WASHINGTON – After flinging Mazda Motor Corp.’s all-new CX-7 cross/utility vehicle through snaky Virginia back roads near here, one journalist, comparing Mazda’s CUV to more conventional SUVs, is moved to say, “Wow, this thing really handles.”

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

That’s what we’ve come to expect from CUVs: The most pertinent descriptor is how much SUV remains.

At first, it was merely enough to use the word “crossover.”

A CUV was an SUV-like vehicle – tall, higher ground clearance and seating position, a largish cargo hold accessed through a hatch – that wasn’t molded around the bulky underpinnings of a body-on-frame pickup truck, the foundation of the SUV invented by the U.S. domestic auto makers.

And while this insinuated most CUVs rode on car-based unibody platforms, early CUVs often deliberately retained the more truck-like attributes of true SUVs, namely higher ground clearance, blocky bodywork and other features that suggested off-road capabilities.

So with the deluge of new CUV nameplates, there has developed a distinct “spectrum” to what the term CUV really means.

European makers, for example, have tended toward the early expression of the breed, using unibody platforms but retaining rugged looks and genuine off-road potential. Think Volkswagen Touareg, Mercedes M-Class, BMW X5, Land Rover Freelander.

Japanese makers, who arguably created CUVs with the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, more logically analyzed how SUVs really are used, and consequently downplayed off-road capability in favor of lighter-weight, more nimble and less costly packages.

Now, customer preferences – and other market conditions such as ongoing high gasoline prices – are driving a second generation of CUVs that is all but eschewing any resemblance to the body-on-frame SUVs, which suddenly look like rolling museum artifacts.

After enduring a decade of SUVs and their thuddy ride, wallowy handling, ropey steering and boorish thirst, the market appears to be swinging hard in the other direction.

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.

An afternoon spent trying to trip up the CX-7 in tight and sometimes slippery corners proves Mazda engineers, in adapting 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 utility vehicles we’ve driven, including the BMW X3, Nissan Murano and Infiniti FX.

Actually, the CX-7 corners and handles better than a lot of cars. Those expecting typical “utility vehicle” roll will be delighted by the CX-7s aggressively flat posture in curves, while undulating pavement and even potholes find the CX-7 stubbornly resisting bob-and-weave body motions.

Best of all, go with haste into a corner and the CX-7 doesn’t plow like farmer John’s pack mule. While there is understeer, the CX-7 is alarmingly neutral, even at far-from-sensible speeds.

This is assisted by the sensible 8.1 ins. (20.6 cm) of ground clearance, which helps to keep the center of gravity low enough to generate handling.

For comparison, the Honda CR-V has the same ground clearance; the Subaru mushy B9 Tribeca rides 8.4 ins. (21.3 cm) off the pavement; and the uber-tight Murano glides just 7 ins. (17.8 cm) above the tarmac.

Even standard-bearer SUVs such as the Ford Explorer, at 8.2 ins. (20.7 cm) and the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, at 7.8 ins. (19.8 cm), have dropped to this level, demonstrating off-road prowess has been sublimated in the name of decent handling.

So comfortable were we with the CX-7’s chassis demeanor – including its direct and sublimely weighted steering – that toward the end of the day we’re practically, but not quite, sliding the CUV through corners like a sport sedan.

Such hooliganism is abetted by the turbocharged, direct-injection 2.3L DOHC 4-cyl. and 6-speed automatic, both of which are standard for every CX-7.

This drivetrain, along with the optional “active torque split” electromechanically clutched AWD system, is stolen straight from the recently released Mazdaspeed6 sport sedan and asserts itself well, if not perfectly, in this new application.

At 244 hp, CX-7 buyers get 30 hp less than is available in the Mazdaspeed6, and torque also is slightly pulled back – from 280 lb.-ft. (380 Nm) to 258 lb.-ft. (350 Nm).

However, the numbers were tailored to occur at lower engine speeds, an effect Mazda engineers insist was deliberate to impart the drivetrain with the lower-rpm responsiveness vital for a CUV.

Any doubt about the power output is erased on the road. The CX-7 leaps from standstill with aplomb. 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 do.

The 4-cyl. CX-7, in fact, has a meaty power-to-weight ratio that further supports its sporty intentions. A fully outfitted AWD CX-7 Grand Touring weighs 3,929 lbs (1,782 kg). This means each horsepower must move 16.1 lbs. (7.3 kg) of vehicle. The Murano, a prime CX-7 competitor and itself a pretty sporty CUV, has 16.3 lbs. (7.4 kg) per horsepower.

The B9 Tribeca has 16.6 lbs. (7.5 kg) and the CR-V, which Mazda also names as a competitor, sees each pony pull about 22.4 lbs. (10.2 kg). The new ’06 RAV4, with an optional 3.5L DOHC V-6, has emerged as the class power leader with a racy 13.7 lbs. (6.2 kg)/hp ratio.

One unavoidable compromise, with just four pots under the hood, is the CX-7s weak 2,000-lb. (908-kg) towing capacity. Competitors with V-6 options make a better case if towing is a prime requirement.

The 6-speed Aisin AW-sourced automatic delivers one ratio more than typical for the segment. And if the gearbox’s surprisingly aggressive downshifts can be a trifle disconcerting, it’s a small penalty to pay for technology that borders on lavish when considering the transmission 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. At the press preview here, 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. The seats are supportive without being intrusive.

Better still is the instrument panel, replete with the bold, red-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 center console containing the radio/navigation screen and large rotary knobs that get the job done. The effect is one of design consciousness without being fussy, and in truth appears quite similar to the Murano.

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

Because Mazda wants that entry-level, $23,750 model to vie for CR-V and RAV4 buyers, there’s some obvious scrimping. Nothing egregious, but there’s too much flat, brittle (although decent-looking) plastic on the door pulls and center console.

The headliner looks decidedly Eastern bloc, and there are few trick features. Finally, the rear seatbacks cannot be reclined, an irritation for rear occupants on longer voyages.

We figure Mazda missed the boat by a few minutes on this one.

Targeting just 40,000 units annually (which the styling and performance, alone, should easily account for), the real target, for looks, performance and cachet, is the still highly competitive and acutely developed Murano, which starts at $27,600. With $4,000 in hand, Mazda had a lot of room to jazz up the CX-7 and still undercut the Murano.

Each of the three trim levels can be had with the FWD or AWD layout, and Mazda planners smartly limited the options list. The most meaningful is the “technology package,” which brings a nice navigation system and other useful things, including a rear-view camera to aid reversing.

The CX-7 is a great-handling, good-looking CUV with almost all the right stuff. Considering all the good mechanicals – the sparkling turbocharged 2.3L 4-cyl, 6-speed automatic 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 7-passenger counterpart to CX-7 that gives Mazda a formidable one-two CUV punch.

The CX-9 will be the grocery getter, but with the CX-7, Mazda demonstrates it is a company hitting on almost all cylinders, setting the performance mark in yet another hot segment.

bvisnic@wardsauto.com