MONTEREY, CA – Mazda North American Operations is counting on the addition of a lower-cost, normally aspirated 2.5L 4-cyl. to its ’10 CX-7 cross/utility vehicle to draw buyers away from the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V.

Previously, the CX-7’s base engine was a 244-hp 2.3L direct-injection spark ignition (DISI) turbocharged 4-cyl., which put its starting price in line with larger CUVs such as the Nissan Murano and Acura RDX, says Dan Calhoun, CX-7 marketing manager.

The 2.5L, shared with the Mazda6 midsize sedan and Mazda3 small car, produces 161 hp. Mazda still offers the 2.3L DISI as an option on the CX-7.

“We weren’t even getting on the shopping list with the smaller CUVs, because (consumers) perceived us as being a more upscale vehicle,” Calhoun tells Ward’s at a media event here. “This allows us to have a lower starting price point.”

The ’10 Mazda CX-7 stickers at $21,500, $2,350 less than the outgoing model.

Based on initial dealer orders, Calhoun expects some 55% of CX-7 buyers to opt for the base engine, although he argues the CUV still will attract a performance-oriented, albeit economically minded, customer.

Calhoun says typical CX-7 buyers are young professionals with a median age of 45 and a household income of about $80,000.

“It’s not a family people-mover like the Mazda5 and CX-9,” he says. “It’s a sports car for your friends and your luggage.”

With the new engine Mazda will draw “a few people that, from an income standpoint, it’s more attainable,” as well as some “more concerned about fuel economy,” Calhoun says.

The 2.5L stacks up well with the CR-V and RAV4 in efficiency, achieving a 20/28 mpg city/highway rating (12-8 L/100 km) vs. the CR-V’s 20/27 mpg (12-9 L/100 km) and the RAV4’s 21/27mpg (11-9 100 km).

With the ’10 CX-7 just arriving at dealerships, it remains unclear whether the addition of the 2.5L can help it compete with the CR-V and RAV4, both of which outsell the Mazda by a significant margin.

Through July, Mazda sold 9,800 CX-7s, a 46.5% decline vs. year-ago, according to Ward’s data. In the same time period, CR-V sales were off 19.7% to 98,068, while RAV4 sales were down 6.4% to 78,153.

Despite the volume discrepancies, MNAO CEO Jim O’Sullivan says the new mill represents a “huge opportunity to further expand our sales.”

The ’10 CX-7 also gets an upgraded interior, a new front fascia, rear bumper and optional 19-in. wheels, as well as noise, vibration and harshness improvements, which were accomplished without adding weight to the vehicle, says Stan Hortinela, product-development manager.

“We wanted good damping quality, so we made chassis improvements around the door frame, and added 31 more spot welds around the wheel housing,” he says. “(We also) increased the thickness of the sheetmetal around the rear wheel housing.”

bpope@wardsauto.com