2016 Mazda CX 3 003 ・ Photo by Mazda
Like pizza, crossover SUVs come in all sizes and with a wide variety of toppings. Mazda’s fresh-from-the-oven CX-3 is on the personal-pizza side of the size spectrum, but the company didn’t scrimp on the goodies. That’s the trend these days — just because a car is small doesn’t mean it can’t be loaded with features.
I say “car” because the CX-3 is no more likely to engage in such traditional SUV activities as off-road rock-hopping or hauling muddy mountain bikes than Paris Hilton is apt to be America’s next Ninja Warrior. Yes, the CX-3 is available with front- or all-wheel drive and features oversize wheels and slightly elevated seating, but the small but tall five-door CX-3 is built off the subcompact Mazda2 four-door sedan platform. It’s just a few inches longer than a Mini Countryman and more than half a foot shorter nose to tail than a Mazda3 five-door hatchback. The CX-3’s fast, sloping windshield, coupe-like greenhouse and cozy cabin ensure that it will never be a beast of burden, ferrying sticky preschoolers to Chuck E. Cheese birthday parties or toting big-screen TVs home from the big-box store.
No, Mazda has a different buyer in mind for the CX-3. As with the coupe-ish small crossovers from BMW, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz, the CX-3 has a selfish side. The emphasis here clearly favors style — in the most dramatic application of Mazda’s new KODO design language yet — over utility. It has less passenger and cargo space than the Mazda3 hatchback and is the smallest entry of Mazda’s three-crossover lineup (along with the compact CX-5 and midsize seven-passenger CX-9), but what space it does have is nicely appointed. Let’s call it a personal crossover. The rear seats are for occasional adult use only. The CX-3’s interior is best described as Audi-like, with an abundance of soft-touch surfaces, rich textures, form-fitting seats, and an Audi MMI-like command wheel on the console and 7-inch infotainment display standing at attention atop the dash.
Even in base Sport trim, niceties abound: pushbutton start; backup camera; keyless entry; cruise control; a/c; two-tone cloth seats; tilt/telescope steering wheel; Bluetooth phone pairing and streaming; and power windows, mirrors and door locks. And the standard six-speaker audio system comes with voice, Aha, Pandora and Stitcher compatibility, and SMS text message audio playback and response.
Photo by Benjamin Hunting
Touring trim adds 16-inch alloy wheels; foglamps; leatherette and cloth seat trim; heated front seats and side mirrors; an overhead console; lighted visor vanity mirrors; leather-trimmed steering wheel, shifter and parking-brake handle; and contrasting red-trimmed door armrests and console knee pads. Useful technology such as blind-spot and rear cross-traffic monitoring is also part of the deal.
Grand Touring brings leather- and suede-covered sport seats; navigation; a power glass moonroof; Bose seven-speaker audio system with SiriusXM and HD radio; 18-inch alloy wheels; a cargo cover; interior accent stitching and LED running lamps; foglamps; taillamps; and self-leveling headlamps.
Photo by Benjamin Hunting
What separates the CX-3 from the growing subcompact crossover herd, however, is what happens when you slip behind the driver’s seat. It may spring from the humble Mazda2’s sedan bones, but the CX-3’s driving dynamics are a rare treat in this class. This is the Miata of small crossovers. Settle in behind the wheel, and every control is where you want it to be. Inputs are translated to the chassis with the ease and precision you’ve come to expect from the Hiroshima, Japan-based automaker. It handles, steers and stops with enthusiasm and confidence. The precise variable-effort steering adds more boost at low speeds and firms up on the highway, delivering useful feedback on the tire patches in corners and over rough pavement. Despite a low-cost torsion-beam rear axle from the Mazda2, chosen to conserve what little cargo space (just 12.4 cubic feet with the rear seat up) there is, the CX-3 corners with hot-hatch poise.
Under the hood lives a SkyActiv direct-injected 2.0-liter four cylinder. Punching out 146 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 146 lb.-ft. of torque at 2800, the engine’s forte is not vision-blurring thrust. While it doesn’t have a huge amount of power, the CX-3 is a relative featherweight at just under 3000 pounds, and its chassis is more than capable of handling what the engine can deliver. The 8 seconds or so it takes from rest to 60 mph is sufficient to out-drag most of the subcompact crossovers in the field, but the engine’s a bit coarse, especially at higher revs where it makes its peak power.
Gear-shuffling duties are handled by a 6-speed automatic, the only gearbox offered. The transmission offers a manual-shift mode and on the Grand Touring model comes with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. Punch the Sport mode button on the console, and the CX-3 thinks it’s a Porsche, rev-matching downshifts entering corners, holding lower gears on twisty roads, and keeping the engine in the fatter part of the power curve for sporty driving. Ease up on the loud pedal (or when you’re not busy clipping apexes in your, ahem, crossover suv), and the CX-3 manages some pretty impressive fuel-efficiency. While the little Mazda won’t shame a Prius, front-drive models sticker at an EPA-estimated 29 mpg city/35 mpg highway. That’s econobox territory. All-wheel drives aren’t too shabby either with an estimated 27 mpg city/32 mpg highway.
Photo by Mazda
Speaking of all-wheel drive, Mazda calls the CX-3’s iActiv system “predictive AWD,” meaning it monitors outside temperature as well as the anti-lock brake, stability and traction-control systems to predict where to send drive torque where it is most needed when whatever happens happens. Mazda says it’s 20-percent quicker responding to changing road and traction conditions than the system in the CX-5.
More technology is available on Grand Touring models in the optional iActivSense safety suite. Elements include adaptive radar cruise control, semi-autonomous smart brake support, lane departure warning, adaptive front lighting, rain-sensing wipers, and smart high-beam control systems.
Photo by Benjamin Hunting
That the new CX-3 is stylish and well-appointed are undeniable. The CX-3’s long-hood, bold shield grille, sharply creased flanks and pushed-out-to-the-corners stance represents the best mainstream-product execution of Mazda’s KODO design language yet. The CX-3 is a standout in a market segment that didn’t even exist a couple of years ago and numbers such entrants as the Nissan Juke (making its own amphibian design statement) and newcomers Honda HR-V, Buick Encore, Chevy Trax, FIAT 500X, and Jeep Renegade.
Make no mistake; the CX-3 is no great mover of people or cargo. Though rated as a five-seater, the generously contoured rear seats have but two butt pockets and are welcoming only to adults stretching less than six feet. And to accommodate anything larger than would easily fit in a sedan’s trunk, the rear seats must be folded down — thereby relegating the CX-3 to two-seat status. But all of that melts away when you put the diminutive Mazda in motion and enjoy the CX-3’s particularly savory slice of crossover pie.