No Speed Demon, But Adept Handling and Communicative Steering Won Me Over
Now in its third year year, the 2018 Mazda CX-3 continues as a head turning subcompact crossover. It’s available in three trim levels: Sport, Touring and Grand Touring that are available with either front- or all-wheel (AWD) drive models. As part of its standard equipment, the 2018 CX-3 gains Mazda’s Smart City Brake Support. New options this year include a heated steering wheel, full-color Active Driving Display and a power driver’s seat with memory.
Mazda added its third crossover SUV in 2016. Smaller than the compact CX-5 and the three-row CX-9, the name suggests it’s a high riding version of the Mazda 3 compact car. But that’s not the case; the CX-3 is more closely related to the subcompact Mazda 2 hatchback, a car no longer sold in America.
Pricewise, the 2018 Mazda CX-3 is right in the thick of things, with a starting MSRP of $21,085, including $975 destination charges, for the well-equipped Sport; $23,170 for Touring edition; and $27,145 for the range-topping Grand Touring. All-wheel drive adds a further $1,250 at each trim level.
Mazda’s trademark sporty handling and a stylish, well-equipped cabin with a standard touchscreen interface make it a standout in the now crowded subcompact crossover segment. Another welcome CX-3 trait is its thrifty fuel economy. Front-wheel drive models check in with an EPA-estimated fuel economy of 35-mpg highway/29 city/31 combined, and AWD models are rated at 32-mpg highway/27 city/29 combined. That’s about as good as it gets in this segment and earns it an entry to Clean Fleet Report’s 30-MPG AWD Club.
First-Class, Outside and In
Design-wise, outside and in, the 2018 Mazda CX-3 looks much more expensive than it is.
The exterior is a superb execution of what Mazda calls Kodo design direction. One thing is clear, the CX-3 is easily the most stylish of the new breed of subcompact crossovers. It looks long, low, lean, and much more muscular than bigger brother CX-5. In the front, the face is familiar Mazda territory. Signature arches in the bodywork add surface detail in different lighting, while bold character lines combined with short overhangs, give a taut appearance.
However, the highlight of the CX-3 is its interior. It’s beautifully executed, classily appointed and feels significantly more expensive than the price tag would indicate. Simple features like the rotary dial control for the standard infotainment system add a tangible touch of class. Look elsewhere, and you find quality plastics, soft-touch materials, perfect fit lines and elegant brushed metal. Front seats, which are firm, yet comfortable, offer legitimate all-day support in the buyer’s choice of cloth, leatherette or leather, depending on trim. Combined with the tilt/telescoping wheel, nearly everyone should find a comfortable driving position.
That said, the CX-3’s front cabin is marred by a clumsy center console design. With the shift lever positioned far forward, cupholders are placed rearward and the armrest must be raised out of the way for access. If you want the armrest down, you can’t use the cup holders plus, access to the infotainment’s controller knob becomes awkward.
As you’d probably expect, the second row is tight, especially if you have long-legged occupants up front. Headroom is also at a premium in the second row, and taller adults won’t like being stuck back there on longer drives. The second row split folds forward to liberate extra luggage space, which will be needed for a weekend or longer trip. With just 12.2 cubic feet behind the rear seat, a couple of carry-on bags nearly fills the space. Add the Bose sound system and that space shrinks to a tiny 10.1 cubic feet.
For an affordable small crossover, the CX-3 is surprisingly tech rich. For starters, all models receive a backup camera, keyless entry, power windows and locks, air conditioning and push-button start. Mazda Connect, the automaker’s infotainment system featuring a 7.0-inch display screen, is also standard across the lineup along with Bluetooth connectivity, a CD player and a pair of USB ports. A deal breaker for some is neither Apple CarPlay or Android Auto is available.
Minor shortfalls aside, Mazda’s tech focus extends to other areas of the CX-3 as well. It can be had with cornering LED headlamps with auto high-beam control, radar-based cruise control, rain-sensing wipers, and lane-departure warning, most of which are unusual features at this price point.
Behind the Mazda CX-3 Steering Wheel
I pushed the engine start button, and a head-up display popped up on the windshield that shows speed and navigation, another unexpected feature for this class of vehicles. Mazda calls it Active Driving Display, and while it looks like something cheap mounted on the dash, it does its intended task.
With an elevated driving position, our Grand Touring CX-3 AWD test vehicle gave a good view out over traffic. While over-the-shoulder visibility was restricted, the same can be said of the Mazda’s rivals.
Go power was supplied by Mazda’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, standard on all trim levels. Tuned for this application, it is rated at 146 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 146 pounds-feet of torque at 2,800 rpm. Like others of its ilk, it didn’t take very long to yearn for more horsepower, especially when merging onto freeways with fast-moving traffic.
At idle up to around 35 mph, the engine sounded like a sick sewing machine on steroids. Very, very annoying. Fortunately, the cabin became much quieter as the speed increased.
The six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters, and the way in which it worked with the engine, was excellent. It was smooth regardless of how hard I worked the accelerator, and it shifted back down through the gears with equal aplomb. There was plenty of engine noise entering the cabin again as I accelerated though, and the smoothness of the gearbox couldn’t iron that out.
There was, however, a go-kart-like feel to the way the CX-3 behaved around town. The steering was sharp and direct, there was plenty of lateral grip and I could easily hustle the little ute through tight, inner city streets effortlessly.
It’s worth noting that on twisty roads, I could stretch the CX-3 a little and it didn’t kick back violently. In fact, it felt like it enjoyed the challenge, which again, is a little counter-intuitive to its crossover DNA. It showed a little duality of character, even though most owners will never coax it out of its comfort zone.
These handling characteristics were a little surprising given that the suspension—Macpherson strut up front, rear torsion beam in the rear—is quite ordinary. But Mazda has long enjoyed a hard-earned reputation for producing some of the most entertaining to drive cars in the business. Despite its basic design, the CX-3 delivered.
During our week with the CX-3, we drove 215 miles, mixing city and highway driving with some sporting back country roads, and ended up with a combined fuel economy average of 30 mpg, besting the EPA’s 29 mpg combined rating.
In the Marketplace
Our CX-3 Grand Touring AWD had a sticker price of $29,625. That included three optional trim items and a $718 premium package with an eight-way power adjustable driver’s seat, driver’ power lumbar support, driver’s seat memory and heated steering wheel. Approaching $30,000 for a subcompact crossover is not out of phase within the segment for a fully loaded model.
Crossover crazy Americans will find the compact segment is not lacking for variety, so the 2018 Mazda CX-3 faces stiff competition. First up would be Honda’s HR-V, which doesn’t provide the fun factor driving experience, but does have comparable fuel economy and a larger cargo space. Then there’s the Jeep Renegade that brings true off-road capabilities, and Toyota’s feature-filled, easy-to-drive CH-R small crossover with good fuel economy, but with a higher price. Others to consider are the Fiat 500X, brand-new Nissan Kicks, Ford EcoSport, Mini Cooper’s Countryman and others.
The Mazda CX-3’s clumsy center console arrangement was a turn off for me, but the strength of its looks, driving dynamics, interior polish, fuel economy and technology won me over, except when I couldn’t use the arm rest because there was bottle of water in the cupholder.
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