If you were in the market for a subcompact crossover not long ago, your choices were limited. If a Buick Encore, Mini Countryman, Mitsubishi Outlander Sport or Nissan Juke didn’t strike your fancy, you were pretty well out of luck. Barely six months later, what was once a trickle of offerings has become a flood, including the Chevrolet Trax, Fiat 500X, Honda HR-V, Jeep Renegade, and the Mazda CX-3 seen here.
The so-called cute-ute genre may be a suddenly crowded segment (sales volume is projected to just about quadruple inside of four years), but there should be no ignoring this little Mazda. That’s because its smartly aggressive looks, premium interior, confident handling and excellent fuel economy add up to quite a value. (Click through my gallery below for tons more photos.)
We’ll start with this Japanese confection’s candy-coated shell. It’s handsome and toned in a way that recalls its larger CX-5 brethren, yet it doesn’t lift any design elements wholesale. Compared to segment-mates, the CX-3 has an unusually long hood and swept-back windscreen, pinched glass area and curvy sheet metal.
It just looks sportier and more athletic than rivals, and it manages to do so without looking cartoonishly pumped up for such a small vehicle. With its contrasting black fender overriders, it has a strong wheels-at-the-corner stance, particularly upper-level models that feature 18-inch wheels. Those aggressive proportions pay aesthetic dividends, but they also suggest that a priority has been given to aerodynamics and styling over interior space.
That impression carries over to the cabin, as well, which is both well designed and available with an unusual amount of safety and convenience technology for such a low-end segment. However, the interior is plainly less capacious and flexible than some others in its segment (particularly the plainspoken but versatile Honda). That’s not to say that the Mazda feels cramped — engineers have done a good job of scooping out the doors and presenting a horizontally themed dashboard design to emphasize visual width. But it follows that rear seat room and cargo area are less roomy than many competitors, and a chopped greenhouse means that it doesn’t feel quite as bright and airy inside.
Choosing a warmer interior color scheme helps mitigate the latter somewhat. Fortunately, Mazda offers a stunning light-colored interior on top-shelf Grand Touring models that looks both surprisingly upscale and technical, but even lesser models include upscale contrast stitching and deep red trim accents.
Regardless of trim level, there’s a standard 7-inch LCD display mounted atop the low-profile dashboard. With both touchscreen functionality and a multifunction knob between the seats, it’s quite a sophisticated control setup for a vehicle that starts at around $20,000. There are also a pair of secondary digital displays in the instrument cluster that sit astride a central analog gauge (speedometer in Sport and Touring models, tachometer with digital speed readout in GT trim) to relay information.
GT models even receive Mazda’s unique Active Driving Display, a head-up display that projects speed and navigation information on a translucent tab of angled plastic above the gauge pod. The latter does its job, but it is also dated graphically, appearing monochromatic like an old calculator. Mazda notes ADD is lighter, more economical and more compact than conventional HUD units, but it’s also not retractable and appears somewhat cheap and fragile.
Less controversial are the CX-3’s seats, which are firm yet comfortable, offering legitimate all-day support in the buyer’s choice of cloth, leatherette or leather, depending on trim. Combined with the tilt/telescope wheel, there’s a good range of adjustability and nearly everyone should find a comfortable driving position.
The CX-3 rides atop an all-new Skyactiv chassis not shared with anything else in Mazda’s lineup, though it does share quite a bit with the Mazda2 subcompact sedan and hatchback, (models not available in the US). It’s a stout little thing, made of 63-percent high-strength steel, 29 percent of which is ultra-high-strength steel.
The suspension that hangs beneath the chassis is quite ordinary — Macpherson strut up front, rear torsion beam in the back — but it’s been expertly tuned. Mazda has long enjoyed a hard-earned reputation for producing some of the most entertaining to drive cars in the business, and despite the CX-3’s basic underpinnings, it delivers.
In fact, at the vehicle’s introduction, Mazda took the unusual step of letting us loose on demanding canyon roads — legendary stretches of tarmac that spaghetti over and adjacent to Southern California’s spectacular coastal cliffs. With their dramatic elevation changes, frenetic left-right sequences, omnipresent threat of falling rocks and often indifferently maintained surfaces, these roads are the sort that automakers typically reserve for sports car launches, not first drives of modestly powered CUVs.
The CX-3 handled it all with genuine aplomb. Steering turn-in and feedback was keen, cornering was flat, and despite repeated hard use of the four-wheel disc brakes on downhill canyon jags, the brake pedal never went soggy.
