Boredom never became an issue when I drove the Mazda CX-3 recently. I can confidently say that it has a lot to do with it being more of an oversized hot hatch than a subcompact crossover. Mazda has long been the rebellious little brother in the Japanese automotive family portrait, and even something as simplistic as a subcompact crossover gets a laundry list of unprecedented upgrades to go with all that “zoom-zoom” attitude.
Almost all of the info that was being thrown my way during the morning’s seminar seemed to offer a fresh spin on a relatively bland segment, proving that there is a lot of ingenuity that goes into significantly under-sized SUVs. Okay, so the 2016 Mazda CX-3 is by no means a track star — its naturally aspirated 2.0-liter four cylinder puts out a respectable 146 horsepower and an equal amount of torque. Instead, it was the tech and handling on this car that won me over, as I greedily soaked it all in like a six-foot sponge, thirsty for petrol-powered practicality.
Utilizing a visual expression that Mazda refers to as “Kodo,” the CX-3 features an exterior that isn’t hard on the eyes, with an elongated nose, angular LED lights both in the front and rear, gaping grille, and rounded curves from nose to tail. It’s the kind of car that makes you wonder what it would look like lowered a few inches with some performance racing wheels, because — while the 18-inch alloys that come on the top-tier GT are not haggard, and ground clearance is still a necessity in this segment — there is a lot to be said for the custom Ford Edges and Explorer Sports that are heading to SEMA this year.
Sure, the misuse of unpainted plastics around the fender-wells is reminiscent of the Lexus NX200t F-Sport we reviewed back in the spring, and the matching front lip could use a coat of “Soul Red” paint as well, but outside of that, there is nothing aesthetically wrong with this vehicle. It’s neither too big nor too dinky, has a ride height that makes entering and exiting a breeze, and while it may not be the sort of car that macho men will drive to the local cruise-in, it certainly isn’t a powder-puff either. But let’s get back to what made this machine so interesting — because with the CX-3, it’s what is on the inside that counts.
Diving into the depths of Mazda’s intelligent interior, you find yourself in a calm cabin that may not be as quiet as the 2016 Optima SXL, but is quite close. This is very much a Mazda interior with all of the trimmings you find in other models making their way into this one. The CX-3 has this fighter jet-inspired gauge cluster, where both tachometer and digital speed readouts lay betwixt a pair of wing-like multi information displays.
The steering wheel is taut, well-laid-out, and leather bound; all of the switches and knobs are where you would expect to find them; the navi is seven inches in size; and all of the CX-3’s leather trim pieces are just as supple as the seats themselves. Don’t forget the retractable, flip-up active driving display, which offers turn-by-turn directions and vehicle speeds in order to keep your eyes pointed forward, all while making you feel more like a fighter pilot with each passing mile.
Driving dynamics are quite good for its class. It offers a ride that is more reminiscent of an adventure-hungry hatchback than a small SUV, and once Sport Mode is engaged, the remapped computer rewards you with tweaked shift points, snappier throttle responses, and rev-matching, which is something one typically does not see in a car of this stock.
Being a GT version, the paddle shifters in my little red wagon were thoroughly utilized, and tirelessly yielded snappy shifts, while making corners that much more fun to conquer with the standard 2.0-liter MX-5 motor. Speaking of corners, the CX-3 may not have the world’s most advanced suspension set-up, what with its MacPherson front end and torsion-based rear, but since Mazda has exclusively built it for this chassis, the car performs better than one might expect, with far less body roll than many of its competitors.
Bounding around corners with wild abandon, I recalled what had initially caught my interest during that morning’s press conference: Mazda has concocted a new spin on safety, and it all has to do with predictive algorithms and something called “i-ACTIVSENSE.” By relying on a series of sensors, the CX-3 is able to predetermine what driving needs will be required well before the thought ever crosses your mind.
Steering responses, outside temperatures, G-forces, throttle positions, braking habits, and windshield wiper usage are all funneled to the car’s computer in order for it to determine what sort of traction issues you may be up against, even when the car is at a complete stop. Couple that with an all-wheel drive setup that works flawlessly in winter, collision and lane departure warnings, rear view monitoring, some tight disc brakes, and a bevy of airbags, and you’ve got a subcompact crossover that delivers in spades for pennies on the dollar.
It may not have Apple CarPlay or Android Auto capabilities; power seats are unavailable regardless of trim level; there is an overabundance of fake carbon fiber in the cabin (which remains a tad cramped); and the center armrest sits above the cupholders, making beverage consumption a bit of a chore — but that’s all easily outweighed by the strong suits found in this machine. All of that unpainted exterior trim and interior oversights are a small price to pay for this quality of car. While having to move the armrest every time you want a drink may be a pain in the ass, reviews like these are supposed to let automakers know what doesn’t work.
So for those of you who are seriously considering a subcompact crossover, go out and test drive the Chevy Trax, Jeep Renegade, Honda HRV, and Mazda CX-3 back to back. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, and we’re curious as to which one suits you best. You will likely agree that the 2016 Mazda CX-3 is a four-out-of-five-star kind of subcompact crossover.
Mechanically, it works extremely well, it utilizes a six-speed automatic transmission instead of a CVT (thank god), it’s powerful and precise enough to be enjoyable, interior resources are ample, and with all of that all-wheel drive technology and safety, the $24,990 GT price point is an easy one to digest. With a few small tweaks this car could be outstanding, and if a turbocharged, sport version could get thrown in the mix, well, then we would really want to “zoom-zoom.”