I honestly can’t remember the last time we had this much fun pushing a subcompact utility vehicle (CUV) the way we did with the 2016 Mazda CX3 earlier this year.
Mazda wants to make a compact crossover that isn’t boringly earnest, and the 2018 CX-3 is the striking result. Taking on the Honda HR-V, Fiat’s 500X, and Jeep’s Renegade among the other smaller SUVs that have proliferated among city streets in recent years, the CX-3’s promise is that you needn’t sacrifice fun simply because an MX-5 Miata won’t fit all your friends or family. Turns out, they’re actually on to something, though it helps if you tick the right options.
So, the overhangs are short, and the wheels are big – up to 18-inches, the largest in the subcompact CUV segment – with meaty fenders to give the CX-3 a more purposeful stance. There are no common lines that run entirely front to rear, with soft surfaces instead translating into crisp edges and vice-versa.
The teardrop side glass is reminiscent of the Mazda 6, but here the D-pillars have been blacked out to give the impression of stretching the glasswork out to the very back of the car. It’s visual trickery but it works, and while the CX-3 might be shorter and taller than the Mazda 3, it hides its upright bulk in a way that no other small CUV quite manages.
Under the hood there’s a single engine for our market, Mazda’s SKYACTIV-G 2.0L good for 115kW of power at 6,000 rpm and 206Nm of torque at 2,800 rpm. That means no hybrid and no all-electric options, and while that might seem strange on the face of it, the company has a strong argument for sticking with petrol, at least for the time being.
Impressively, the CX-3 didn’t have to succumb to a CVT in order to reach astonishing fuel economy. Instead, every version of the car gets a SKYACTIV-Drive six speed Manual or Automatic, with paddle-shifters on the top-spec Individual Plus. It’s related to the gearbox in the Mazda3, but smaller and lighter, and even if you don’t have the paddles you still get a manual override mode with rev-matching.
Sport mode is also standard, holding lower gears and keeping the engine in its core torque range for the best response.
Then there’s the i-ACTIV AWD system. It’s based on the all-wheel drive in the CX-5, but 20-percent smaller. Mazda has also hooked it up to a handful of extra sensors – monitoring things like exterior temperature and the electric power steering; sensors that were already there, but previously independent – to give it a predictive ability of the road ahead.
So, if the road suddenly turns slippery, i-ACTIV AWD can tell immediately – from factors like wheel slip, a change in resistance from the steering, and even if the temperature suddenly drops – and shift power to the appropriate wheel.
Mazda has four models, kicking off with the CX-3 Active at R292 700 (plus destination). That gets you 16-inch steel wheels, daytime running lights, power mirrors and windows, Bluetooth, manual air conditioning, keyless entry and push-button start, tilt/telescopic wheel, and tire pressure monitors.
Step up to the upper model meanwhile, and you get alloy wheels and heated side mirrors, leatherette/cloth seats – heated for those in the front – and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter. Advanced keyless entry and both the blind-spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert systems also come as standard.
Another few thousands for the Tech Package to the car, with a moonroof, Bose 7-speaker audio system, and HD and satellite radio.
Frankly, a crossover shouldn’t handle this well. Oh, certainly, the segment’s whole gimmick has always been its combination of SUV-lite driving position and sportier attitude, but for the most part the actual cars have been worthy family-haulers but a long way from dynamic.
Mazda does not appear to have received that memo. We started our test period by quickly learning to trust the i-ACTIV system to get us around corners at rates that would leave other crossovers wallowing. The electric power steering is a little on the light side at center, but direct all the same and the feel gets meatier as you turn, while the paddle-shifters on the Grand Touring are within easy reach.
Given its power and torque, the CX-3 isn’t a speed demon on the straights. However, the fact that you can carry pace through the corners keeps the rate feeling rapid. There’s little body roll, the CX-3 shifting from side to side as we tackled aggressive mountain roads like it thinks it’s a 2016 MX-5 Miata.
In contrast, the FWD car isn’t dull, per se, but it feels a little more mainstream. You of course don’t get i-ACTIV’s prescience, and while the front-wheel-drive CX-3 is solid and predictable, it doesn’t urge you on to hustle though the bends.
Either way, inside the cabin is spacious in the front, though there’s a little compromise in the back and trunk for that Kodo design language. The rear bench – which splits and folds, though not in the same super-flexible way as the HR-V’s seats do – has space for three though it’d be cramped if they’re all larger than kids, and boot space is down compared to rivals.
The styling is more interesting than in the Honda, however, with nicely designed dials, easily-used HVAC controls, and a cohesiveness that other cars in the segment fall short on. Atop the dash is Mazda’s 7-inch infotainment screen, touch-sensitive when you’re parked but handing over control to the combo jog dial/joystick in the center console when you’re on the move.
Mazda does it in the name of safety, which is admirable, but the ergonomics are fouled a little by the long armrest which forces some mild contortions to work around it. That’s a shame, because the armrest actually delivers one of the CX-3’s niftier features, a smartphone nook built into the end to keep your handset at hand.
There’s also no sign of CarPlay or Android Auto – “we are looking into those technologies,” Mazda told us previously – and neither can you get power seats.
Judged soberly, there are more flexible compact SUVs out there. Honda’s HR-V remains our pick if a surfeit of options for toting people or cargo are your primary concern, but the CX-3 has it beat for driving appeal and eye-catching style both inside and out.
Factor in the affordable price and the bulging kit list, and you’ve got a perky little crossover that doesn’t feel pedestrian despite the higher driving position and nod to practicality. Personally, I’d pick the top of the range model. Those bells and whistles do come handy.