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In a great month, Toyota sells about 2,500 RAV4 compact crossover wagons. In its best year, Mazda sold about 4,000 CX-7 crossover wagons.

You see Mazda's problem. Mazda's entry in the second-fastest-growing segment of the new-vehicle market might be pretty, and pretty sporty, given the competition; however, it's not selling like the RAV and other segment leaders. The numbers: Toyota is on track to sell between 25,000-30,000 RAVs in Canada this year, while another rival, Honda, is poised to move more than 20,000 CR-Vs.

Mazda's problem with the CX-7 has been pricing, more than anything. When launched as a 2007 model, the least expensive CX-7 went for $31,995. Last year, that model, the GS with front-wheel drive, slipped to $30,295, but it was still a 244-horsepower turbocharged compact crossover that slurped down more premium fuel than many families wanted to buy. In fact, the CX-7 was positioned more as a premium compact crossover than a mainstream ride.

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Now, in the best traditions of the auto industry, Mazda is following that old formula that says "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

Since Toyota introduced a bargain-priced version of the front-drive RAV4 ($24,345), it's been flying off dealer lots. Heck, the RAV4 has been setting monthly sales records since January, 2008. So now Mazda has a starter version of the CX-7 for 2010 that lists for $27,995 and it has a 161-horsepower, naturally aspirated four-banger that gets solid fuel economy using regular gas. Toyota should be flattered.

Although Mazda director of communications Greg Young says it is not the RAV4 that Mazda actually benchmarks in making the CX-7. He won't say the RAV is a little pedestrian for Mazda, a company that prides itself on a lineup with "advanced emotional styling" and "exceptional dynamic performance." But it doesn't take a genius to read between the lines.

Mazda's CX-7 benchmark is the CR-V, a Honda. And Honda likes to position itself as an emotional and dynamic car maker just like Mazda. The CR-V is, by general consensus, a little racier than the RAV and the base, front-drive version comes in at $27,990, which is five dollars less than the starter CX-7. Honda, one supposes, should be flattered by Mazda's efforts, too.

Of the three, it's hard to argue with anyone who claims the CX-7 is the most aggressive, boldest-looking compact crossover wagon on the market - at least among the more affordable ones. It is. This wagon has an emotional design and the handling, braking and steering responses live up to the look.

The CX-7 also has earned "Good" safety ratings in front- and side-impact crash testing by the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). So it's good looking, safe and, even with the less-powerful four-banger, entertaining enough to drive.

But it wouldn't hurt Mazda to match or even exceed the parts that make up the sensible appeal of both the RAV and the CR-V. Both are IIHS Top Safety Picks (as is the more truck-like Mazda Tribute compact SUV), so they have a slight edge over the CX-7 there.

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On the quality side of things, the CR-V is the 2009 top pick among small SUVs in the Initial Quality Study from J.D. Power and Associates (tied with the Chrysler PT Cruiser, by the way) and is No. 2 in Power's long-term 2009 Vehicle Dependability Study (just behind the similar Honda Element).

Meanwhile, Consumer Reports rates the RAV4 its top small SUV and notes that the "four-cylinder version gets the best fuel economy of any automatic, non-hybrid SUV CR has tested." The Toyota and Honda brands as a whole also rank considerably higher than Mazda in all the reputable quality studies.

All in all, it's fair to say Mazda believes it's done enough to position the CX-7 to muscle in on the RAV and the CR-V, not to mention the many others that compete here in what has become the family station wagon segment of the new car market.

Toyotas and Hondas also typically retain resale values better than Mazdas. After four years, Canadian Black Book says the average Honda light truck retains 43.7 per cent of its original value; for Toyota, it's 41.6 per cent. Mazda light trucks are at 25.7 per cent.

If you plan to hold onto your new ride for 10 years, residual values do not matter much. But if you lease, residuals certainly can make a difference in your lease payment - or at least in how the leasing company structures it - as well as in the buyout figure.

All in all, it's fair to say Mazda believes it's done enough to position the CX-7 to muscle in on the RAV and the CR-V, not to mention the many others that compete here in what has become the family station wagon segment of the new car market. But this is a tough game.

Key rivals include the Subaru Forester, Volkswagen Tiguan, Nissan Rogue, Chevrolet Equinox, Jeep Liberty, Mitsubishi Outlander, Honda Element and even the slightly larger Hyundai Santa Fe. If you stretch down market a bit, there are also the likes of the Jeep Patriot/Compass siblings, the Hyundai Tucson and the Kia Sportage. More truck-like are rides such as the Tribute, the Ford Escape - on which the Tribute is based - and Suzuki's Grand Vitara.

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So buyers have no shortage of choices here. Good ones, too.

Take safety. The Forester, Santa Fe, Outlander, Tribute, Tiguan, Element, Equinox, Rogue and Escape are all Top Safety Picks by the IIHS. At resale, Mitsubishi's light trucks have the third-best residual value after four years (ahead of Toyota), with Hyundai and Subaru also very strong, and Nissan, Suzuki and Kia all above average.

Into this game, Mazda is launching the 2010 CX-7. Not surprisingly, the new pricing is not the whole story. Here, in what the industry calls a mid-cycle facelift, Mazda has also tweaked the styling and repackaged features throughout the lineup, taking particular care to equip the base model quite nicely.

So, while many might first assume the least expensive CX-7 is a stripper model with a limp engine, that's not the case at all. The 2.5-litre normally aspirated engine may be down by 83 horsepower (161 versus 244 for the 2.3-litre turbocharged four), yet the real-world performance is not such a downgrade as the numbers suggest.

Meanwhile, fuel economy is a notable plus. The 2.5-litre version with front-wheel drive is rated at 10.4 litres/100 kilometres for city driving and 7.2 for highway, compared with 12.7 city/9.1 highway for the all-wheel CX-7 with the turbo motor.

Moreover, the base CX-7 is well loaded with the full range of power features, a respectable stereo, a tire-pressure monitoring system, a trip computer and even a tilt/telescoping steering wheel. If you take the $2,995 luxury package, you get power-adjustable leather seats, a power sunroof, front seat heaters, climate control air conditioning and Bluetooth connectivity.

All this is what it takes to compete where the buyers are and where they have plenty of options. Mazda knows it and so do all the others chasing the segment-leading RAV4 and CR-V.

With that in mind, we take a closer look at a selection of the leading contenders.

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About the Author
Senior writer, Globe Drive

In 25 years of covering the auto industry, Jeremy Cato has won more than two-dozen awards, including three times being named automotive journalist of the year. Jeremy was born in Montreal and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. More

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