Given the favourable reception Mazda’s CX-5 compact crossover received, it was only a matter of time before the Hiroshima-based carmaker took a step into the cutthroat light-crossover fray. But, where its bigger brother dons more SUV-like garb, the new Mazda CX-3 takes an altogether more fine-spun approach to the usual crossover treatment, both aesthetically and dynamically. It’s a daring tack to take in a segment that favours a pseudo-tough air, so will it pay off?
Stylistically, Mazda’s approach to the light crossover is probably one of the most subtle we’ve ever seen. Admittedly, our test unit’s dark hue did a good job of concealing the light-crossover calling card that is black plastic cladding on the lower body and wheelarches, but with a modestly elevated ride height and little else hinting at the car’s pseudo-SUV bearing – not even some vestigial roof-rails to hint at toting surfboards and camping gear – there’s little to suggest that there’s a lifestyle thread running through the car’s persona.
Instead, the CX-3 relies more on the marque’s distinctive Kodo design philosophy, with its shield-like grille and bodywork awash with challenging cuts and curves, as well as a long-nosed, short-rumped profile to lend the car a distinctive air.
Much of the interior detailing has been lifted 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, to the pod-like binnacle within which most of the driver’s information displays and ancillaries are grouped, it’s a well-built, sporty looking cabin with plenty of character.
Even so, the CX-3’s Mazda2 underpinnings equate to an interior that, although fairly spacious up front, serves up only a modest amount of rear kneeroom, while that sharply tapering roofline means that the scalps of taller passengers seated aft brush the headlining.
But perhaps the most surprising aspect of the CX-3’s packaging is the paucity of packing space. We had to double-check our ISO-block boot and utility measurements when they yielded 184/776 dm3 – a result lower than that of the related Mazda2’s 200/816 dm3 – which doesn’t really chalk up well for a car expected to meet both urban work and out-of-town play provisos.
In much the same way as the CX-3’s packaging leans more towards the hatchback side of the light-crossover spectrum, its dynamic characteristics seem to have followed suit. The thread of sportiness that runs through most of Mazda’s offerings is evident, but in this latest model it’s neatly blended with the sort of urban-driving wieldiness that suits a light crossover.
Feedback from the electrically assisted steering rack is surprisingly good and its weighting manages to tread neatly between finger tip-light for urban manoeuvring and responsive and communicative when its driver seeks entertainment.
In fact, the nature of the CX-3’s good body control and front-end grip had a couple of the CAR team members surprised by how something marketed as a crossover could prove quite so sporty in its demeanour. The supple ride also impressed on the patchwork of surfaces we encountered during our time with the car. The suspension setup only betrayed its torsion beam-tailed underpinnings with some skitter over large pockmarks.
Although equipped with ABS, EBD and brake assist, the CX-3’s braking performance garnered an “good” rating during our 100-0 km/h tests.
The CX-3’s modest 160 mm ground clearance isn’t far removed from that of most equivalent hatches and should prove sufficient for the odd bit of dirt tracking, but it won’t tread quite as confidently off tar as some of its loftier rivals.
In a segment where small-displacement turbopetrols are largely the weapon of choice, the CX-3’s comparatively hefty 2,0-litre naturally aspirated unit is something of an oddity and, with its 115 kW and 204 N.m, is one of the more powerful units in its class.
It is, however, also a member of Mazda’s high-compression, direct-injection SkyActiv engine stable, some of which have drawn varied criticism from the CAR team.
The CX-3’s unit is something of a mixed bag. It delivers its best towards the middle of the rev range, proving a bit thin at the low end and becoming noisy and breathless at the top. That said, it makes good on Mazda’s promise of good fuel efficiency (returning 6,6 L/100 km on our mixed-use fuel route) and propelled the CX-3 from standstill to 100 km/h in a respectable 9,33 seconds. It also pairs well with the six-speed automatic transmission, albeit with a sportier bent than its application perhaps requires.
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, trickling smoothly through the ratios and downshifting responsively when flooring it to grab a gap.
But as speeds increase or throttle inputs vary, the transmission sometimes behaves as though it’s on edge, showing a tendency to kick down a little too keenly at the slightest flex of your pedal foot. It’s great for spirited driving, but it can become tiring after a while. Stick it in sport mode and the transmission hangs rabidly onto gears, sending the engine revs into the stratosphere.
Thankfully, the engine feels strong and mechanically unburstable.
Mazda’s never been one to skimp on kit and, in the case of this mid-range Dynamic model, the standard specification is good. Nice-to-haves include climate control, electric windows/mirrors, infotainment system with CD/USB/aux/Bluetooth, parking sensors, auto lights and wipers, head-up display, cruise control, keyless entry and start, and 16-inch alloy wheels.
The entire model range is covered by a service plan, warranty and roadside assistance, all of which span three years/unlimited km.
Depending on where your criteria lie, judgment of the CX-3 could fall either way.
Viewed as a sporty hatchback, it’s a great little car, being stylish, well built and possessed of enough grunt and dynamic poise to prove entertaining. One of the team even went as far as saying that if you ever wanted a Mazda2 with a 2,0-litre engine, you could just get a CX-3.
And that’s where a potential problem presents itself – the CX-3 isn’t as far removed from the Mazda2 upon which it’s based as some may have hoped.
For those seeking the full crossover experience, its relative lack of ride height, limited utility space and softly spoken styling treatment could potentially count against it.
But given the dictates of most folks in the market for such a car, the CX-3’s virtues will likely win over both urbanites and folks in the market for a mildly entertaining hatchback with an ever-so-slight crossover twist.