Hitting the subcompact crossover competition right in the breadbasket is a tough jab to execute, especially since the contenders encountered are upping their game across the board continuously. The crossover segment is a hot commodity right now, and with millions of Millennials moving into urban environments, the popularity of this inexpensive, tech-filled, utilitarian take on the lumbering SUV shows little sign of slowing down.
In true Mazda fashion, the Japanese automaker has approached the battlefield with an attack plan uniquely its own, and in certain ways, has already bested the competition. Boasting recognizable badging but with a slighter footprint than predicted, the 2016 CX-3 Touring Edition in all-wheel drive trim is a CUV that has consistently been winning critics over since its rollout last year.
It looks like a pretty evenly proportioned car on Mazda’s website, everyone from Car and Driver to U.S. News loves it, and it has both the affordability and driveability that buyers look for when shopping around. I actually had the chance to hop behind the wheel of a fully loaded Grand Touring Edition last fall, and while I did encounter some issues with the interior, it proved to be a fantastic little piece of engineering, winning me over in the end.
But popping out for a quick 30-minute spin will only give you a rough draft of what makes a vehicle a winner. In the case of the CX-3, we committed to a week-long investigation before writing it off as complete success on all fronts. So Mazda sent down a Touring version of the CX-3, and while it did not have the fighter pilot flip-up display and a few other safety features, it still had all-wheel drive and a bevy of amenities that made it head and shoulders above base.
What followed was a study that illuminated what makes Mazda great, and also where it misses its mark, because for as much as everyone else loves this little guy it still has some oversights that make it seem a tad dated or even incomplete. Nevertheless, there’s more about this car that works than what doesn’t, and in true “Zoom-Zoom” fashion, it all starts with a fresh take on styling.
Mazda refers to its latest sculpturing foray as “Kodo,” and in the case of the CX-3, this mindset works extremely well in the exterior styling department. The mini Mazda CUV is quite nice to look at, and with its sloping snout, angular LED lights, broad grille, and well rounded curves, it is hard to hate on the shadow it casts upon the competition.
Naturally, there was a fair amount of unpainted plastic around the fender wells and across the car’s ground effects, but that is par for the course at this point regardless of whether you find it hideous or not. Even though it came with 16-inch alloys instead of the GT version’s sharp 18-inch rollers, the Mazda left me pretty impressed with its external touches.
Exterior pros and cons
+ The CX-3 has nice lines that sit pretty in almost any light.
+ Mazda keeps the “Zoom-Zoom” mantra alive in its styling cues, and things like a polished dual port exhaust and a shark fin antenna help solidify the feeling visually.
+ It has a balanced ride height for daily driving in snow, its smaller footprint makes it a cinch to park, and 16-inch alloy wheels mean that you aren’t going to be paying a fortune for tires when it’s time to swap on some fresh rubber.
– Certain vehicles look okay with a slathering of unpainted gray lower trim pieces. The CX-3 would not be one of those vehicles.
– There are no power-folding illuminated mirrors on this model, a nice exterior feature that is not very expensive.
– Although the Touring and Grand Touring models are the obvious upgrades over the basic Sport model, neither of them look any different save for some larger alloy wheels and a bit of badging. A mild aero kit would be a great addition to this chassis in these upper trims in order to further set them apart from the pack.
This might be the CX-3’s biggest strong suit. While it may look fairly complacent from the outside, this little crossover is a real juggernaut in the powertrain field. From its well-designed all-wheel drive properties to its ample automatic transmission, the CX-3 is a simple and utterly rewarding CUV in the drivetrain division.
Built around an engine that comes out of the latest MX-5 Miata, the 2.0-liter Skyactiv-G motor offers 146 horsepower and an equal amount of pound-feet of torque for drivers who feel like thrashing it on occasion. That may not sound like much, but put it in Sport Mode and this lightweight machine roars to life like you would not believe — making for a surprisingly agile pass on the open road. It’s being hamstrung by the lack of a turbocharger and six-speed manual gearbox, but for the average buyer, this drivetrain remains more than capable enough, so cheers to Mazda for keeping it as practical and fun as possible.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ Even though this little CUV features a modest 146 horsepower 2.0-liter engine, it is the same powerplant as what comes in the new MX-5. So by putting it in Sport Mode, you’ll be rewarded with a noticeably more aggressive drivetrain, and an engine noise that is plenty throaty.
+ With a 29 mile per gallon average, the CX-3 isn’t awful in the efficiency range, even though it remains mated to a six-speed automatic instead of a CVT.
+ Mazda’s all-wheel drive system on this car is pretty close to perfect for a CUV this size. While I didn’t get hammered with snow, other critics have praised the CX-3 for its prowess in wintry conditions.
– There is no manual transmission option on the CX-3 as of now, even in base trim. This is a pity, as the engine in it was designed to be paired with the MX-5 Miata gearbox, which would add a whole new level of Zoom-Zoom for people who prefer to drive stick.
– There is no Eco Mode on this car for increased fuel gains.
– Regardless of how warm or cold it was outside that week, engine start ups in the CX-3 were rough and clattering.
