Mazda’s subcompact crossover, the CX-3, has been one I’d put on my shopping shortlist, almost since its inception. Its taut lines are (at least subjectively) impressive, without seeming overtly expressive. And its chassis is as agile and buttoned down as anything in the crossover realm this side of Porsche’s Macan. With a 2019 refresh announced at this year’s New York Auto show, boasting of mild tweaks and enhanced refinement, I was looking forward to getting behind the wheel, even if my greater curiosity was with what’s under the hood.
Occupying the entry rung on Mazda’s crossover ladder, Mazda’s CX-3 is the crossover utility with minimal ability to ‘crossover’ anything beyond the smoothest asphalt, while its compact interior dimensions minimize any vestige of ‘utility’. But given its architecture and platform, you’re not inclined to care. With a relatively short front overhang, steeply raked windshield and aggressively sculpted greenhouse, there’s nary a line out of place. And were it not for its elevated height, you could almost see this as one of those 4-door coupes; in fact, it does a more convincing impression of a coupe than BMW’s X4 or Mercedes’ sports derivative of the GLC. At any place and in any setting, the CX-3 has a ‘rightness’ to it lacking in so many crossovers, regardless of price point.
Inside, the subcompact interior – with 86 cubic feet of passenger volume and but 10 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second-row seat – does a credible job of creating a personal environment. There’s plenty of space for two, and a young family won’t be crowded, but if more than two are using the Mazda frequently, that family would be well served moving to Mazda’s CX-5. But within the context of a personal car, there are few better options at under $30K to make you feel more, uh, personal. The interior materials invariably impress, and this year the Grand Touring trim boasts an all-leather interior. Seats are supportive, and while we wish the infotainment was a tad more intuitive, it’s easier than most.
On the road, the CX-3 provides the best on-road dynamic you’ll find within its competitive segment, with well-connected steering and a reassuring brake pedal. At least, it’s the best until you hit the accelerator, at which point the CX-3’s 150 (or so) horsepower seem way under-equipped to propel the CX-3’s 3,000 pounds. The 2.0 liter normally aspirated four in its SkyActiv spec has its good points, but throttle response and aural satisfaction aren’t among them. In fact, it makes Subaru’s flat four sound – comparatively – like a Ferrari V8. And while the powerplant, driving through a 6-speed auto, is largely unchanged since the CX-3’s debut, there’s a lot more out there in this segment, including a turbocharged 1.6 liter four in both Kia’s Soul and Hyundai’s new Kona. We love the CX-3 as it goes down the road, but acceleration – or lack thereof – from 0-40 is gut-wrenching.
There is a cure, but I can’t imagine Mazda’s U.S. team taking it. According to reporting by Road & Track, Mazda’s MX-5 Miata is due to receive a bump of 26 horsepower for 2019, taking its normally aspirated 2.0 liter four from 155 horsepower to 181. That is a prodigious bump, and should provide Mazda’s Miata all the zip it needs to match its dynamic architecture. Installed in the CX-3, that same horsepower would compare favorably with the Hyundai Kona’s 175 horses, and would do so without the complication of turbocharging. To be sure, the CX-3 weighs 3,000 pounds, while the Miata is closer to 2,200, but that extra 30 horsepower is exactly what the CX-3 needs for the performance to match its visual and functional promise.
With that bump in horsepower, Mazda should add a performance-oriented all-wheel-drive system and a driver-centric cockpit. You’d then ‘feel alive’, per Mazda’s new mantra, while ‘zoom-zoom’ remains alive. To employ a hyphenate one more time, it’d be a win-win.