CAPE TOWN – Mazda’s stylish CX-3 sees the Hiroshima-based carmaker dipping its toe into the burgeoning compact-crossover market, but is there enough substance behind its styling to give it an edge in this fiercely competitive fold?
Given that most crossovers fill the aesthetic proviso of providing an aesthetic stopgap between hatchback and SUV, manufacturers often feel the need to give their in-betweeners a fairly noticeable dose of pseudo-macho cladding to mask the standard car’s frame.
But in the CX-3’s case, Mazda has gone the opposite way, relying more on the marque’s distinctive Kodo design language – with its shield-like grille and bodywork awash with challenging curves and cuts – and model-specific shell than the slightly elevated ride height and subtle lower-body cladding that is all but lost when combined with darker shades, to give its compact crossover a fairly distinctive character.
It’s a handsome car, no doubt, but it could prove a little too softly spoken for those seeking a bold alternative to Mazda’s hatchbacks, or a cheaper alternative to the CX-5.
The interior has been lifted almost wholesale from the Mazda2, and that’s not a bad thing at all. From the expanse of tiered, stitched-finished facia, broken only by a crisp infotainment screen and a pod-like binnacle within which all of the driver’s displays and ancillaries are grouped, it’s a well-built, sporty looking cabin with bags of character.
The CX-3’s Mazda2 underpinnings equate to a cabin that’s fairly spacious up front. The six-footer sit-behind-myself test revealed a rear passenger compartment with adequate kneeroom, although headroom is a bit limited.
Mazda’s claims that the CX-3 serves up 264 dm3 luggage space, which was enough to comfortably accommodate a pair of medium-sized hard cases and a couple of smaller soft bags.
Mazda’s cars have always possessed a bit of a sporting bent to their handling characteristics. And while hints of that sportiness does trickle through the CX-3’s dynamics, it’s neatly blended with the sort of urban driving wieldiness that suits a compact crossover.
The electrically assisted steering rack, although fingertip-light, possesses a pleasing responsiveness to its action that’s great for cut-and-thrust city driving. Press on, however, and that light action turns into a distinct vagueness that doesn’t tell you a great deal about what the nose is doing. Still, the handling is predictable enough, with decent front-end grip that defaults to manageable understeer when pressing through bends. The CX-3’s supple ride impressed over the variety of surfaces we encountered on our Western Cape launch route, soaking up ruts and bumps with little drama.
In a segment where small-displacement turbopetrols are the norm, the CX-3’s hefty naturally aspirated 2,0-litre petrol unit is something of an oddity. Its 115 kW and 204 N.m certainly bests the likes of equivalent Opel Mokka and Suzuki SX4 models, but combined as it is here with the six-speed automatic transmission, it’s something of a mixed bag.
In the traffic-clogged urban environs where the CX-3 will likely spend most of its time, the automatic proves a calf muscle-saving boon and it kicks down keenly when flooring it to grab a gap.
But as speeds increase or throttle inputs vary, the transmission often becomes flustered and shows a tendency to hang doggedly onto gears, sending the engine revs into the stratosphere, especially when the sports mode is engaged.
It’s a pity, as the motor itself feels strong and mechanically unburstable. I didn’t have the opportunity to sample a manual model at the launch, which is a real shame given that my experience with Mazda’s manual ‘boxes, with their crisp shifts and easily modulated clutch pedals, has always been a positive one and will suit the CX-3 to a tee.
In addition to the automatic transmission, which is unusual at this segment price point, the Individual model’s R325 900 price sticker nets you a lot of kit. Nice-to-haves include climate control, electric windows/mirrors, glass sunroof, seven-speaker Bose audio system, infotainment system with CD/USB/aux-in/Bluetooth and sat-nav, partial leather trim, LED headlamps, parking sensors with reverse camera, auto lights and wipers, head-up display and 18-inch alloy wheels.
The entire model range is covered by a service plan, warranty and roadside assistance, all of which span 3 years/unlimited km.
There’s lots to like about the CX-3 – sharp styling, good road manners and, in this Individual model’s case, impressive standard specification. But the automatic transmission is something of a double-edged sword, being unusual at this price point and handy in stop-go traffic but not gelling well with the engine in other driving scenarios. As is often the case, the best value probably lies with the 2,0 Dynamic manual model. Here, the features you’ll forego (leather upholstery, AC versus climate control, sat-nav, head-up display, sunroof, LED headlamps, 16-inch alloys vs. 18-inchers, Bose audio system and the like) are hardly deal breakers and it introduces a manual gearbox that’s probably better suited to the powerplant and sees the price dip below the R280 000 mark.
Engine:2,0-litre, four-cylinder, petrol
Power:115 kW at 6 000 r/min
Torque:204 N.m from 2 800 r/min
Top Speed:192 km/h
Fuel Consumption:6,1 L/100 km
Maintenance Plan:3 years/unlimited km (service plan)