The cabin of the CX-3 is very Mazda. Things like the well thought-out dash and its leather trim pieces, stitching, integrated display screen, and jet fighter-inspired pilot’s command center all add value to the interior. The signature infotainment and audio knobs are there, as are comfy, three-way heated sport seats, ample amounts of headroom, and contrasting trim pieces that feature oval air vents.
Overall this is a very nice cabin; and even though the backseat is somewhat pinched when it came to legroom, the blatant over-utilization of fake carbon plastics is a bit dated, and the cargo space is somewhat constrained, it still had a layout that felt very conducive to daily living.
Interior pros and cons
+ The driver’s cockpit console, leather padded/stitched dash, contrast colored vents, and well laid-out leather steering wheel all make for a nice dashboard area.
+ While it may not be as fancy as what you find on a Range Rover, the infotainment dial on the CX-3 is a Mazda touch we still love. Pair that with three-way heated seat buttons, a leather bound e-brake handle and shift knob and some nice contrasting trim pieces, and you’ve got an interior that looks thousands of dollars more expensive than it is.
+ The cloth/leatherette sport seats in the CX-3 are just as comfortable as they are fashionable, lending loads of headroom and fantastic driving positions to occupants.
– Limited backseat leg room, no fold-flat rear seat option, no power seat adjustability for anyone, and limited cargo space all ding the CX-3 on the capacity front.
– Many materials didn’t feel up to Mazda’s own benchmarks, and there’s faux carbon fiber is everywhere. Mazda doesn’t support any other interior trim options on the CX-3, so it’s fake carbon or the competition for potential buyers.
– There aren’t a lot of adequately-sized cubbies, the backseat doesn’t have a fold-down armrest, and the one up front sits directly above the cupholders. This means you have to flip-up the armrest every time you need a drink, and taller vessels like a water canteen won’t even fit to begin with.
Tech and safety
This is an area where the CX-3 doesn’t fall short, but it doesn’t exactly excel, either. It has plenty of airbags, Mazda’s infamous Skyactiv Body-Ring Structure, and things like blind spot monitoring and cross traffic warning systems. But despite all of this, it is still somewhat barren of the tech and safety goods you would find in a Korean car in the same price range, and without Mazda’s signature i-ACTIVSENSE algorithm technology, it falls even shorter.
It isn’t like the CX-3 Touring I drove for a week that had faulty tech or safety features. It just felt like there were quite a few modern features missing, because quite frankly they were.
Tech pros and cons
+ Seven-speaker Bose audio components are pretty slick, and once paired with Mazda’s Premium Package, buyers can enjoy satellite radio in full HD if Mazda’s assorted infotainment options aren’t cutting the mustard.
+ Like many modern GM offerings, the CX-3 features maps that harbor 3D images of prominent buildings, ballparks, landscapes, bridges, and more. Also, while driving, the seven-inch display shows the current speed limit, which flashes yellow if you are over at any point.
+ Blind spot monitoring, back-up camera, cross traffic alerts, and a remote start all add a splash of tech that is functional in every way.
– No surround-view cameras like what you find on Korean competitor’s cars, like the Kia Sportage.
– The CX-3’s MID is a bit limited, and for as cool as those gauge pods are, the digital read-outs and background displays are cheap-looking compared to other digital clusters on the market today.
– To certain buyers, not having things like variable cruise control, lane departure warnings, or a heated steering wheel on a Touring version in today’s market is a no-go. The competition has these things on cars in the same price tier, so why not Mazda?
The Mazda absolutely thrives on the open road. This was easily one of the most unassumingly enjoyable cars I have driven recently, maybe falling just shy of the turbocharged Jeep Renegade Sport in the surprisingly fun-to-drive competition. It corners quite well, even with its torsion beam rear suspension, and body roll is minimal, with a tight turning radius to emphasize it. The CX-3 brakes well, steers precisely, and in Sport Mode is one of the most eager engines we’ve seen.
However, the cabin is a little noisy, the vehicle’s lightweight nature makes it subject to gusts on the freeway, and that rearward slanting rake in the C-pillar doesn’t lend itself to improved rear visibility. Outside of that, this car is a ton of fun to hound-on around town.
Wrap up and review
I’ve been a bit harsh on Mazda in regards to the CX-3 Touring Edition, but there’s a reason: While this little CUV is a solid contender in every regard, it only meets the bar — it doesn’t pass it. It’s more fun to drive than the Honda HR-V, but it isn’t as enjoyable as a turbocharged six-speed Jeep Renegade. It has a very nicely designed cabin, which looks like a million bucks, but in all practicality doesn’t always work as well as expected, like not being able to easily access your drink due to the armrest.
It’s a brilliantly planned attack, but its execution is still not all there just yet. This is a sharp looking, handling, accelerating, and braking subcompact SUV. Still, for $23,210, the Touring CX-3 we got for a week seemed to offer pretty good value considering it had all-wheel drive. My only suggestion to buyers is maybe wait for the next generation to come out in order to see how great this car may become, because even though Mazda is already off to a fantastic start, it only is going to get better.