Since its launch in 2009, the Skoda Yeti has made its way onto many a family’s driveway. It appeals because it’s spacious, practical, good to drive and easy to live with, and it’s a manageable size.
Many manufacturers have subsequently chimed in with similar offerings, in an effort to muscle in on this lucrative and rapidly expanding market. Latest to the fray is Mazda, with its all-new CX-3. The company has long had a reputation for making cars that are good to drive, but SUV buyers want more than that. So, the CX-3 will have to measure up on both running costs and practicality.
Our third contender is the new Suzuki Vitara. It’s spacious, has a petrol engine that’s surprisingly frugal in real-world driving, and in range-topping SZ5 trim it has stacks of standard kit. Despite all that, the Vitara is actually the cheapest of our trio to buy.
Mazda CX-3 120 Skyactiv-G SE-L
The newest and dearest car here. Should be great to drive but needs to be competitive elsewhere, too.
Skoda Yeti 1.2 TSI 110 SE
Has long been a popular choice, thanks to its rewarding driving experience and superb practicality.
Suzuki Vitara 1.6 SZ5 2WD
Reasonably priced and very well equipped. It’s also comparatively economical in real-world driving.
What are they like to drive?
The Mazda is by far the most nimble of the trio. Its steering is fast and its body doesn’t lean much in corners, allowing you to make quick and comfortable-feeling changes of direction. The front end is very grippy, too, so the CX-3 feels right at home darting across country, while light and precise steering make it easy around town.
The Yeti feels nearly as nimble, although its taller body makes it a little more wayward in the corners because it’s slightly more prone to roll. Still, it grips well, and has far heavier steering, which makes it feel more stable at higher speeds, even though there isn’t quite as much feedback. The other downside is that the Yeti’s steering can feel a touch too heavy at slower speeds, particularly when parking.
The Suzuki is the least capable of the three in corners. Its steering is overly light and the car’s initial responses quite sluggish, while its softer suspension causes it to lean the most. It just doesn’t feel as well tied down as the Yeti or Mazda, and so inspires the least confidence.
The trade-off is that the Vitara rides more smoothly than either the CX-3 or Yeti, which are firmer and tend to jostle you around more around town. The Yeti is the firmest in town, whereas the Mazda is the least settled on the motorway – you don’t just feel bumps through your backside, you feel them shuddering up through the steering wheel.
We’ve no issues with the way the Mazda accelerates, though. Its eager engine delivers a decent amount of low-down shove, even in higher gears, and it outpaces its rivals with ease. Both the Yeti and the Vitara have to be worked much harder.
The Vitara is the noisiest on the move, with pronounced wind noise from the front pillars and mirrors. The Mazda and Yeti are quieter at a steady cruise, although the CX-3’s engine is noisy when revved and the Yeti’s suspension can be heard on poorly surfaces roads.
What are they like inside?
Only the Suzuki and Skoda offer that high-set and upright driving position that many look for in a compact SUV. The Mazda is shorter and feels more like a traditional hatchback from behind the wheel. The view out isn’t as good as those in the Yeti and Vitara, which have larger windows.
The CX-3 has the most comfortable and supportive seats, and while those in the Yeti and Vitara’s are comfortable enough, they don’t have enough side support to hold you in place through corners. Many may also find it hard to find a decent seating position in the Yeti, because the height adjustment for both its steering wheel and driver’s seat is a little limited.
The Skoda is by far the most spacious, though, because of its tall, boxy shape. You can sit three adults abreast in its rear seat, which is a squeeze in the other two cars. The Yeti also has the biggest boot and the most flexible seating layout. The three seats in the back slide back and forth, recline, fold flat and can even be removed entirely.
The other two cars have fixed rear seats that fold down in a conventional 60:40 split when you need to carry larger items. The Vitara isn’t great for rear headroom, particularly in SZ5 trim, which includes a headroom-shrinking glass roof. However, it’s still roomier than the Mazda, which also has the smallest boot.
The Skoda has the plushest and most neatly designed cabin. It feels hard wearing and the materials used are of a good quality. The Mazda’s cabin is well laid out and interesting to look at but there are too many different materials and none is particularly tactile.
