2016 Mazda CX-3 – Driven

2016 mazda cx-3 – driven – DOC638290

There’s no doubt that subcompact enthusiasts were severely disappointed when Mazda announced that it had no immediate plans of bringing the next-gen 2016 Mazda2 to the U.S. Fortunately, there’s another viable option for passionate small-car fans that doesn’t involve stepping foot into a Scion dealership (where the new 2015 Mazda 2 sedan is sold as the 2016 Scion iA). Meet the 2016 Mazda CX-3. Based on the same platform as the Mazda2, the CX-3 will target younger buyers with an active lifestyle, with its taller ride height, added interior space and optional all-wheel drive.

Mazda’s answer to the growing number of subcompact crossovers, the CX-3 will be competing in a red-hot segment that Mazda believes is “set to explode” in coming years with some of these new mini-utes already on sale. For Mazda, the new CX-3 adds to a solid lineup of CUVs that now includes the aged-yet-proven mid-size CX-9 and the model that can easily be credited with helping to spark the brand’s recent renaissance, the compact CX-5.

With the 2016 CX-3 not expected to go on sale until mid-August, vehicles like the Jeep Renegade, Fiat 500X and Honda HR-V have a significant head start, but I recently had the chance to sample the new CUV along the exciting roads of Southern California to see how much “zoom-zoom” Mazda can inject into a size- and value-driven segment.

Exterior

Mazda CX-3 – Driven

Mazda CX-3 – Driven

Mazda CX-3 – Driven

Hands down, the 2016 Mazda CX-3 is the best execution of Mazda’s Kodo design language to date. Bigger than the Mazda2, taller than the 2014 Mazda3 and smaller than the 2016 Mazda CX-5, the proportions of this little crossover are almost perfect, with a bold design that is highlighted by crisp body creases, short overhangs and a sloped roofline.

The proportions of this little crossover are almost perfect with a bold design that is highlighted by crisp body creases, short overhangs and a sloped roofline.

Following Mazda’s recent design trends on models like the Mazda3, 2016 Mazda6 and CX-5, eyes are instantly drawn to the face of the CX-3 with its upright grille, canted lower running lights and angled headlights. A chrome surround that forms the lower edge of the grille also cuts into the headlights and leads into the LED daytime running lights. Adding to the sporty front-end design is a protruding lower chin spoiler that is actually the forward-most point of the CX-3, and gives the crossover an extremely aggressive profile.

Speaking of the profile, the intricate lines and creases will allow the 2016 Mazda CX-3 to stand out even when parked alongside some other style-driven competitors like the 2015 Nissan Juke, 2015 Jeep Renegade and 2015 Mini Countryman. If there were any one area to criticize the CX-3’s design, it’s in the plastic used around the wheel openings. An industry norm for any automaker transforming a hatchback into a crossover, the cladding ends up making the wheels look very small despite the fact that Mazda says the CX-3 Grand Touring (shown here) has the largest (18-inch) wheels in the segment.

One easy styling trick that does work well on the CX-3 is the blacked-out D-pillar that complements the wavy beltline to add a slimming effect to the rear end of the crossover. Narrow, horizontal taillights along with the spread dual exhaust outlets and lower reflectors add a sense of width to CX-3’s rump, and the whole look is finished off in what is arguably this crossover’s best color: Dynamic Blue. Not lost on me was the fact that this tester wore a classic blue California license plate (it’s actually why I chose this particular CX-3 to drive), which was the inspiration for the Mariner Blue hue used on the original NA Miata.

Interior

Mazda CX-3 – Driven

Mazda CX-3 – Driven

Mazda CX-3 – Driven

Matching like the exterior design, Mazda gave the 2016 CX-3 an interior that looks and feels better than most people would expect from a sub-$20,000, entry-level crossover. This starts with an attractive instrument panel that is surprisingly free of clutter, thanks to the 7-inch display mounted on top and all of the major controls located on the center console controller (Human Machine Interface, in Mazda speak). When at a stop, the screen can also be operated using the touch screen. Careful thought was even put into the HVAC vents, with three circular vents and a fourth that is hidden in plain sight just below the infotainment screen.

