 2000 rpm, the MZR-CD delivers the sort of meaty launch feel American consumers love. While the 2.3-liter gas turbo, which has 258 lb-ft available at 2500 rpm, delivers a distinct pause-two-three sensation as it spools up from idle, the diesel delivers useable grunt the moment you squeeze the accelerator pedal. The diesel CX-7 feels more alert, yet paradoxically, more relaxed, an ideal combination for a crossover.
Ah, but what about that 11.0 second 0-60 mph time?
Here's the thing: If Mazda does decide to bring the CX-7 diesel to North America, it will be faster and even more fuel-efficient than the model we drove in Europe. Under the hood would be the forthcoming Sky-D series diesel engine, a 2.0-liter four with twin-stage turbocharging that will deliver more power and torque than the 2.2-liter MZR-CD, and a 20-percent improvement in fuel economy. And the engine will drive through an all-new six-speed automatic that Mazda says will feel like a dual clutch manual in terms of shift precision, and offer a 5-percent improvement in fuel economy compared with the current six-speed auto. With the Sky-D powertrain, a U.S.-spec CX-7 diesel has the potential to deliver Mazda's trademark sporty drive experience, and truly impressive gas mileage.
Sounds like a no-brainer. So what's stopping Mazda? Mazda research and development head Seita Kanai told reporters at the Tokyo Show last year the company has been testing diesel-powered vehicles on U.S. soil. Technology is not the issue, as even the current MZR-CD diesel is available with the AdBlue urea catalyst system diesels require to meet 50-state emissions standards. The biggest hurdle Mazda faces introducing diesel motors in the U.S., says Kanai, is customer perception of the technology. "As an engineer, ideally I would want to introduce diesels, but I am not sure if it makes a business case," Kanai told Automotive News last year. He says Mazda would need minimum annual sales of 10,000 diesel vehicles in the U.S. to turn a profit.
The CX-7 alone is unlikely to account for the 10,000 units of Sky-D powertrains Kanai believes Mazda needs to make diesel viable in the U.S. -- unless the company takes the bold step of making a diesel CX-7 the premium model in the range, replacing the 2.3-liter gas-engined model in the lineup. Mazda sold just over 20,000 CX-7s in the U.S. last year, and 60 percent of those were the entry-level 2.5i model.
That explains why Mazda USA is also reportedly looking at using the Sky-D in both the CX-9 and Mazda6. The Ford-derived 3.7-liter V-6 used in both vehicles is expensive and will require future investment to meet long-term fuel consumption and emissions targets. While the 3.7 is currently the sole engine available in the CX-9, total sales of the three-row crossover totaled just over 21,000 units last year. And although the V-6 is available in the Mazda6, it accounted for just 18 percent of the 35,000 cars sold last year. The thinking is the Sky-D could possibly replace the V-6 altogether, ensuring the diesel engine has the volume it needs to make a solid business case.
The good news, say Mazda USA insiders, is that German premium brands -- Audi, BMW, and Mercedes, along with Volkswagen -- seem to be doing the heavy lifting to change consumer perceptions about diesel in North America. About half of all Audi Q7 SUVs and A3 hatches now sold in the U.S. are diesels, for example. Diesels accounted for almost 4 percent of total Mercedes-Benz sales in the U.S. last year, 17 percent of BMW X5 sales, and about 20 percent of total VW sales. While diesel will never reach the market penetration of Europe for a whole bunch of reasons, there is clear evidence a growing band of American consumers are enthusiastically taking to the technology.
With Ford having reduced its stake in Mazda to just over 13 percent (and relying more on its European product development teams for small car technology for the North American market), Mazda is now less able to join Ford research and development programs. And it's simply not big enough or wealthy enough to develop by itself a broad portfolio of powertrain alternatives that meet future emissions and fuel economy targets in the medium term. So it has a tough decision to make. Linking Mazda to proven technology used by premium European automakers -- i.e., diesel -- instead of attempting to follow Toyota and Honda down the hybrid route seems like a smart move.
But is it the right bet? Would you by a four-cylinder diesel Mazda instead of a V-6?