We keep telling you – you probably have your nose buried in the brochure of one as I type – but small SUVs are amongst the most important models for manufacturers right now. There seems to be a new one every month to add to your options list, and now Mazda‘s CX-3 has reached UK roads too.
It’s easy to see why they’re so popular. You get a slightly raised driving position and chunky looks without the many financial compromises normally associated with SUV ownership.
We’ve already driven the diesel version of the new CX-3 abroad, but now we’re driving the 118bhp and 148bhp petrol versions, too, and on our infamously challenging UK roads. This will undoubtedly be an even tougher test.
Naturally there’s a huge range of rivals currently on sale – everything from Citroën’s C4 Cactus to Renault’s Captur, Nissan’s Juke and Fiat’s 500X. Honda’s new HR-V will soon be on sale in the UK, too.
What’s the 2015 Mazda CX-3 like to drive?
There’s nothing entry-level about the 118bhp petrol. It pulls perfectly well in gear and doesn’t have to be worked hard to make swift progress. Even if you meet a particularly steep hill and have to push it beyond 4000rpm, it remains smooth and never too noisy in the cabin.
We also tried the more powerful 148bhp 2.0 petrol which comes with four-wheel drive as standard. The extra power and torque is welcome on demanding country roads, but realistically it never feels a huge step forward over the lesser version. We’d save the extra cash you’d spend buying and running it and put it towards funding the latter.
The diesel sends more vibration through the controls and is the more vocal at lower revs, but there is more low down pull to call upon, so you can be lazier with the six-speed manual gearbox. A very nice gearbox it is too, and fitted to all current models – changes in every direction are slick and precise.
That said, despite the diesel’s extra grunt low down, the lighter petrol is ultimately quicker in a sprint. That helps with handling, too, because with less weight over the front wheels, the petrol feels more eager to dart its nose into corners.
The steering on all CX-3s is a little vague off centre, but weights up quickly and consistently, and once settled into a bend all models grip well, with, at least on largely flat and camber-free corners, good lateral body control.
The problems begin when the road starts to get choppy. We tried CX-3s on 16- and 18in wheels, and, while the smaller alloy wheel takes some of the sting out of sharped-edge potholes, the CX-3’s vertical body bouncing can unsettle it mid-bend. It also becomes tiresome across country and on undulating motorways.
You start to notice quite a bit of road noise at motorway speeds, too, especially over coarse surfaces, but all the engines settle nicely and you never find too much wind noise intruding into the cabin.
What’s the 2015 Mazda CX-3 like inside?
The CX-3’s cabin is undeniably influenced by the 2 on which it’s based. The fascia is neatly styled and features a solid blend of well-textured but hard plastics on its top, and padded leather-effect material on the front, with lines of double stitching in all the right places.
The overall impression of quality is a clear step above anything a C4 Cactus or Captur can muster. Added to that the CX-3’s clear, easy-to-use 7in colour display is standard across the range, and one of the best systems in this class.
There’s plenty of room up front for a couple of adults, with decent shoulder room and head room, but the rear cabin can’t quite match the CX-3’s positioning above regular superminis, because six-footers will find the side and top of their head brushing against the ceiling and their knees against the front seat backs. As with the majority of its rivals, seating three adults side-by-side is a squeeze.
This trend extends to the boot; it’s a useful size, at 350 litres, and there’s an adjustable floor in the luggage bay that allows you to prioritise space or minimise the lip over which you have to load in heavier items. With the rear seats split 60/40 and folded, there’s a completely flat load bay too.
Just don’t expect the CX-3 to match the everyday capacity of traditional family cars such as a Ford Focus or VW Golf. Access to the boot is also quite narrow, while going for the top of the range Sport Nav model reduces space in order to accommodate the sound system’s subwoofer below the boot floor.
Standard equipment on SE trim includes 16in alloy wheels, air-con, electric front and rear windows electric mirrors, cruise control, Bluetooth, two USB ports and DAB radio. SE-L adds rear privacy glass, rear parking sensors and automatic headlights and wipers. Both these trims can have sat-nav added as an option to become ‘SE Nav’ and ‘SE-L Nav.’
Range-topping Sport Nav gets navigation as standard as well as further luxuries such as larger 18-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights and a reversing camera.
Should I buy one?
The CX-3 has a lot going for it. It’s well equipped, has strong engines and is good to drive. However, the fact that it doesn’t ride very well, and its rear cabin is cramped, counts against it.
The biggest problem, though, is price. Mazda claims to have pitched the CX-3’s pricing up against forthcoming premium small SUV competition from the likes of Audi, Seat and Skoda. The trouble is, the CX-3 doesn’t feel distinctly premium, and even mid-way up its range is priced alongside the likes of Nissan’s Qashqai and Skoda’s Yeti, both of which are far more spacious.
For example, the best selling CX-3 is predicted to be the 118bhp petrol, which starts at £17,595 in entry-level SE trim. The bigger, more practical, no less refined, cleaner and more frugal Suzuki Vitara range actually begins at £13,999 and tops out at only a little more than the CX-3 range starts – £17,999.
It’s a similar story with the Citroën C4 Cactus, the Renault Captur and Nissan’s Juke. All are far cheaper to buy, equally as well equipped and cheaper to run for private and company car buyers alike.
Admittedly none of them feels quite as plush inside or drives as neatly as the CX-3, but in a class determined by costs, that’s not likely to be a decider. The cheapest models may deserve another star, then, but the majority of the CX-3 range looks like poor value.
What Car? says…
Citroen C4 Cactus