The lack of power seats will be instantly overlooked when GT buyers experience the segment-exclusive Active Driving Display.

Having spent my time with the top Grand Touring trim, the cabin was wrapped in two-tone leather with red accents throughout. Despite being the top model of the CX-3 lineup, the GT trim does not offer power seats or lumbar support, which might turn off some of the crossover’s target demographic who are looking for as much luxury and tech as possible.

But the lack of power seats will be instantly overlooked when GT buyers experience the segment-exclusive Active Driving Display. This automatically retracting (trust me, don’t try to move it manually) heads-up display unit is extremely helpful as it provides a quick and easy view of information such as vehicle speed, turn-by-turn directions and safety warnings for lane departure and forward collision alert. Adding even more tech, this tester was equipped with the new Mazda Mobile Start feature, and although I wasn’t able to fool around with it, the quirky duo of antennas was instantly obvious when sitting in the front passenger seat.

My biggest gripe about the CX-3’s cabin is the cheap-feeling center armrest, which was not only positioned too high to be comfortable but also felt as if it were about to break whenever I put any real weight on it – a common occurrence during the twisty drive route.

In terms of space, there is a good amount room to realistically fit four adults comfortably for a road trip; with the rear seats in place, there is actually less cargo capacity than the Mazda2 (10.1 cubic feet versus 13.3), but folding the seats flat opens up 42.3 cubic feet – considerably larger than its Fiat 500X rival.

Drivetrain

Mazda CX-3 – Driven

Under the hood, the U.S.-spec 2016 Mazda CX-3 makes do with a single powertrain configuration: Mazda’s 2.0-liter Skyactiv four-cylinder and a six-speed automatic transmission.

Although a manual transmission is offered in the CX-3 in other markets, Mazda representatives said that such an addition is being “considered” for the U.S., based on demand.

The direct-injected engine produces just 146 horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque, which feels completely adequate considering the CX-3’s svelte curb weight of just 2,809 (with front-wheel drive). Although a manual transmission is offered in the CX-3 in other markets, Mazda representatives said that such an addition is being “considered” for the U.S., based on demand.

For the best driving experience with the current setup, the Grand Touring adds steering wheel-mounted shift paddles, which actually increase the CX-3’s fun potential by acting as a true manual mode, holding upshifts as long as the driver chooses.

The front-drive CX-3 is rated at 29 mpg city and 35 mpg highway, which are the same figures of the smaller, less powerful previous-gen Mazda2.

Opting for Mazda’s new i-Activ all-wheel-drive system drops these figures to 27 city and 32 highway.

Driving Impression

Mazda CX-3 – Driven

Being behind the wheel of the 2016 Mazda CX-3 is instantly familiar to other sixth-gen Mazda products like the current 3, 6 and CX-5. Mazda has obviously perfected the art of combining an efficient, low-output engine with a well-balanced, lightweight body and chassis to create some of the most entertaining cars in the entry-level market, and this holds true for the new baby CUV. Let loose on curvy mountain roads just outside of L.A., the small size of the CX-3 and the excellent visibility afforded from the cockpit helped give this crossover an even sportier sense than you get from the bigger Mazdas.

Despite lacking a manual transmission, combining the CX-3’s Sport mode with manual shift abilities produces enough of an experience that most drivers won’t miss the third pedal.

According to Mazda’s spec sheets, the CX-3 and Mazda3 both have about the same amount of ground clearance (6.1 inches for the 3 and 6.2 inches for the CX-3 GT), so it isn’t too surprising that the CX-3 rides very like its hatchback counterpart. Cornering is downright grin-inducing, with an almost immediate turn-in and a low center of gravity that makes the car rotate around the driver’s seat. Add in the rigidity afforded by almost two-thirds (63 percent) of the body constructed from high-strength steel, and the CX-3 is an absolute blast to drive.

