First drive: 2016 Mazda CX-3 [Review]

First drive: 2016 Mazda CX-3 [Review]

It’s no secret that the compact SUV space is on fire. Buyers want CUVs, and manufacturers are lining up left and right to give them options to suit any lifestyle. Mazda flew us to Los Angeles to experience their version of the industry’s new volume darling. Does it deliver on the “Driving Matters” formula?

What is it?

As is frequently the case when it comes to this segment, this question borders on the existential. Whereas the class directly above the CX-3 is largely based on midsize sedans, it, like most other compact CUVs, is based on a global subcompact platform–in this case, the Mazda2’s architecture. The CX-3, then, is a dimensional ‘tweener.

You’ll find the most prominent evidence of these roots in its wheelbase (101.2“) and its rear suspension (a torsion bar, rather than the Mazda3’s larger, more sophisticated and heavier independent rear setup). As is typically the case in this segment, the CX-3 makes up in vertical space what it gives up in length. On paper, the CX-3’s interior room is lesser than that of a Mazda3 5-Door’s, but in the real world, it doesn’t feel that way.

The CX-3’s subcompact DNA is apparent in its powertrain too. There’s only one engine option–a 2.0L SkyActiv four-cylinder making 146 horsepower at 6,000 RPM and 146 lb-ft of torque at 2,800 RPM–and, in the U.S. at least, only one transmission. Buyers have their choice of front- or all-wheel-drive across all three trims (Sport, Touring and Grand Touring) but power gets to the wheels by way of a six-speed automatic no matter what.

One of Mazda’s primary goals for the CX-3 was best-in-class fuel economy. Front-wheel-drive models are good for 29 mpg in the city and 35 mpg highway; all-wheel-drive drops that to 27/32–edging out the Honda HR-V just slightly in FWD form and matching it with AWD.

What’s it up against?

The compact CUV segment seems to grow more crowded by the month. The CX-3’s competition includes the Chevrolet Trax, Jeep Renegade, Fiat 500X and Honda HR-V. All signs point to continued growth in this segment, and Mazda expects the CX-3 to become a core model for the brand right off the bat, adding yet more reliable volume to its current foundation of volume sellers (the Mazda3, Mazda6, CX-5 and CX-9).

What does it look like?

Mazda’s product planners insist that their goal was not to create a “small CX-5,” but brand DNA is brand DNA. Mazda’s signature headlight design flanks the corporate grille up front, giving the CX-3 that same “elephant without a trunk” face found on its big brother.

The CX-5’s contrast-colored fender outlines also carried over, and while they convey a rugged, off-road-ready look on the midsize CUV, they tend to make the CX-3 look more hunkered-down and aggressive. Rather than making the arches look bigger, they tend to flatter the wheels, both shrinking the CX-3’s external presence and giving it more of a wheels-at-the-corners look.

Mazda took the swept and aggressive styling one step further by blacking out the C-to-D pillar section, giving the CX-3 a look similar to that of Nissan’s new “floating roof” design on the Murano and Maxima. Here, it again makes what would otherwise be a very upright design look longer and lower. It may be gimmicky, but it works. The CX-3 is handsome, wearing its proportions about as well as could be asked of a car in this size and price class.

The CX-3’s list of exterior features isn’t extensive, but the base 16″ wheels can be upgraded to segment-topping 18″ alloys if customers are so inclined (16″ wheels are standard through the Touring trim; only GTs get the 18″ multi-spokes) and touches such as brightwork on the lower body cladding are also available at higher trims.

And the inside?

Mazda is no stranger to attractive exterior design (forget for a moment the Nagare era; in fact, Mazda would likely prefer that you did permanently) but impressive interiors are still new and interesting facets of Mazda’s product philosophy. Despite its lower-tier positioning within the lineup, Mazda didn’t skimp on the CX-3’s interior. In fact, in many ways, it may be one of the automaker’s most robust efforts.

