The darlings of the new vehicle market – small SUVs – may be becoming even smaller in size, but the choice in this market is expanding rapidly.
Now Mazda has gone down that track with CX-3. It joins this new breed of sub-compact SUVs which barely existed a few years ago. There’s Holden Trax, Ford EcoSport, Nissan Juke, and the recently released Renault Captur and Honda HR-V. These tiny wagons are built on their companies’ light car platforms and, although primarily aimed at city dwellers, they are capable country performers.
CX-3 starts with an advantage over most of its competitors, namely an all-wheel-drive option for buyers who want a bit more grip in slippery conditions. It also has the widest selection of models, with four spec grades, two engines and two transmission types. Including the Safety Pack option for each of the lower three grades, Mazda lists 24 CX-3 versions.
Prices start from $19,990 (plus on-road costs) for the 2.0L 6spd manual petrol Neo through to $37,690 plus ORC for the 1.5L 6spd auto diesel Akari. Standard safety features across the range include six airbags, stability control, hill launch assist, rear parking sensors and ISOFIX child-seat points.
The Safety Pack option provides autonomous emergency braking (AEB), rear cross-traffic alert and blind spot assistance, and at $1030 is money well spent. RACV wants to see AEB as a standard fitout in all vehicles, not just an option.
The second-tier Maxx introduces an advanced, very user-friendly infotainment system, which features an excellent 7-inch colour screen, navigation, Bluetooth, voice activation with the ability to display and read out text messages, plus internet connectivity. The sTouring and top-spec Akari keep piling on the features.
Size-wise, CX-3 sits between Mazda2 and Mazda3, and while its cabin space is not abundant Mazda has used it efficiently.
CX-3 feels high-quality. Controls and switch gear are generally logically placed, while a good range of adjustments for well-shaped seats provides plenty of support and long-term comfort. Soft-touch trim gives the vehicle an upmarket feel, while the fit and finish displays Mazda’s exemplary attention to detail.
Front occupants are well accommodated but minor compromises are needed for long-legged adults in the rear. A 60/40 split-fold rear seat allows the modest boot to be extended.
There are a few aspects of CX-3, however, where style takes precedence over function. Neo and Maxx models have a very clear, straightforward instrument display. While the higher grades get an excellent digital head-up display, their different instrument layout is dominated by a large tachometer and with just a small digital speed readout in the corner. It is very fussy and not nearly as user-friendly. The high upward-sweeping waistline and narrow rear windows also create a few minor blind spots. Good size exterior mirrors and the rear view camera, which is standard on all models except the base Neo, however, help reduce the problem.
We conducted a full test (including performance figures) on the 2WD sTouring petrol automatic, and we also drove the 2WD Maxx diesel automatic.
On the road, CX-3 feels solid and has an easy-to-drive nature. Responsive, direct steering makes it feel very nimble around town but it might be a touch too sharp for some people’s liking at highway speeds. The ride is firm but comfortable.
The performance of the petrol version is ample, rather than sporting, despite the engine’s relatively high-revving characteristics and class-leading acceleration times. The sophisticated 109kW engine is bigger and more powerful than most of its competitors, and the 6spd automatic puts it to good use. Drivers can select the sport mode which holds a lower gear and optimises the torque output as the accelerator is pressed down, making the performance more responsive.
Mazda’s SKYACTIV technology helps to deliver a pleasing mix of performance and fuel economy. The i-Stop feature works well and is one of the less intrusive stop/start systems. When accelerating hard and working at the higher end of the rev range, however, engine noise starts to become raucous, more so when the Sport mode is selected.
While the 1.5L turbo-diesel version is only expected to account for 10% of CX-3 sales, it is a delight to drive. Acceleration is not as rapid as the petrol version and it’s not the most powerful of engines, but the diesel’s good torque in the low- to mid-rev range is where you need it for flexible, everyday driving. Fuel consumption was also a pleasing 5.9L/100km.
Mazda’s capped-price servicing is for the vehicles’s life. However, read the fine print as the price relates to the time the vehicle is booked in for the service and there are also a few additional maintenance items.
Mazda CX-3’s all-round quality, refinement and on-road ability set a high standard in the light SUV category. Despite a couple of minor blemishes, it is almost a generation ahead of a few of its rivals and has most of the others well covered.
* More RACV road tests and car reviews.