T W E N T Y C A R O F T H E Y E A R S I X T E E N C A R O F T H E Y E A R Stage TWO MAZD A has finally cracked it.
Every small SUV to date has in some way fallen short.
Some, like the Honda HR-V and Renault Captur, are nearly there. But only one is good enough to break through.
Welcome the engaging, involving, and interesting CX-3.
Using much of the same ‘SkyActiv’ drivetrain and chassis tech as 2014’s COTY finalist, the 2 supermini (see breakout), the Japanese-built crossover has managed the near-impossible – a striking, stylish shape without packaging compromise.
As the CX-3 shares the same 2570mm wheelbase as the 2, rear-seat space isn’t palatial. But smart thinking ensures comfortable seating for four adults (or three kids out back). Cargo capacity isn’t too bad, either, though the Honda HR-V obliterates the small-SUV field for packaging flexibility.
Moving forward, the funky dash is arguably Mazda’s best, with exceptional attention to design, layout, quality, and functionality. It’s all about ease, clarity, practicality, and minimal distraction, with a sporty flavour that permeates the entire vehicle.
And then there’s the value of the $19,990 base Neo manual. In one fell swoop, the best in class is also the cheapest. It’s no stripper special either, with strong 2.0-litre performance, a slick six-speed manual, five-star safety, a seamless idle-stop system, cruise, rear sensors, and Bluetooth. Find another $1030 and you’ll also score (low-speed) AEB, rear cross-traffic alert, and blind-spot monitoring. But it’s the $22,390 CX-3 Maxx, with standard sat-nav, MZD Connect multimedia, alloys and a leather steering wheel, that shines brightest for value.
Mazda is also showing the way by offering the luxury of choice. As well as the aforementioned manual, there’s all-wheel drive, and diesel, too – 17 variants in total. You can order colourful interior trim, 18-inch alloys, a sunroof, and head-up instrument display with sat-nav directions. Nothing in this class comes close. Bravo, Hiroshima.
Choosing AWD also nets you a free suspension upgrade – to a De Dion rear end, instead of the class-norm torsion beam. Which segues nicely with another CX-3 advantage – driving delectation.
Its chassis is built to please, whether you’re pottering around in the urban jungle, or tearing up Lang Lang. No matter what version, the electric rack-and-pinion steering offers a weight, response, and fluidity alien to most SUV alternatives. Stick with the standard 16-inch wheel/tyre package, and you’ll also enjoy commendable ride comfort.
Move to the AWD and there’s a tangible increase in grip and poise. Trust us, you can keep up with an MX-5 through twisty bits without coming a cropper.
So it’s a minor tragedy you can’t have an AWD CX-3 with Mazda’s brilliant manual ’box.
If all this sounds like a COTY shoe-in, it’s worth remembering that while the CX-3 outsmarts most SUVs for dynamics, issues do still exist.
Perhaps the most infuriating is the noise intrusion from the 2.0-litre petrol engine. Above 4000rpm it roars and vibrates, undermining refinement significantly. That wouldn’t be such an issue if there was loads of low-down torque to rely on, but there’s a low-rev tractability hole. And the engine’s NVH issues are inconsistent. Our frontdrive petrol Maxx manual was noticeably less vibey than the petrol sTouring AWD also at COTY.
Predictably, while the 77kW/270Nm 1.5-litre turbo-diesel is much quieter in operation, it too can be sluggish at take-off speeds. So while we’re glad Mazda offers engine choice, both have downsides.
At least they’re exceptionally economical.
Just as flummoxing is the CX-3’s busy ride quality on the larger of the two wheel packages. Choosing the 215/50R18 rubber is a recipe for a stiff-legged suspension tune that undoes some of the seating’s great work. Conversely, the Bridgestone Turanza 215/60R16s on base front-drivers are slip prone in the wet. Whichever tyres are fitted, broken surfaces can elicit some rack rattle and cushion vibration.
Finally, while we’re still on undulating or bumpy roads at speed, the nose tends to bob around. It varies according to front-drive or AWD, with the latter showing more consistency, but the lack of front damper phasing can be disconcerting.
In the end, it was inconsistent refinement and patchy ride issues that held the CX-3 back from progressing to COTY’s final round. That doesn’t diminish the boundaries it pushes compared to its rivals. By a clear margin, Mazda’s crossover is our favourite baby SUV.
Type 5-door wagon, 5 seats Boot capacity 264 litres Weight 1193 – 1368kg
Layout front engine (east-west), FWD/AWD Engines 1499cc 4cyl turbo-diesel (77kW/270Nm); 1998cc 4cyl (109kW/172Nm) Transmissions 6-speed manual; 6-speed automatic
Tyres 215/60R16 – 215/50R18 ADR81 fuel consumption 4.8 – 6.7L/100km CO2 emissions 125 – 151g/km Collision mitigation .
Crash rating 5-star (ANCAP) Prices $19,990 – $37,690
It’s not simply a case of ‘honey I blew up the 2’. Extensive work underneath the Kodo-styled skin transitions the SkyActiv-based citycar platform into the CX-3. Given the need for greater stiffness and SUV durability, a range of high- and ultra-high-tensile steel has been used without adding more weight. The monocoque chassis uses straightframe construction for rigidity, while CX-3’s front and rear suspension mounts directly to the underbody.
It’s a bit of Zoom Zoom for the SUV boom. t fr C m