Even the rear torsion beam suspension, a setup traditionally chosen for its space-saving properties and low cost over its dynamic abilities, performed admirably. It’d take some back-to-back testing to know for sure, but the CX-3 comes across as the best handling and most fun-to-drive vehicle in the segment, even compared Nissan’s more powerful Juke.
That power is furnished by a naturally aspirated 2-liter four-cylinder engine, tuned here to produce 146 horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque. This existing engine was slightly oversized for the chassis, so Mazda had to redesign its six-speed automatic gearbox to fit. (No manual gearbox is offered — Mazda would have to repackage it as well, and its modest sales projections meant it wasn’t worth the cost). We’ve enjoyed the 2-liter in the Mazda3 and MX-5 Miata previously, and it’s every bit as pleasant in this state of tune, with a free-revving character and good midrange torque that makes one forget its middling power figures.
The transmission is similarly game, just as happy to trundle from stoplight to stoplight seamlessly as it is to make quick, decisive shifts when more exuberant driving is called for. GT models feature paddle shifters, and all models receive a sport mode that adjusts the transmission shift schedule and throttle mapping for more aggressive driving. The sport setting even rev-matches on downshifts, just like some high-performance coupes.
Given the flawless California sunshine, there wasn’t an opportunity to fully test a model fitted with optional all-wheel drive in inclement weather. However, doing so should be interesting, in part because Mazda is talking up a new predictive algorithm that taps into the CX-3’s network of sensors to anticipate traction needs before the driver even turns a wheel. The program keeps tabs on things like steering angle, outside temperature, longitudinal g-forces and whether the front and rear windshield wipers are active to best guesstimate what the traction needs will be — even when accelerating from a standstill. This novel bit of programming, Mazda says, pays dividends on slippery streets, particularly on hills, where the system can preload the rear axle for smoother, drama-free starts.
Mazda’s Skyactiv vehicle development process places a premium on light weight and fuel efficiency, and the CX-3 bears this out. EPA fuel economy figures are listed at 29 miles per gallon city and 35 highway for front-wheel drive models, with all-wheel drive examples tallying 27 city and 32 highway, figures that put the CX-3 at the head of its class. Real-world everyday testing with recent Mazdas suggest this vehicle will have a better shot at meeting its government estimates than most vehicles do, too.
For an affordable small car, the CX-3 is surprisingly tech rich. For starters, all models receive a backup camera, power windows and locks and push-button start. Mazda Connect, the Japanese automaker’s proprietary infotainment system, is also standard. It includes the aforementioned 7-inch screen and multi-controller, enabling access to audio functions, Bluetooth telephony, vehicle settings, apps and so on. With Aha, Pandora and Stitcher as audio sources along with a single-slot CD player and a pair of USB inputs and Bluetooth audio, there’s a full slate of listening options, even in low-end models.
The optional navigation system features HD Radio-provided traffic updates (no need for a satellite radio subscription), and includes topographic information. Even if you don’t splurge for navigation when you purchase the vehicle new, Mazda Connect can be easily upgraded to include navi at the dealer for around $400 down the road, and remote start is also a dealer-installable feature.
Overall, Mazda Connect isn’t perfect (the system annoyingly locks driver and co-driver out of certain functions when on the move in the name of safety), but it’s just about as responsive, feature-rich and visually attractive an infotainment architecture as you’ll find at this price point. Its Achilles heel is that that neither Apple CarPlay or Android Auto integration is available yet.
That shortfall aside, Mazda’s tech focus extends to other areas of the CX-3 as well. This cute ute can be had with cornering LED headlamps with auto high-beam control, radar-based cruise control, rain-sensing wipers, and lane-departure warning, most of which are unusual features at this price point. A word about the lane-departure system — it relies solely on beeping or a simulated “rumble strip” noise pumped through the audio system’s speakers to warn of your transgressions. Haptic feedback through the wheel or seat would be less intrusive for the rest of the vehicle’s occupants yet more noticeable to the driver.
Pricewise, the 2016 Mazda CX-3 is right in the thick of things, with a starting MSRP of $19,960 for the well-equipped Sport, which can zoom all the way to $24,990 for the Grand Touring model. AWD adds a further $1,250 regardless of trim, and delivery adds a further $880 ($925 for Alaskans). Even with all boxes checked, an AWD GT should still check in under $30,000. UK CX-3 pricing starts at £18,255 on the road, and Australian pricing is not yet available.
The CX-3 may not be the roomiest of cute utes, but this Mazda hustles to the front of the burgeoning segment on the strength of its looks, dynamics, interior polish and technology.