Skip to main content

While Mazda models like the MX-5 Miata and Mazda3 tend to get the attention of auto enthusiasts, there’s a hidden gem in the lineup that’s surprisingly great to drive. I spent a week driving a rental Mazda CX-30 subcompact SUV and found myself thoroughly impressed with the crossover’s design, performance, and overall driving characteristics. 

Picking our wedding week rental car

A light blue Mazda CX-30 sits in a hanger with its rear to the camera. The CX-30 is a crossover that's still great for driving.
2023 Mazda CX-30 | Mazda

Driving a rental Mazda CX-30 for a week came down to a spur-of-the-moment decision.

As the famous former presenter of Top Gear put it, the best car in the world isn’t some exotic hypercar: It’s a rental car with full insurance and no burden of ownership. That’s the mindset I carried as my fiance and I arrived at Tucson International Airport to pick a rental vehicle for the week of our wedding. 

We decided to upgrade from a compact sedan to a small crossover to make our pre-nuptial errands a little easier. Plus, I wanted to get my hands on a new SUV to get some insight for my MotorBiscuit reporting section. After a quick chat at the rental counter, we drove out into the Sonoran Desert with a dark blue Mazda CX-30 with 50,000 miles. 

I was excited – I’d never spent meaningful seat time in a Mazda. The brand’s reputation for sporty handling and engaging performance preceded it. I wanted to see whether that reputation held or was just a symptom of effective marketing. 

Fortunately, the CX-30 proved itself to be more than just another mundane crossover.

The Mazda CX-30 is a crossover with a soul

A Mazda CX-30 subcompact SUV drivers down a road with blurred trees on either side.
2023 Mazda CX-30 | Mazda

Unlike many of its subcompact SUV peers that have all the zest of a home appliance, the Mazda CX-30 has the spirit of a sports car. 

The CX-30 is exceptionally well-balanced. Chuck a typical subcompact SUV into a corner, and it often feels like each wheel wants to go in a different direction. It feels like a cheap skateboard. Mazda’s competitor is entirely different. Throw the CX-30 into a bend, and it tracks true. The front and rear wheels work harmoniously, with plenty of sensory feedback helping you judge your moves and adjustments. 

Its steering feel helps, too. Mazda tuned the CX-30’s steering rack to be confidently heavy and connected to what the front wheels are doing. In our example, there was a small dead spot in the middle with a bit of steering play – but it’s hardly noticeable. It may just be a symptom of its mileage. Once you load up the steering rack in either direction, it gives plenty of feedback and feel.

Our example had the naturally-aspirated 2.5-liter engine. Even without a turbocharger, it’s a peach. According to Car and Driver, the 2023 base engine makes just shy of 200 horsepower. The powertrain is relatively docile at low RPMs – but goose the throttle past 3,000, and the power band thrusts the CX-30 forward confidently. 

Best of all, the CX-30 has a traditional six-speed automatic transmission instead of a bland CVT. It was easy to manipulate shift points with throttle input, and the transmission behaved predictably. It made the entire experience more pleasant. 

The CX-30 cabin showed more evidence of Mazda’s dedication to producing a pleasurable driving experience. Its seats had plenty of bolstering to keep you secure on twisty mountain roads, yet not so much to make passengers feel cramped. The steering wheel tapers inward at the 10 and 2 positions, creating more comfort and control for one’s hands. 

An interior shot of the front seats and dashboard of the Mazda CX-30.
Mazda CX-30 Cabin | Mazda

Even the dashboard was elegant. Its straight horizontal line across the middle and continuous arcing line across the top creates a tasteful shape. From this driver’s perspective, the space had more than a touch of classic Porsche about it. 

It’s clear that Mazda put time and effort into making the CX-30 into a crossover that people can enjoy driving. It’s sharp, quick, and engaging. But it isn’t perfect.

Is the Mazda CX-30 a good SUV?

Image of the lifted rear hatch and rear cargo space of a Mazda CX-30.
2023 Mazda CX-30 Cargo Space | Mazda

The Mazda CX-30 isn’t a good SUV – but it’s a phenomenal driver’s car.

Unfortunately, the CX-30 falls short of many traditional SUV metrics. Its sleek exterior design means the interior is pretty tight. Rear passengers are short on head and legroom, and cargo space is surprisingly limited. We had to fold the rear seats down to get our suitcases to fit. Other subcompact crossovers have much more practical cabin designs for everyday needs. 

It also lacks an intuitive infotainment system. The scroll-and-click dial is confusing to use at first and takes quite a while to learn. It feels pretty dated compared to rivals. However, I did appreciate the CX-30’s ample use of physical buttons for functions like air conditioning (in high demand under the Arizona sun). 

But those faults melt away when you spend time in the driver’s seat. You quickly realize the CX-30’s true purpose. 

It isn’t supposed to be a traditional crossover SUV. Instead, the Mazda CX-30 is simply an engaging, sporty hatchback with a more comfortable seating position for commutes or road trips. If you spend lots of time at the wheel in traffic or crossing the country, the CX-30 can provide the comfort you need while still offering an exciting driving experience. 

Even as a rental car, the Mazda CX-30 is excellent. It isn’t a pure sports car like the MX-5 Miata. Still, the CX-30 is a true driver’s car.