Back in college I had a core group of friends and as you can imagine, we were all a bunch of gearheads. Not long ago, a non-car guy buddy asked us for advice on what small crossover/suv he should consider. Before I could even respond, a friend had already suggested the Mazda CX-3, and I agreed. Later that day, we hear back from our buddy. He ran out and bought a Ford Escape-a perfectly fine choice, but he hadn’t even considered the Mazda.
As a car company, Mazda is offering one of the best line ups out there, and the automotive media knows it, and isn’t shy about telling you. But, like our buddy, for the average new car buyer out there Mazda, through no fault of its own, seems to fly under the radar. As one of the smallest Japanese automakers out there, Mazda wisely made the choice that instead of trying to be an ‘all things to all people’ kind of company, they would focus on what they know how to do very well-build cars that are fun to drive.
The crossover has long since overtaken the suv as the preferred mode of transportation for families, and the notion of a subcompact crossover is the latest offshoot that is quickly growing in popularity. So, Mazda took the architecture of its tiny Mazda2 and the CX-3 was born. I’m a big fan of actually recognizing a car when its coming at me, and few manufacturers are as successful as this as Mazda. Their KODO design language is seen in every car they make, and the CX-3 is instantly recognizable as a Mazda. Sportiness is the theme here, with an aggressive grill, stern headlamps, upswept greenhouse and pronounced wheel arches. The CX-3 is absolutely modern, but I suspect it should age well. If the Nissan Juke’s looks are too polarizing for you, the CX-3 is much more reasonable yet not at all boring.
The CX-3’s interior carries over the exterior’s modern aesthetic. Interesting that the most visually striking aspect was the color palette of our test car. With parchment seats accented with deep red the color choices recall 1950’s American car. This vintage color combination in such a contemporary cabin adds up to a very appealing interior. The driver faces a large tach with a digital speedometer that is different but easy to get used to (lesser model CX-3s make do with a conventional speedo/tach). Other controls are simple and straightforward to use, with one glaring exception. If you like channel surfing on satellite radio as I do, the CX-3’s controls involve a multi-step process that is so maddening and distracting I set it to one channel and left it there. There’s no reason why changing a radio station needs to be a multi-step process.
For Mazda’s tiniest crossover, the CX-3 provides a very premium feel not just in design but in the quality of materials. Up front, the seats provide excellent comfort. Picking up a cousin at JFK airport straight off a flight from Hawaii into New York morning rush hour traffic headed up to the northeast corner of Connecticut, the CX-3 was roomy and quiet enough for my passenger to doze off. I repeat, up front. The rear seats are a little tight, especially if the people up front are on the tall side. Open the rear hatch, and you are immediately reminded that even though this is a crossover, it’s a subcompact. Rear cargo space is almost laughable. To make matters worse, go for the premium Bose audio system, and Mazda throws in a subwoofer back there that eats up even more room.
You quickly forget about that and learn to pack light once you get in and go. All CX-3s come with a 2.0L four rated at 146hp mated to a six-speed automatic. It should be noted that foreign markets have the option of a six-speed manual and a diesel engine. But for North America, the only choice to make is whether you want front or all-wheel drive. Driving the CX-3, it’s instantly apparent these are the same people who build the MX-5. Steering and handling are simply fantastic. At only 146hp you’re not going to win any stoplight grand prixs but there’s enough power on tap for any passing situation. The CX-3 is more fun and rewarding to drive than any crossover has a right to be. Although the ride is on the firm side it is never punishing or harsh. And with our all-wheel drive car’s EPA rating of 27/32MPG city/highway, top of the class fuel economy is a pleasant bonus.
The CX-3 is available in Sport, Touring or Grand Touring trim. Our test car was the top-spec Grand Touring, with standard equipment including leather and lux suede seats, heated front seats, push button start, blind spot monitoring, LED headlights, fog lights and tail lights, auto climate control, head up display, navigation, Bose audio, rearview camera, and power sunroof. Options on our car included remote start, the I-ActivSense Package (radar cruise control, smart brake support and rain sensing wipers). Including destination, our CX-3 had an MSRP of $29,790USD.
The CX-3, which is a new addition to the Mazda family, may not be the solution for the family car with tight rear seating and limited luggage space. If that’s your need, Mazda makes bigger vehicles for you. But in the fast growing subcompact crossover market, Mazda has quickly established themselves as the sporty alternative. If you can pack light, but crave what else makes crossovers popular-elevated driving position and available all-wheel drive but refuse to sacrifice driving fun, the CX-3 demands your attention.