It’s the Suzuki that’s least impressive inside, with hard plastics everywhere. Fortunately it looks quite smart and the wheel and gearlever are pleasant enough to touch, preventing it feeling too much like a budget choice.
What will they cost?
The Yeti might not be the cheapest to buy, but it’ll cost the least to own over three years by around £700, mainly due to its slow depreciation.
If you’re not buying outright then you’ll find the Skoda even more enticing, because it has the lowest monthly PCP costs of the trio. Put down a deposit of £4000 and, based on 12,000 miles a year and a three-year contract, you’ll pay £195 a month for the Skoda. That’s £40 less than the Mazda and £64 less than the Suzuki.
It’s a shame that the Yeti’s real-world fuel economy doesn’t come close to its claimed figure, though. During our True MPG tests it returned only 39.8mpg, leaving it trailing the other cars by some distance. Fortunately, it’s cheaper than its rivals elsewhere to offset its poorer economy.
The cleaner, more economical Suzuki is the best choice for company car drivers. It has the lowest emissions of the three, placing it in a lower benefit-in-kind (BIK) tax band. You’ll pay £114 a month to run one, whereas the Skoda will set you back £123. The Mazda’s the most expensive of the trio, costing £138.
Additionally, the Suzuki has the most kit. It’s the only car here with satellite-navigation, and it also features luxuries including adaptive cruise control, LED headlights and a reversing camera. The Yeti and Mazda aren’t poorly equipped, by any stretch, however. They get most of the kit you’ll want, including dual-zone climate, cruise control and Bluetooth connectivity.
Buyers should expect few issues with any of the three cars. The companies here all performed very well in our most recent reliability survey. Out of 37 manufacturers, Suzuki was second, Mazda fourth and Skoda eighth.
The Yeti was also one of the most reliable cars covered in the latest ownership satisfaction survey. Euro NCAP has awarded its maximum five-star crash test rating to the Yeti and the Vitara, but the CX-3 has yet to be tested. The Mazda 2 on which it is based earned four stars, however, although the CX-3 features more safety kit.
Despite the fact it’s nearly six years old, it’s the Yeti that triumphs here. It’s neither as fast as its rivals nor as well equipped, but its practical nature and on-road manners more than compensate for its foibles elsewhere.
It’s also the cheapest of the three to own privately, the cheapest company car, and the most affordable each month for those buying on PCP finance. The Skoda is the most upmarket inside, too, with a conservative and sturdy interior built from high-quality materials.
Suzuki’s Vitara puts up a good fight, partly thanks to its more generous list of standard equipment, plus its impressive real-world fuel economy and its low purchase price. It might not steer as keenly as the Skoda and its interior is neither as plush nor as practical, but it’s the heavy depreciation and comparatively high monthly PCP costs that stop it from winning.
That leaves the Mazda in third. The way the new CX-3 looks will undoubtedly attract plenty of suitors, and there’s also lots to like about the way the CX-3 drives, too; it’s unquestionably the most capable and fun through corners and easily the nippiest in a straight line.
Sadly, it just isn’t practical enough nor cheap enough to buy or run, which makes it hard to justify. Mazda rightly points out that a large proportion of buyers in this class take out PCP finance, and that the CX-3’s monthly costs in this area are competitive. However, the Skoda’s are even more so, and the Mazda is the most expensive of the three for cash buyers.
Skoda Yeti 1.2 TSI 110 SE
For Big and practical cabin; fine road manners; cheapest to own
Against Choppy ride; so-so real-world economy; few tech treats
Verdict Feeling its age a little, but still one of our favourite small SUVs
Suzuki Vitara 1.6 SZ5 2WD
For Loads of kit; low price; eager engine; soft ride
Against Interior feels low-quality; lacklustre steering; heavy depreciation
Verdict Worth considering if value is your top priority
Mazda CX-3 120 Skyactiv-G SE-L
For Strong engine; tidy handling; infotainment system
Against Limited space; pokey boot; too expensive
Verdict Great to drive but costly and no more practical than a small hatchback