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Buying & Leasing a Car

Sleek and Sporty SUVs

Performance crossovers are designed for buyers who want more pizazz in their daily drive.

Buyers of sport utility vehicles are finally getting the difference between truck-based SUVs and crossovers. In fact, partly because they don't guzzle quite as much fuel, crossovers will attract more buyers than traditional SUVs this year. But carmakers are never content to keep things simple, and a new niche is emerging: performance crossovers, designed for buyers who want a little more pizazz in their daily drive.

Here's a quick SUV review: Truck-based SUVs, such as the Chevy Tahoe and Ford Explorer, have bodies bolted to the frame and excel at hauling, towing and off-roading. Crossovers, such as the Lexus RX 330 and Honda Pilot, have carlike, unibody skeletons. They are lower to the ground and deliver a smoother and safer ride.

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Now take the crossover and add a sleek design, a sport-tuned suspension and a revved-up engine. That's the formula for Mazda's and Audi's latest models. Both straddle two popular segments: the crossover and the performance sedan. However, each appeals to different buyers, depending on how much room they need and how deep their pockets are. Whereas Mazda targets its five-passenger CX-7 to urban, 30- to 40-year-old couples with no kids (I'm not making this up), the Audi Q7 is the country-estate car for the 21st century that can seat up to seven passengers.

Mazda CX-7

Mazda calls the CX-7 an SUV with "the soul of a sports car," or "zoom-zoom with room." The body, at least, supports the claim. It has a forward-leaning stance with a steeply raked windshield. Eighteen-inch wheels complete the athletic look. The front-wheel-drive crossover starts at $24,310 and seats five. (A seven-seater, the CX-9, arrives early next year.) The top trim level, the Grand Touring model, starts at $26,860 and comes standard with heated leather seats and automatic climate control. Navigation is available as part of the $4,005 technology package, which also includes a power moonroof and Bose audio system. All-wheel-drive adds $1,700 to each trim level.

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The interior is attractive and the dash intuitive. A lockable center console can hold a laptop. Cargo room with the second-row seats up is 30 cubic feet -- typical for crossovers.

The engine, borrowed from the MazdaSpeed6, is a peppy 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 244 horsepower. Thanks to a new turbo design, there's virtually no lag in acceleration. Fuel economy is 19 miles per gallon city and 24 highway for the front-wheel-drive model and 18/24 for the all-wheel-drive version.

The stiff chassis, relatively low center of gravity and nicely weighted steering do a good job of keeping the CX-7 under control around curves. But don't mistake it for a sports car. When I got too frisky, the vehicle remembered it was a nearly two-ton SUV, started to skid and engaged the electronic stability control. Speaking of safety, Mazda makes anti-lock brakes, electronic brake distribution and six airbags -- plus stability control -- standard equipment.

Audi Q7

Audi is late to the SUV party, and you'd think the timing couldn't be worse. After all, the Q7 gets 14 mpg in the city (19 on the highway) and is arriving in showrooms as gasoline hovers near $3 a gallon. But Audi executives don't seem overly concerned. Part of the thinking is that anyone who can afford an SUV that starts at $50,620 for the V8 model can also afford $75 fill-ups. (A V6 version, probably starting just above $40,000 and with slightly better fuel economy, is coming this fall.)

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Audi, famous for its finely honed designs and high-quality interiors, didn't skimp on the Q7. Its exterior lines are more traditional than the Mazda's, but the Q7 shares a rear-sloping roofline and high side panels to create a muscular appearance. To complete the powerful look, 18-inch wheels are standard, but you can pay extra for 19- or 20-inchers. Leather is standard, along with wood inlays and aluminum trim. You have to deal with Audi's overly complicated MMI (Multi Media Interface) to control the electronics, but in other areas Audi makes smart use of technology. Its "side assist" (part of a $2,400 package) warns you when another vehicle is in your blind spot, and its adaptive cruise control ($2,100) keeps a constant following distance even in stop-and-go traffic.

Five seats come standard. To get seven seats, you have to upgrade to the Premium model ($60,620), which also includes a navigation system and rearview camera with a parking-assist program. Cargo space behind the second-row seats is 42 cubic feet.

The 4.2-liter V8 delivers 350 horsepower. All-wheel drive is standard and helps keep handling secure, but it's designed for more than the occasional snowfall: The Q7 is a capable off-roader, with optional adjustable ride height ($2,600) that can lift the vehicle to negotiate back-country obstacles.

Safety is state of the art, as you'd expect from a German luxurymobile. Six airbags and electronic stability control are standard.

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Mazda and Audi aren't the only carmakers introducing new SUVs this year. A number of redesigns are in the works, and Acura has a new small SUV, called the RDX, on the way. Jeep is getting set to sell its small Patriot.

Perhaps Americans are addicted to their SUVs. But you have to wonder how bad the hangover will be if gas prices keep soaring.