Mazda CX-3 Prototype

Dinky SUV that’s more than just a pretty face

NATHAN PONCHARD

FIRST PREVIEW DRIVE

AS MAZDA’S SkyActiv engineering philosophy and Kodo design aesthetic keep charging forward, the hits from Hiroshima keep getting bigger. We’re talking figuratively, of course, because the latest two – the excellent Mazda 2 and now this CX-3 ‘crossover’ – show that small doesn’t need to mean less.

Tested here in pre-production form at Anglesea Proving Ground before launching in Australia in the second quarter, the CX-3 has much in common with the 2, including its 2570mm wheelbase.

It’s significantly larger overall – 215mm longer, 70mm wider, 55mm taller – but the only areas the CX-3 is roomier is for rear legroom and knee clearance, and cargo space (264 litres versus 250, enhanced by a dual-height floor and almost fold-flat capability).

Measurements don’t convey the whole story, though. The rear seat is mounted theatre-style, giving passengers a decent view forward, though rather less over its ‘fast’ hipline. Up front, seat comfort is good and forward vision is impressive thanks to fairly upright A-pillars. Unlike the CX-5, you never feel like you’re sitting too high in the CX-3.

Two engines will be offered here, a 109kW/192Nm 2.0-litre petrol four (shared with the Mazda 3) and a new-to-Australia 1.5-litre ‘SkyActiv-D’ turbo-diesel four producing 77kW at 4000rpm and 270Nm from 1600-2500rpm.

Both six-speed manual and auto transmissions will be offered.

Unusually, while the frontdriver shares its torsion-beam rear with the 2, the all-wheel-drive version gets a unique De Dion rear suspension that offers a degree of independence.

Our first laps at Anglesea were in the front-drive petrol auto. Wearing 215/60R16 Dunlop Enasave tyres, the mid-spec CX-3 felt sharp and responsive, with plenty of grip and a neutral balance tending towards understeer when pushed hard. But Mazda’s “linear motion” steering still lacks the off-centre immediacy we used to expect from its products.

More apparent was the engine’s vocalness. Foot to the floor, the auto petrol upshifts at 6600rpm, accompanied by plenty of induction noise, though at least it doesn’t sound unpleasant like a 1.8-litre Holden Trax.

Indeed, for much of the time, it’s the torquey 1.5 turbo-diesel that seems the quieter of the two, even though it lacks the petrol’s punch. Upshifting at 4700rpm, the baby diesel isn’t the fastest thing around, but then this is hardly a performance car. Mazda estimates a “high four” (L/100km) consumption average, and a “low six” for the petrol.

The AWD diesel is notable for two other things. Its grippy 215/50R18 Toyo Proxes R40 tyres produce considerably more coarse-chip tyre noise – still likely to be an issue with the CX-3 on Aussie roads – but its De Dion rear suspension and AWD system endow it with a sweeter chassis.

Feeling more poised on bitumen, with a seamless transference of drive to the rear wheels to keep understeer at bay, yet also neater on dirt with far less ESC intrusion, the CX-3 AWD might carve its own little dynamic niche. With the lighter petrol engine and superb six-speed ‘SkyActiv-MT’ manual, the CX-3 could offer a level of dynamism and driver appeal lacking in so many rivals.

What’s likely to send the CX-3 straight to the top of the small- SUV sales charts, though, is its rakish styling. In a class where so many SUVs are frustratingly mediocre, the sporty CX-3 is a breath of fresh air.

PLUS & MINUS

Refinement should be better; noisy petrol engine; rear-seat side vision Striking styling; taut and balanced chassis; AWD availability; cool factor

01 PRETTY CONTROLS

Dash and centre console are identical to the 2’s, which is no bad thing. Nor is the carryover tech, including collision mitigation, head-up display and MZD Connect colour screen with central controller on high-grade variants.

02 PERFECT VIEW

Mazda wanted to achieve a “sweet spot” in terms of the driver’s hip placement, and the CX-3’s position feels spot-on, being high enough to command the road, yet low enough to still feel sporty and car-like.

03 UNUSUAL RUMP

AWD CX-3 gets ‘De Dion’ rear suspension that offers a degree of independence – double-jointed driveshafts, plus longitudinal and lateral linkages supporting each coil spring – while still having a rigid connection between each rear wheel.

Subaru XV CVT $30,990

DEARER than CX-3, but also larger thanks to its Impreza roots, Subaru’s XV is the small SUV to beat in the sales race. Clearly, a small boot is no impediment to popularity. The XV has a roomy cabin and a decent chassis, but its engine lacks sparkle.

Holden Trax LTZ $28,490

CLOSEST in spirit to the CX-3 is Holden’s Barina-based Trax.

Riding on a 2555mm wheelbase – 30mm longer than Barina – the Trax excels in terms of packaging, particularly its fold-flat rear seat and generous 356-litre boot. But its ancient 1.8-litre engine lacks both refinement and efficiency.

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Number crunch

MAZDA wouldn’t tell us what its sales expectations are for CX-3, mainly because supply is likely to be an issue, but there’s potential for it to sell at least 700 per month.

Australia’s favourite small SUV, the Subaru XV, averaged 972 monthly sales to November, followed by the Nissan Dualis/Qashqai (885), Mitsubishi ASX (878) and Holden Trax (493).

While Mazda expects the CX-3 to cannibalise some sales from its 2 and 3 model lines, another 8000-odd sales per year should cement Mazda in second place on the Aussie sales charts, ahead of Holden and Hyundai.