Mazda’s baby crossover impresses me. But it needs to grow up a bit.
Review and photos by Tom Sedens
Click on any picture to see a larger version.
Pricing: 2016 Mazda CX-3
Base price (GT AWD trim): $28,995
Options: $1500 Technology package; $300 Soul Red Mica paint
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $32,790
Oh my word! Have you seen this thing? Did you take a close look?! It is just a fantastic design. The CX-3 is a great-looking little vehicle from any angle. The front end, the grille, the rear haunches, the bottom side sills (the way they flare out looks fantastic and the added chrome catches your eye even more) – it’s all good. Even the proportions are totally cool with that long hood and impossibly short rear overhang, and Mazda sure didn’t hesitate to sculpt those surfaces, making every facet of this little guy a delight to look at. A vehicle’s exterior is obviously a subjective thing, but I didn’t speak to a single person who came and looked at it that didn’t love it. Obviously they got the styling right. I’m sure there are people who won’t appreciate it, but it sounds like they are few and far between. It’s stylish, it’s modern, it’s aggressive, it’s cute, and it’s everything else in between.
By the way, it gets full LED lighting (all the way around) and the GT sits on swanky-looking 18-inch wheels with 215/50-sized tires.
It’s not a huge cabin, but I had a good amount of head room up front. I don’t expect world-class materials from an “entry-level” vehicle – although this loaded-up GT-trim review sample sure isn’t priced at the entry level. You’ll find hard plastics throughout, the exception being splashes of upholstered/padded material – some on the dash and some on the door panels. I found the styling inside to be modern, clean and spare and even the door panels are nice to look at. The heated seats, leather and suede trimmed and very nice to look at, are comfortable and very well bolstered too.
In front of the driver sits a basic set of gauges, which will look familiar if you’ve driven other current Mazdas. A simple heads-up display projects navigation instructions, lane departure warning alerts and your speed onto a tinted, curved piece of plastic that pivots up and out of the top of the instrument bin. I’ve heard that some people really hate this system, but I don’t have an issue with it. It’s effective and doesn’t bother me at all. A nice 7-inch screen floats above the dash – the rotary HMI commander is easy to use and the user interface is pretty straight-forward, although the touch-screen could be a little more responsive. The system includes navigation and I thought the BOSE sound system sounded great.
Below that is an automatic climate control which uses the classic three rotary dials layout and works very well. One complaint I have about the layout of the driver’s area is that the centre console’s sides flare out quite a bit as they sweep toward the front. I tend to rest my knee against the console when I drive and I found this layout lets the sides come out too far and it was quite intrusive.
There’s a little sunroof overhead and in this trim, a very respectable amount of driver assistance technology – a rear view camera, smart city brake support, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, lane departure warning and high beam control. Impressive! This trim has a push-start ignition as well.
Getting into the back, I found that the two outboard seats are reasonably comfortable, but nothing special. I had enough head room (I’m 5’10”) but leg room is definitely limited back there and I wouldn’t want to be taking a road trip in the CX-3 as a rear passenger. The floor has a tunnel in the centre, and the middle seating position is very restricted for an adult passenger. Even our kids felt cramped back there (width-wise) when it was all three of them. If you’re looking for creature comforts in the back, you won’t find them. There is nothing in terms of comfort or convenience (no air vents, no charging plugs, no armrest).
At the front of the centre console, you’ll find an open angled bin (along with connections for devices) – unfortunately it does not fit an iPhone 6 (or any other similarly-sized smartphone), so it’s a bit useless that way.
The trunk is small at 408 litres, however there is another level that is a few inches tall underneath the relatively high load floor – it makes for significant underfloor storage for smaller items. The rear seats split 60/40 but they do not fold completely flat. Fold them down though, and you suddenly have a large 1484 litres space to work with. I moved some very large items with the CX-3, and it’s quite a capable little hauler with the rear seats down. It includes a swing-up parcel shelf (which you can remove).
Under the Hood
Mazda’s 2.0-litre SKYACTIV 4-cylinder propels this little crossover. It comes up with 146 HP at 6000 RPM and 146 lb.ft of torque at 2800 RPM. The transmission is a 6-speed automatic and the GT is all-wheel drive – lower trims are front-wheel drive. Fuel economy is rated less impressively than I had anticipated – Mazda says it will use 8.8 L/100 km (27 US mpg) in the city and 7.3 L/100 km (32 US mpg) on the highway. We averaged 8.8 L/100 km (27 US mpg) during a week of mostly city driving with a couple of freeway sprints.
Here’s where the CX-3 gets it right. From the first drive, I loved what the CX-3 does on the road. It’s light weight and small size allows even the small Skyactiv engine to make itself known and the whole package feels pretty torquey off the line, especially in Sport mode. For everyday city driving, it’s perfect. Stay on the gas though, for things like passing someone on the freeway for example, and you’ll find the little engine start huffing and puffing as it tries to build the momentum. There’s quite a bit of engine noise above 2500 RPM, but I really enjoyed the 4-cylinder’s snarl.
I thought the transmission was quite smooth. Gears can be manually shifted with the gear selector or paddles and the shifts are quick enough to be satisfying, and you can bump up the aggressiveness of your driving by staying in a gear much longer this way.
The little Mazda’s suspension is quite firm, which lends itself to very sporty handling – the CX-3 can be thrown around more like a little sports car than a tall CUV. With that said, when it is pushed hard, it will start understeering mightily and that plowing takes things on the fun-scale down a notch – but it is a really fun vehicle to drive and it feels as though it is inviting you to play, which is not typical for this vehicle class. As you can imagine, the price for that handling ability is a noisy, rough ride – and it gets a bit tiring to be honest.
Visibility out of the CX-3 is very good and its compact size makes it very easy to park, however I found the turning circle to be less than impressive for the vehicle’s size.
A silly ommission to me is the lack of an armrest for either front passenger and Mazda’s newfound love of putting the volume control on the centre console still doesn’t work for me – I never got used to that over the course of a week.
When it comes to fit and finish, I did hear a chronic rattle from the right part of the dash – it showed up any time I went over a bump or notable expansion joint, which means I heard it a lot.
This sexy and playful vehicle is one that’s easy to fall in love with at first sight, and on first drive. The puppy-love stage doesn’t last forever though, so you need to make sure you can (and want to) live with the compromises that come with the small packaging (lack of space) and tight handling abilities (very firm ride).
WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) was somewhere in the middle. She too loved the styling and said it was one of the “hottest” cars we’ve had in the garage in a long time. But she noted it was too small for what she wants in a vehicle and she got irritated by the ride after a short time.
I enjoyed driving the CX-3 and couldn’t help but stare at it because it’s so pretty. But when it comes to my personal needs and wants on a daily, extended basis, I would choose the Honda HR-V.
Disclosure: Vehicle was provided by Mazda Canada.
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