After flinging Mazda Motor Corp.'s all-new CX-7 cross/utility vehicle through snaky Virginia backroads, one journalist, comparing Mazda's CUV to conventional SUVs, is moved to say, “Wow, this thing really handles.”

“It should,” comes the response from another. “It's basically a car.”

This is what we've come to with CUVs: The most pertinent descriptor is how much SUV remains. After enduring a decade of SUVs and their thuddy ride, wallowy handling, ropey steering and boorish thirst, the market appears to be swinging hard away from trucklike underpinnings and road manners.

Yes, Mazda's all-new, 5-passenger CX-7 is a car. It doesn't ride particularly high, its suspension and all-wheel-drive system aren't gauged for boulder-hopping, and its razorish sheet metal is to parent Ford Motor Co.'s blunt Explorer SUV as Andy Warhol is to Normal Rockwell.

Mazda engineers, in adapting for the '07 CX-7 an amalgam of Mazda6, Mazda3 and even Mazda5 components, ultimately ended up on the same page that's made almost every recent Mazda product a handling leader. The new CX-7 corners with the best Whatever-UVs extant, including BMW's X3, Nissan's Murano and Infiniti's FX.

The MacPherson strut front suspension, nabbed from the Mazda6 architecture, seems particularly well-sorted for CUV duty, while the rear multi-link layout, adapted from the Mazda5 mini-minivan, is a little more nervous regarding its responsibilities. As with most of this entry-CUV breed, the 4-wheel disc brakes (ABS is standard) are adequate but not inspirational.

Go with haste into a corner, though, and the CX-7 doesn't plow like farmer John's pack mule: while there is understeer, the CX-7 is unexpectedly neutral, even at far-from-sensible speeds.

The CX-7's lithe chassis is complemented by its turbocharged, direct-injection 2.3L DOHC 4-cyl. and Aisin AW-sourced 6-speed automatic, both of which are standard for every CX-7. At 244 hp, CX-7 buyers get 30 hp less than is available from the same drivetrain in the Mazdaspeed6, and torque also is slightly pulled back from 280 lb.-ft. (380 Nm) to 258 lb.-ft. (350 Nm). But any doubt about the power output is erased on the road.

The CX-7 leaps from standstill with aplomb, and only in certain roll-on situations does the direct-injected 4-cyl. — a model of throttle response and consistent torque delivery — seem overmatched, until the turbocharger and 6-speed automatic agree on what needs to be done to move the weight most CUVs rely on a 6-cyl. powerplant to move.

One unavoidable compromise with just four pots under the hood, however, is CX-7's weasely 2,000-lb. (908-kg) towing capacity.

If the gearbox's surprisingly aggressive downshifts can be a trifle disconcerting, it's small penalty to pay for technology that borders on lavish when considering the class-exclusive 6-ratio box is standard even on the base front-wheel-drive CX-7 that starts at $23,750.

Most of the chassis and performance feel-good extends to the CX-7's cabin. We didn't get a look at the cloth seats for the base Sport trim, but the leather covers (standard for Touring and Grand Touring trims) are convincing and some color combinations feature a jaunty contrasting center stripe.

Better still is the instrument panel, replete with the bold, crimson-lit analog gauges we've come to like in Mazda's other models. The no-nonsense 3-spoke steering wheel is grippy and has just enough ancillary control buttons for the radio and such to be useful without getting in the way.

There's a higher-tech feel to the center stack, with a “floating” nacelle above the between-seat console that contains the radio/navigation screen and large rotary knobs that get the job done. The effect is of design consciousness without being fussy, and in truth appears quite similar to Nissan's Murano.

Inside, however, is where one kind of crossing over — between CUV segments, that is — hurts.

Because Mazda wants the entry-level model to vie for CR-V and RAV4 buyers, there's some obvious scrimping. Nothing egregious, but there's too much flat, hollowish (although decent-looking) plastic on display. The glovebox and headliner look and feel decidedly Eastern bloc, and there are few trick features. Finally, the rear seatbacks cannot be reclined, an irritation for aft occupants on longer voyages.

Targeting just 40,000 units annually, the CX-7 is a great-handling, smart-looking CUV with almost all the right stuff, including 18 mpg (13 L/100 km) city/24 mpg (9.8 L/100 km) highway fuel economy ratings that help make you feel less personally responsible for Big Oil's galactic profits.

Considering all the good mechanicals — the sparkling turbocharged 2.3L 4-cyl, 6-speed automatic, ABS and stability control — are standard, a FWD model at less than $24,000 is a steal. And a full-go CX-7, with AWD, navigation and leather, rings in at around $32,000 — thousands less than a Murano.

Later this year, Mazda launches the CX-9, a similarly styled, 7-passenger counterpart to CX-7 that gives Mazda a formidable one-two CUV punch.

The CX-9 will target the grocery-getter moms, but with the edgy and athletic CX-7, Mazda demonstrates it's a company hitting on almost all cylinders, setting the performance mark in yet another hot segment.

’ 07 Mazda CX-7 Grand Touring AWD
Vehicle type Front-engine, all-wheel drive, 5-passenger 4-door cross/utility vehicle
Engine 2.3L (2,260 cc) DOHC I-4, aluminum block/aluminum head
Power (SAE net) 244 hp @ 5,000 rpm
Torque 258 lb.-ft. (350 Nm) @ 2,500 rpm
Compression ratio 9.5:1
Bore x stroke (mm) 87.5 x 94
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 108.3 ins. (275 cm)
Overall length 184 ins. (468 cm)
Overall width 73.7 (187 cm)
Overall height 64.8 ins. (165 cm)
Curb weight 3,929 lbs. (1,782 kg)
EPA fuel economy, city/highway (mpg) 18/24
Market competition Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Nissan Murano, Subaru B9 Tribeca, Toyota RAV4