Despite lacking a manual transmission, combining the CX-3’s Sport mode with manual shift abilities produces enough of an experience that most drivers won’t miss the third pedal. The best part is this transmission uses true manual shifting that actually holds the gear until the driver upshifts – even if that means hitting the rev limiter. Of course, the high-revving mountain driving and the lack of any significant highway driving meant that I wasn’t able to get an indication of the CX-3’s real-world fuel economy, which may have been my only disappointment about this particular drive route.

Most of my time was behind the wheel of this front-drive CX-3, which performed flawlessly on some freshly washed out roads in California, but some additional seat time in a model equipped with i-Activ all-wheel drive (a $1,250 option available on all trim levels) showed the advantages of this option. Following the recent heavy rains, it was a common occurrence to enter a sharp corner only to find dirt, water and/or rocks covering the road. In these circumstances, the front-drive model would understeer briefly before traction control kicked on, but the AWD operation was far more seamless in that it just kept going on its intended line with no interruption. Even a quick input from the steering wheel to avoid an obstacle in the road didn’t upset the balance of the CX-3.

Prices

Mazda CX-3 – Driven

In base Sport trim (which wasn’t available for testing), the 2016 Mazda CX-3 is priced affordably starting at $19,960. This front-wheel drive CX-3 Grand Touring that I drove starts at $24,990, and it added the $1,920 i-Activsense safety package for an as-tested price of $27,990 including $880 for destination. The i-Activsense package features include adaptive cruise control with automatic braking, automatic high-beam headlights, rain sensing wipers and lane departure warning.

Competition

2015 Jeep Renegade

Jeep Renegade – Driven

When it comes to style and price, the Jeep Renegade might be the only subcompact crossover that goes head-to-head with the CX-3. The boxy shape of the Renegade evokes some memories of past Jeep models, and it works really well in such a small package. The 2015 Jeep Renegade stands out from the competition with two available engines, the lowest price in the segment ($17,995), an available trail-rated Trailhawk model and the removable roof panels.

2016 Honda HR-V

Honda HR-V

Simply being a Honda, the 2016 Honda HR-V has volume on its side. In its first two months on the market, Honda has averaged well over 7,000 units sold per month, which is a promising sign for the Fit-based crossover. As with the Renegade, Honda HR-V buyers have more than one option when it comes to drivertrain, as the Honda offers a manual gearbox and a continuously variable transmission. With the CVT, the Honda HR-V is able to match the CX-3’s 35-mpg highway rating, and its starting price of $19,115 makes it a great value on the showroom and at the pump.

Conclusion

Mazda CX-3 – Driven

Thanks to the Mazda3, MX-5 and CX-5, Mazda practically has a monopoly when it comes to fun-to-drive cars priced under $25,000, and the new CX-3 easily extends Mazda’s advantage in this regard. Stylish, affordably priced and incredibly amusing, the 2016 Mazda CX -3 should be a big hit in the burgeoning subcompact crossover segment, which Mazda expects will quadruple in volume over the next few years. Based on numbers provided by Mazda, the small CUV market accounted for about 119,000 sales in 2014, and it is projected to tally closer to 300,000 units in 2015. By 2017, Mazda says that the segment could account for almost 460,000 sales.

Throughout my time with the 2016 Mazda CX-3, I couldn’t help but question why someone would choose this mini-CUV over the bigger, roomier and more affordable Mazda3 five-door, which also happens to offer the added benefit of a manual transmission. Styling will definitely play a role, as the CX-3 is more expressive than the 3, as will the availability of all-wheel drive, but at the end of the day, it will be crossover buyers (who don’t cross-shop standard cars) looking for a sporty alternative in this market. And that is where the Mazda CX-3 will truly shine.

LOVE IT

  • Best Kodo design yet
  • Extremely fun to drive
  • Lots of available tech

LEAVE IT

  • No manual gearbox
  • Awful center armrest
  • More expensive than Mazda3

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