A few little changes add up to major improvements for Mazda’s baby crossover.
Review and photos by Tom Sedens
When we first met Mazda’s little CX-3, we were smitten by its shape. But at times, the beauty was only skin deep. There were some shortcomings that started grating on us after a little stint behind the wheel. Mazda has refreshed the CX-3 for 2018, and although the changes aren’t visible for the most part, they are very welcome and make a big difference.
What hasn’t changed is the styling. My goodness, this is a great-looking little crossover. Technically, the vehicle is more or less a hatchback car with some extra ground clearance, but visually it will pass as a crossover. And that’s the case for much of the competition. I love this thing from any angle. The front end looks aggressive, the long hood, the impossibly short rear overhang – it all works. This is the entry level trim, so it gets wheel covers for its 16-inch steel wheels. Yes, the top GT trim looks better with its 18s and chrome trim but the vast majority of the good looks stay put through the entire trim line.
Once you’re inside, you’ll find that the materials are definitely entry-level – literally everything is hard plastic throughout the cabin, with the exception of small, upholstered elbow pads on the door panels. The 2018 CX-3 has a slightly redesigned steering wheel, which feels fantastic in hand. Behind it is some basic instrumentation – a large central speedometer, a trip computer on the right and an electronic tach on the left.
The fabric seats were very comfortable and nicely bolstered for spirited driving, but they are not heated. I really missed a centre armrest and that would be a bit taxing for me on a road trip. The 7-inch screen stuck in the centre of the dash works as a touchscreen and is also controlled by Mazda’s rotary joystick knob and some hard buttons, which they call the HMI Commander. Don’t let the NAV button fool you – it is navigation-ready but requires an optional SD-card purchase to work. The whole system works fine, although the interface is starting to feel a bit dated.
There’s a manual climate control system and a push-start ignition. This trim’s driver assistance technology is limited to Smart City Brake Support and a backup camera.
I found the CX-3’s rear seating to be one of the tightest I’ve tested in a 4-door vehicle. I am 5’10” and sitting behind my own front seating position, I found the two outboard seats in the back to be pretty cramped. I had enough head room, with a couple of inches to spare, but my knees were pressing into the back of the front seat. Other than the space, the two outboard seating positions are quite comfortable. The middle seating position is tight and straddles a tunnel on the floor. Not a fun place to be. This is definitely a no-frills vehicle, as there is nothing in the way of comfort or convenience for rear seat passengers. No air vents, no charging ports and no cupholders. I suppose if you were looking for something redeeming feature, it could be the storage bin at the back of the centre console that you could fight over with the front passengers.
The smaller the vehicle, the less storage you’ll find. And that’s the case with the CX-3. An angled, rubberized bin at the base of the centre stack – where you’ll also find a 12V and two USB plugs and an auxiliary input – is unfortunately too small to handle any current smartphone. It’s approximately the size of an iPhone 5, so you’re quite limited as to what you can actually drop into that space.
The 452L trunk is not huge but it has a nice high load floor and a significant amount of underfloor storage space thanks to the removable trunk floor. There is a hard parcel shelf on top which moves up and out of the way as you open the tail gate. Fold the rear seats down (they split 60/40) and you’re rewarded with a massive 1528L cargo space.
Under the Hood
This little front-wheel drive crossover is motivated by a 2L 4-cylinder (that puts out 146 HP at 6,000 RPM and 146 lb.ft of torque at a surprisingly low 2,800 RPM) which is mated to a 6-speed manual transmission.
It’s a relatively efficient little ride. Mazda rates it at 9.0/7.0 L/100 km city/hwy. We ended up with a pretty stellar average of 7.6 L/100 km during a week of heavy commuting in winter conditions, with no effort to drive efficiently.
One of the best selling points of the CX-3 is the driving experience. It is simply a fun, well-balanced vehicle. It has enough power in every situation, and thanks to nice linear torque curve, it pulls hard through the rev range and ends up feeling faster than it actually is when you push it hard. The CX-3 is a nice commuter with a smooth, responsive powertrain and a well-done clutch and easy-to-use shifter. But it’s also a blast to pick up the pace, run through the gears and throw it into some curves, which it handles with aplomb. I like that the shifter requires a bit of effort without feeling clunky. I did run into some issues on occasion trying to make the 2-3 shift smoothly. I found it to be grumpy in that particular transition and often had to back out of the shift and try again.
My biggest complaint in the previous generation CX-3 was the price you had to pay for the outstanding handling ability – and that was the rough and noisy ride. Mazda has done a great job addressing both – noise, vibration and harshness levels have been noticeably reduced and ride quality has improved significantly. That makes for a much more refined experience behind the wheel, and it makes a huge difference overall. The bonus is that the handling hasn’t been compromised at all and remains at the top of the class. Mazda now includes a new G Vectoring control system to aid in this department as well.
My review sample didn’t come with all-wheel drive, but to be honest and as is the case with most vehicles, it did a bang-up job in terms of traction with its winter tires. Sure, I’d prefer winter tires and all-wheel drive but if I had to choose one of them, I would always take the winter tires. The CX-3 performed admirably with them and I did not miss the all-wheel drive, even in our winter conditions.
The view out of the CX-3 is pretty good from most angles. Although when the rear headrests are up (which is necessary when someone in sitting in the back), rear visibility is seriously impacted.
WAF (Wife Approval Factor) was limited to onlooker commentary as she does not drive with manual transmissions. She likes the overall styling inside and out but found it was a pretty small vehicle overall – too small for her liking.
While this trim feels a bit basic at first, it ends up having virtually everything you need in a vehicle and comes in at a great value. Stepping up to the GS trim would take care of most everything customers would need as it adds alloy wheels, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, heated front seats and steering wheel and an automatic climate control – all for $2,700 more. The top GT trim is yet another $5,300 and adds some niceties that qualify more so as wants instead of needs. All-wheel drive is optional in all three trims but if you want to row your own gears, you’ll need to stick with the front-wheel drive base trim I reviewed.
Disclosure: Vehicle was provided by Mazda Canada.
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Pricing: 2018 Mazda CX-3
Base price (GX trim): $19,995
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $21,990