Mazda CX-3

Huge range offers real highs, and the odd low

NATHAN PONCHARD

SECOND AUSSIE DRIVE

PLEASE donít bag out the small SUV. After all, it doesnít matter how much we whinge about the compromises of becoming taller, heavier, and less good, people keep buying them by the container load. So if youíre going to have an SUV, may as well make it a small one. Other drivers might hate you less.

We covered the CX-3ís DNA extensively in February, but hereís a quick recap. Based on the Mazda 2 platform, the CX-3 is 215mm longer, offers slightly more rear leg- and knee-room, and a larger 264-litre boot. Its petrol engine Ė a 109kW/192Nm 2.0-litre Ė is the same as that used by the base Mazda 3, including six-speed manual and auto íboxes, though the CX-3ís 1.5-litre turbo-diesel four is a newcomer to Australia.

Available in either front-drive Maxx or AWD sTouring and Akari variants, solely with the six-speed auto, the 77kW/270Nm diesel wonít attract performance enthusiasts. But its 4.8L/100km fuel number puts it right at the top of the baby SUV class (5.1 for the AWD). The petrol is quite frugal too, spanning 6.1L/100km (FWD auto), 6.3L/100km (FWD manual) and 6.7L/100km (AWD auto).

Kicking off at $26,790 for the Maxx, the turbo-diesel CX-3 is a well-mannered little thing. You can tell itís a diesel at slow speeds but skipping along at three-figure velocities, youíd honestly never know. With plenty of torque Ė 270Nm from 1600-2500rpm Ė itís incredibly tractable and devours undulating terrain effortlessly, yet thereís something deceptive about its performance. Changing up well below the 5000rpm redline, it demonstrates the beauty of long legs, even though perceived acceleration is leisurely.

Itís the front-drive dieselís damping that raises an eyebrow or two. While the Maxxís ride on 215/60R16 Bridgestone Turanzas is quieter than expected, it feels underdamped at the front, as if the CX-3ís long nose and the dieselís 36kg weight gain over the petrol somehow expose a lack of damping resistance. It nods over undulations more than it should, and it lacks front-end point in corners.

Riding on 215/50R18 Toyo Proxes rubber, the front-drive CX-3 s-Touring petrol manual ($26,990) feels noticeably more dynamic. Its sportier tyres produce a little more noise, but they also introduce a keener feel, as if the petrol front-driver has a sportier suspension tune.

It doesnít, but the perception is definitely there.

What the FWD petrol on 18s shares with the diesel on 16s is a slight discrepancy in steering response. It feels a little disconnected with a quarterturn of lock on, and slightly viscous too, as if consistency in weighting and steering response havenít quite been finessed. The CX-3ís steering is certainly not as crisp and natural as it could be.

Besides more performance, the petrol does have one gamewinning ace up its sleeve Ė a manual íbox (see sidebar). Thing is, you canít get a manual CX-3 with all-wheel drive, and thatís a shame because the AWD version has easily the best chassis.

With meatier, more consistent steering, real chassis poise and an involving feel as the AWDís semiindependent de Dion back end drives the nose into bends, the CX-3 AWD disproves the notion that base is best.

So, despite moments of brilliance, only careful selection from the CX-3ís vast range will deliver a sweet spot. Its styling, driving position and seats are spot on, and the AWD version is excellent, yet thereís still some finessing to be done. Wonít stop it selling like crazy though.

01 NICE PRICE

CX-3ís pricing and equipment are A-grade. Cue the $22,390 Maxxís standard sat-nav, rear-view camera and parking sensors, 7.0-inch touchscreen, leather steering wheel, cruise control, telescopic steering, Bluetooth, the list goes on.

02 SWEET SEAT

In swish Akari guise, the CX-3 is a seriously luxe little tinker, complete with leather trim and just about every safety bleeper known to man. It transcends the class divide, and would look just as at home in Double Bay as it would in Doonside.

03 HELLO NEO

Most affordable CX-3 will be the entry-level Neo, available only as a front-drive petrol and starting at $19,990 for the sixspeed manual. Production wonít begin until April, however, so expect Mazdaís hubcapped price leader to land in May/June.

Do it yourself

MAZDAíS SkyActiv-MT six-speed manual Ė available only on the front-drive CX-3 petrol Ė is a bloody ripper, with fabulous precision and an oiled weightiness that makes it feel like itís come from a sports car (like, say, the new MX-5Ö).

Combine that with the 2.0-litre SkyActiv-Gís lively enthusiasm and the CX-3ís superb three-spoke leather steering wheel (on Maxx, s-Touring and Akari) and itís a baby SUV with rare panache.

OR TRY THESE...

Mitsubishi ASX XLS 4x4 Diesel $36,490

RANGE-topper from Mitsubishi is half a size bigger than CX-3, but itís smack-bang in Akariís price class, without offering any of the Mazdaís cabin class. Its 2.2-litre turbo-diesel four is much gruntier though, with 110kW/360Nm.

Skoda Yeti Outdoor 103TDI 4x4 $33,590

AGEING but still highly capable Yeti flagship has little of the CX-3ís sex appeal, but a whole lot of quirkiness going for it. A fun chassis, punchy 103kW/350Nm 2.0-litre TDI and unbeatable practicality boost its appeal.