The concept of ‘utility’ is necessarily compromised when combined with ‘compact’; in the smallish confines of a smaller space utility is necessarily abbreviated while – hopefully – efficiency and that often-elusive fun-to-drive factor is enhanced. Of late there have been a host of new subcompact crossovers introduced by the major OEMs, all of them attempting to grab market share that was, just a few years ago, essentially the province of but one or two carmakers – Nissan (Juke) and Jeep (Compass/Patriot). And while all have their respective strengths, no one is doing it quite like Mazda’s CX-3, as it morphs ‘compact utility’ with ‘personal utility’. It is, in our POV, a PUV.
Crossovers, of course, are car-based SUVs; the CX-3’s basic platform is provided by the subcompact Mazda2. With a raised suspension supplying the driver and passengers with a higher hip point, in combination with a rakish greenhouse that gives the CX-3 a coupe-like profile, Mazda’s new KODO: Soul of Motion design ethos has rarely looked better. While still having a little more front end overhang than we’d like, from any angle the CX-3’s stance is athletic, and seems more ‘of a piece’ than the sheetmetal found on its 5-door sibling, the Mazda3 hatch. It doesn’t do ‘cute’ as well as Jeep’s Renegade, nor does it hint at retro like Fiat’s 500X or Mini’s Countryman, but it does provide a 21st-Century construct for the small SUV, and it does it remarkably well.
Inside, a dash layout inspired by the Mazda3 puts an analog speedo front and center, with a smallish tach to the left and other info to your right. Despite the manual provision of the CX-3’s 6-speed auto, we used it only briefly – and rarely glanced at the tach. The 7-inch center-mounted screen continues to look like a pop-up display despite its fixed position, and I continue to wish for a simpler way to change radio stations and/or bands. So we’ll say this one more time, Kiddos: iPads have their place, but it’s not atop an automotive dash. We wish automotive instrument panels were once again designed for the people actually using them, and not for the designers’ creative archive.
Beyond that, we certainly enjoyed the interior’s integrated look, comfortable seating (a leatherette/cloth combo) and reasonably spacious feel. This is a compact car, and that rakish roofline can’t help but add a measure of claustrophobia, but the environs aren’t as tunnel-like as you might think, and after a few minutes we weren’t giving it a thought. You should remember, however, that a ‘subcompact’ descriptive means you’ll get but 12 cubic feet of storage behind the rear seat, and only 44 cubic feet with that seat folded. This is significantly less than available from Mazda’s similarly priced CX-5 or a Honda CR-V. If yours is a young family think ‘3’, but if growing I’d suggest ‘5’. And if you’re in anyway connected to the NBA or NFL, don’t buy this Mazda…except, perhaps, for your much smaller mother.
In its choice of powertrain the Mazda team made a logical choice, although not an exciting one. To its credit, Mazda supplied the CX-3 with a full 2.0 liters of SkyActiv mill, connected to the aforementioned 6-speed auto. And while its displacement and torque exceed that of its Honda (HR-V) rival, and the combo is more responsive, I simply didn’t feel the love when applying the right pedal. Off the line there’s a bit of a groan, and nowhere in the rev band do you find the real pleasure – visceral or aural – you’re hoping to get from your zoom-zoom experience. Its performance certainly isn’t bad (whereas we thought the Honda’s was very bad – what you get when pairing an anemic four with an equally anemic CVT), but neither was it endearing. Every product planner in this segment should take a few minutes behind the wheel of Hyundai’s 1.6 liter turbo-powered Tucson; its product team devised a business case for a truly responsive powertrain, and so can Mazda.
Not incidentally, the use of Mazda’s SkyActiv technology provides an EPA estimate of 29 City/35 Highway/31 Combined. And those aren’t numbers to sneeze at if compared to small crossovers of just a few years ago, when averaging something in the low 20s was all you could expect.
Happily, much of any disappointment with the powertrain is forgiven when negotiating a curve. Mazda’s CX-3 again combines the prerequisite composure with a fun-to-drive factor that’s hard to quantify but very easy to like. The platform doesn’t seem as chuckable(?) as the Mazda3, but is more roadworthy than any of its direct competitors, save – and I’m biased here because I own one – Subaru’s Crosstrek.
Available in both front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, our test vehicle was the midlevel ‘Touring’ with FWD, along with a handful of optional extras. With a base price of just under $22K (plus destination), our CX-3 included (optional) Soul Red metallic exterior, mobile start, and $1400 of Premium package (power moonroof, tonneau cover and satellite radio). The bottom line was just over $25K, which we regard as a screaming deal when compared with a similarly-equipped Chevy Trax or Jeep’s too-cute Renegade.
If asked (at some point) for an opinion, I’d enjoy seeing all of these OEMs currently offering subcompact CUVs to up the fun factor; even those that aren’t necessarily slow feel slow. I’d couple Mazda’s available all-wheel drive with a Mazdaspeed turbo (or – at the very least – 2.5 liters of normally aspirated accelerant), give it rubber appropriate to both asphalt and gravel, and pretend every day is the next stage of the Monte Carlo Rally. Keep the frills to a necessary minimum and offer it for this side of $30K. The resulting package may or may not give you both ‘zooms’, but the drive should be utterly addictive.
As Mazda’s marketing team has recently begun to emphasize, Driving Matters. And here at txGarage, we’re thanking God someone remembers…