Lifestyle Boating & Motoring SUVs: urbanised off-roaders
SUVs: urbanised off-roaders
Monday, 01 October 2007

Weekend warriors can now rejoice! The next generation of sports utility vehicles (SUVs) combine the performance of a sports coupe with the rugged capacity of an old school four-wheel drive. Although these new SUVs are born and bred for city streets, their potential allows for short but assured side-trips off the beaten track. With the support of Mazda WA and Barbagello Volvo, Cannington, our resident motorheads Drs Daryl Sosa and Peter Bradley took the new breed of SUVs out for a spin.


Volvo XC90

bradleypeterdrvolvoxc90.jpgReview by Dr Peter Bradley

The upgraded model Volvo XC90 sports utility I had the pleasure of test driving for a weekend was a 5-cylinder turbo diesel with seven seats, metallic "Magic Blue" paint, and an all-leather interior.

The SUV is big, with attractive styling, lots of storage space, and all the trimmings you would expect in this $70k plus price range. Potential buyers of the XC90 would be families with a few children, especially those who enjoying taking their kids away for weekenders. Indeed, this car can seat seven, although leg room in the rear is tight for adults but adequate for children.

A few excellent bonuses compensate for the lack of leg room in the rear. The XC90 has separate (two-tier) music access for the back that comes with a volume and source control so the kids can listen to their choice of music without having to suffer from mum and dad's ‘golden oldies' in the front. Good idea! The kids also have air conditioning ducts in the rear for an additional level of comfort on long journeys. The two rear seats are easily folded down to provide extra storage space when needed.

Before driving, it took me a while to work out the XC90 has a foot park brake with a release on the dash. This is a bit different but not hard to get used to. Engaging the ignition produced a typical diesel motor sound - but not obnoxious like the noise of a diesel truck. When revved higher, the engine noise became quite throaty - but not too loud - and was pleasant to my ear, not unlike that of performance petrol motors.

Driving the SUV was enjoyable, with plenty of torque from the 5-cylinder horizontally turbo diesel motor making acceleration enjoyable (and quick) and cruising a breeze. The motor is assisted by a 6-speed automatic gearbox that was so smooth that I would often not detect the gear changes. If you are feeling sportier, you can change to a manual mode, allowing you to flick up and down through the gears. This combination of motor and transmission gives plenty of torque and power with great economy.

The ride was gentle and comfortable but with a slight body roll when cornering, which is to be expected and was not of concern. The brakes were good with no fade or locking on too-hard stops.

The Volvo had some features not always found on even more expensive models. Sensible things such as side mirrors having curvatures to view blind spots and being retractable for car parks will be greatly appreciated by some. The seats were very comfortable and hugging, with an electric driver's seat. The leather trim was a nice touch, and although the plastic interior side panels were a bit flimsy, overall, the quality of the finish is better than average. There is a decent amount of storage, particularly the number of cup holders - but there is nowhere to tuck a bottle of wine safely in a doorwell.

The XC90 has great vision for driving with a large front window. Dials and dash controls were very good and simple enough. In my opinion, some cars are overdone in this department, which can sometimes prove overwhelming.

The Volvo XC90 is an enjoyable car to drive, and I would recommend it to those in the market for a luxury SUV. There are a few competitors out there but they would have to be outstanding to beat this one.


Volvo XC90 3.2 (base model)

Price: $69,950

Engine: 6-cylinder petrol (can upgrade to diesel)

Power: 175 kW

Torque: 320 Nm

Seats: 7 (2 fold down)

Weight: 2187 kg

Towing: 2250 kg



Mazda CX7

sosadaryldrmazdacx7.jpgReview by Dr Daryl Sosa

Mazda has really added some "zoom zoom" to the burgeoning SUV market with its recent release of the crossover vehicle, the Mazda CX7. The CX7 is a medium-sized SUV that combines contemporary good looks with a sporty, turbo-charged petrol motor and a 6-speed automatic transmission. The CX7's bold exterior, with heavily raked lines, arrow-shaped headlights, bulging rear and front guards, and pumped-up rump confirm its status as one of the Mazda X series' (sports range) phylogeny. Demographics would suggest that this vehicle is for childless couples but it will have broader appeal.

