By Rick Newman
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Mazda gets it. The Miata roadster is as much fun as any car at any price, the Mazda3 offers great performance for under 20 grand, and now the CX-7, a brand new offering, reveals that crossovers can be quite lively, as well as practical.

The formula is familiar by now: Like other trendy crossovers, such as the Toyota Rav4 and the Chevy Equinox, the CX-7 feels light and nimble like a midsize sedan but has a little extra height and cargo space like you'd find in an SUV. So you get lots of functionality without having to endure the heavy, bumpy attributes of more conventional utilities, the old-fashioned kind built on truck underpinnings. But the CX-7 goes a half-step further than many crossovers, with sporty handling and just-plain-fun drivability that more utilitarian competitors can't match. It's powered by a zesty 244-horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder engine, a smart choice that propels the CX-7 with verve, and decent gas mileage to boot. Big 18-inch tires provide a superstable highway feel and help the CX-7 remain surprisingly grippy on curves. I drove the CX-7 aggressively through some of my favorite local turns and found it to be a cheerful ride: The vehicle obeyed my stringent commands without tilting or buckling, and the high perch made it seem like even more of a kick. And inside, there's a surprising amount of space for what looks to be a tightly swept and compact design.

I could find a few things to gripe about. No manual transmission is available (hey, you can get one on the BMW X3, so why not the CX-7?), only a six-speed automatic. There could be more storage pockets. And while the cabin is comfortable, interior appointments are not Mazda's strong suit--other cars offer more frills in the same price range, the mid- to upper $20s. But Mazda has built a strong identity by tending to mechanicals first and creature comforts second, like a Volkswagen of the Orient. And the CX-7 is a consistent addition to the family. Consider the bar for crossovers to be raised.

Snapshot

 

mazda_cx7 Nits: Pricey premium fuel is required to baby that turbocharged engine.

G forces: The CX-7 isn't blisteringly fast, but the 244-horsepower, four-cylinder turbocharged engine puts out a stream of power that's plentiful and consistent, in all driving situations. I didn't notice any of the lag often associated with turbochargers. Nor the high-pitched whir that often comes with small engines tasked to work too hard. Handling is a hoot--the tighter the curve, the better.

Gizmology: I was a bit disappointed with the plasticky latch on the storage box and some other minor shortfalls. All radio and climate info is displayed on a cluttered LED screen that's barely an inch high, for instance. The radio controls are a bit confusing, as in other Mazdas. On the plus side, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls are standard, along with auto up/down power windows for the front seat.

Kidmarks: The back seat is a pleasant kid zone. Kids love the higher perch of SUVs and crossovers, yet the CX-7 is also easy to climb into. Cupholders in a convenient center armrest add to kids' comfort. And the sizable rear cargo space, plus 60-40 folding rear seat, helps with strollers and other bulky items.

Hot or not: Hot. The CX-7 is sleek and stylin'.

Pain at the pump: Moderate. Mileage ratings range from 18 mpg/city to 24 mpg/highway.

Crash course: Earns 10 stars out of 10 on both the government's frontal- and side-impact crash tests. Rollover resistance rating is 4 stars out of 5. Details: http://safercar.gov/NCAP/Cars/3843.html

Standard safety gear: Advanced front air bags, side-impact air bags, side-curtain air bags, antilock brakes, stability control, traction control

Price points: Base prices range from $24,310 to $26,860. Price as tested: $29,585. (Prices include delivery fees.)

More info:Mazdausa.com