One of the most significant visual centerpieces of an automotive interior is the seating surfaces, and Mazda hit a home-run here. Regardless of trim (cloth on Sport, leatherette on Touring and leatherette + leather on Grand Touring), the seats have a premium look and feel. The bolsters are supportive but unobtrusive. Most importantly, the seats are comfortable on long trips. Even the more attractive seats in some of Mazda’s older products lacked the support and comfort most people want on long hauls, but the CX-3’s front buckets kept us comfortable and left us feeling fresh after hours of Southern California cruising.

Mazda’s new, high-mounted, seven-inch touchscreen is featured prominently here as it is elsewhere in the lineup. It’s standard across all three trims, paving the way for one of Mazda’s “killer-app” features: any CX-3, regardless of trim or initial build options, can be upgraded with factory navigation at the dealer with the installation of a $400 module.

Mazda Connect (Mazda’s name for the infotainment suite) is also compatible with Aha, Pandora and Sticher straight out of the box. The CX-3 is also compatible with Mazda’s new Mobile Start app, allowing drivers to remotely manipulate many features (including the ignition, as the name suggests) from their smartphones, however a subscription to the service is required.

Other noteworthy standard features include a rear-view camera and keyless entry, with advanced (hands-free) keyless entry available on Touring and Grand Touring models. Mazda’s i-ActivSense safety suite is also available on Grand Touring models, bringing with it features such as lane departure warning and forward collision assist. Adaptive front lighting is also standard on the GT.

Does it go?

So is it a car, or a crossover? The seating position and powertrain options all point to the latter, but things get a bit murkier when you hit the open road.

The formula for nimble handling is not too complicated: pair a short wheelbase with a low curb weight and a reasonable level of roll stiffness and you have the fundamentals of a chassis that can turn corners. Mazda knows this, and they exploited that knowledge here to great effect.

How light is the CX-3? Very, for a CUV; reasonably, for a compact; not, for a subcompact. Context is king here. Comparing base models with automatic transmissions, the CX-3 is 500lbs lighter than the CX-5, 100lbs lighter than the Mazda3 and 400lbs heavier than the Scion iA. Why the iA? Simple, it’s a Mazda2 in a world where we don’t get the Mazda2.

So, does it go? Yes, it does, at least as well as can be expected from a ~145-horsepower car that weighs at least 2,800lbs. Mazda gave us a drive loop that took us up and down the Mulholland Highway outside Malibu more times than we could count, and coaxing the CX-3 through tight switchbacks proved easier and more rewarding than its numbers may suggest.

It’s no MX-5, mind you, but the CX-3 handled sharp transitions with aplomb, willingly shaking its rear end loose with throttle-lift even with the stability control system fully enabled. Rapid upward changes in elevation required a lot of time in second gear, lest the small engine be caught well outside its powerband on corner exits, which made for buzzy driving. On a faster road where the CX-3 could maintain a little more momentum (say, Angeles Crest), this would have been less pronounced.

We were also impressed by the CX-3’s i-Activ all-wheel-drive. Mazda claims it is “predictive,” and we had a hard time getting it to misbehave. It does not feature torque vectoring (a rarity in this segment outside of the Nissan Juke), but it synergized nicely with our driving style, allowing us to power out of tight corners enthusiastically after inducing rotation.

Leftlane’s bottom line

The CX-3 is an excellent compact CUV that is still quintessentially Mazda. It’s comfortable enough, quick enough and stylish enough to be right at home in any driveway (or on any curbside) where practicality and fun are appreciated in equal proportion.

2016 Mazda CX-3 Sport, $19,960; Destination, $880

2016 Mazda CX-3 Touring, $21,960; i-Active all-wheel drive, $1,250; Destination, $880 (As-tested price: $24,090)

2016 Mazda CX-3 Grand Touring, $24,990; i-Active all-wheel drive, $1,250; i-ACTIVSENSE safety package, $1,920; Destination, $880 (As-tested price: $26,010)

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd. Interior pictures courtesy of Mazda.

  • Aesthetics

    A-

  • Technology

    A-

  • Green

    A-

  • Drive

    A+

  • Value

    A

  • Score

    A-

First drive: 2016 Mazda CX-3 [Review] Reviewed by Byron Hurd on July 29 Mazda takes on the compact CUV segment. Rating: 4

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