Last year, we tested the Mazda 6 MPS and I was very impressed with the engine and drive-train combination. The CX7 shares much of this DNA and has the same 2.3L DISI direct injection petrol turbo motor. In the CX7, the motor is slightly detuned having a different (Hitachi) turbo and has 175 kW and 350 Nm of torque. This is down 20 kW and 30Nm on the Mazda 6 MPS motor. The CX7's motor is mated to a 6-speed automatic, which is the only transmission available in Australia, although the automatic has a manual select mode. However, if there is enough interest in this vehicle, Mazda may release a 6-speed manual transmission with the 6 MPS's upgraded 190 kW motor.

On first impression, this vehicle resembles a grown up, contemporary version of the Subaru Forrester GT turbo. The Forrester turbo has always been a great medium-sized SUV and the CX7 looks ready to take over the reins in this category. The CX7 is a physically bigger car but weighs in at just over 1700 kg. Its 175kW motor is line-ball with the Nissan Murano, but it has greater torque and less weight, so it should perform better. It is also around $10,000 cheaper than the Murano.

Performance and primary safety of the CX7 are enhanced by the All Wheel Drive (AWD) active torque split, which can transfer up to 50% of the torque from the front to the rear wheels on demand. The system also has a manual traction control switch that can optimise traction in slippery or gravely conditions. The AWD system is supplemented by ABS and electronic brakeforce distribution, as well as emergency brake assist and dynamic stability control.

The CX7's acceleration is impressive for a vehicle of its proportions but it is hampered by significant turbo lag and some engine harshness under full acceleration. Unfortunately, the turbo lag hinders mid-corner acceleration and exit speed. It does 0-100 km/h in about 8.5 seconds, but consequently, it is very thirsty and drinks premium unleaded fuel. With some spirited suburban and country driving, the CX7 used around 13L/100 km, but with more relaxed driving, it would deliver between 11-12L/100 km. For a vehicle with this kind of performance, I think that is acceptable.

Steering inputs are very precise and it is a great vehicle for zapping through roundabouts and speed bumps. Out on the highway and country roads, the CX7 is an absolute pleasure to drive. It has reasonable low NVH and the engine purrs along at just over 2000 revs at 110 km/h. I found the automatic transmission performed adequately and smoothly, and attempting to override the system in manual mode did not really improve the outcome. 297 mm vented disc rotors are up to the task and the steering is very precise for a vehicle this size. Because of the bulging sports styling, the CX7 has reduced visibility when reversing and changing lanes, although this is better than the comparable Nissan Murano.

The CX7 has 18-inch alloy rims fitted with 235/60 profile tyres. This, combined with increased ride height, gives reasonable ground clearance for most moderate off-road duties - remembering this vehicle will not spend much time off-road. I did not test it, but I would expect the CX7 to handle a sandy beach with the tyre pressures lowered. Lacking a low-range 4WD, this vehicle won't see heavy 4WD use. The suspension is taut and the ride pretty firm but buyers will probably prefer this.

The CX7 tested was the premium model, which sells for $45,560 plus on-road costs, and is $6000 more than the entry level vehicle. For the extra money, you get leather interior, electric sunroof, colour-coded electric mirrors, and a BOSE 9-speaker premium sound system. The interior was capacious but the dash treatment was a little confusing and needs further design modifications where it meets the small corner windows beneath the A-pillars. The electric adjustable leather seats were very comfortable on a country run and the rear occupant seating was impressive.

As a consequence of the styling and legroom, the rear luggage space was somewhat compromised at 450L but is larger than what one would first think. The rear seats fold down with the aid of a remote latch in the rear luggage compartment, which is a useful feature. There is also a very large storage space under the centre console arm rest.

Overall, I was very impressed with the style, performance, and handling of this vehicle. The entry price is realistic and you get considerable bang for your buck. I would be prepared to foot the extra fuel bill for the excitement this vehicle delivers. It is a fitting successor to the great Forrester GT.

Mazda CX7 classic (base model)

Price: $39,910

Engine: 4-cylinder 2.3L (DISI) petrol turbo

Power: 175 kW

Torque: 350 Nm

Seats: 5

Weight: 1,754 kg

Towing: 1,600 kg