I don’t know about you, but 2010 doesn’t seem that long ago to me. Can you believe there were only four competing models in the subcompact SUV category back then? In only seven years that number has skyrocketed to 13, while another three have been announced for next year. Just for fun, do you want to guess how many mid-size sedans have been added to the U.S. market since 2010? None. In fact, back then there were 13, whereas now only 11 go up against each other, and one of those is slated for cancellation at the end of this model year. How’s that for a turn of events.
You’ve spoken America, and the automakers are listening. Yesterday’s Mazda 6 owner is today’s CX-5 and CX-9 buyer, while even the Mazda3 is watching its market share slowly erode thanks in part to the compact CX-5 and this little subcompact CX-3. I can understand why. As much as I still like the Mazda3, especially in 5-Door form, if push came to shove I’d more likely lay real money down on a compact SUV.
Would the CX-3 be at the top of my shopping list? It’s not one of America’s most popular subcompact SUVs, but it’s become a favorite among auto writers for a lot of good reasons and it seems to be catching on with more buyers since inception. Interestingly, it’s placed third in Canada for 2015 and 2016 while shooting up to second, behind the Honda HR-V, over the first six months of 2017. Canada, with even more fluffy white stuff than most of the United States, knows a thing or two about four-wheel drive vehicles, so maybe they’re onto something American consumers have missed. Speaking personally, after living with three different CX-3 models over a trio of weeklong tests, I’m not surprised. All in all I find it good looking, sporty, fairly upscale, nicely equipped, and plenty practical.
I’ve read others knock its styling on social media, but I love every inch of the little Mazda sport ute, especially in as-tested top-line Grand Touring trim. Moving up from the $19,960 base Sport model or $21,960 mid-range Touring to the $24,990 Grand Touring allows for more sophisticated looking and much brighter LED headlights with stylish signature detailing, plus the world’s tiniest LED fog lamps inserted within the upgraded metallic bezels of its sporty front fascia, not to mention stunning twinned V-spoke 18-inch machine-finish alloys with gunmetal pockets around each side. Move inside and its well laid out cabin gets leather and Lux Suede upholstery, plus loads of additional exclusive features.
Want details? How about adaptive cornering capability and automatic leveling on those headlamps, LED signature daytime running lights, LED taillights, paddle shifters, proximity-sensing passive entry, auto climate control, a heads-up Active Driving Display, navigation, voice activation, seven-speaker Bose audio, satellite radio, etcetera. I know, I might as well be listing off items from well equipped BMW X1 or Mercedes-Benz GLA, but even when the CX-3 is fully loaded up it doesn’t come close to entering the MSRP territory of those highfalutin models.
My tester also had the $1,170 I-ActivSense package that added auto on/off headlights with automatic high beam assist, rain-sensing wipers, dynamic cruise control, lane departure warning, and Smart City Brake Support (SCBS), the latter using a near infra-red laser to detect vehicle activity up to six metres ahead before applying the brakes automatically to avoid a potential accident.
As noted the CX-3 comes in base Sport and mid-grade Touring trim too, with some of the features being pulled up to Grand Touring trim just as impressive, such as remote locks that automatically engage while walking away, pushbutton start, heatable powered door mirrors with integrated turn signals, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, shift knob and parking brake handle, heatable front seats, a seven-inch high-resolution touchscreen, a rearview camera, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, a powered moonroof, and more.
As noted earlier, much of that kit comes in an interior that borders on premium, and while I would’ve liked to see its gorgeous taupe-gray Titanium Flash Mica exterior paintwork contrasted by the CX-3’s optional two-tone Black and Parchment leather upholstery, it’s strangely not offered with this outer shade, so I made do with the standard black and red color combination that offers up a sportier, rather than classier motif. Oddly, neither the dazzling mica paint or the alternative interior color scheme adds anything to the CX-3’s bottom line, which is about as un-premium as the car industry gets, a positive for sure.
It would need fabric-wrapped pillars along with a soft-touch dash-top and door uppers to be a full-fledged premium product, but Mazda covers the primary instrument hood in stitched leatherette for an upscale look and feel, whereas the center portion of the instrument panel gets a contrast-stitched and padded leatherette bolster across its middle. This is visually separated by an eye-catching metallic trim strip that elegantly integrates the center vent, which would otherwise be invisible unless tilted up or down to direct air. The other vents are more obviously circular in design, but they allow excellent directional airflow. These were surrounded in piano black lacquered bezels in my tester, which matched some other glossy black trim around the shifter and elsewhere.
Even more enticing was the satin-silver polished detailing surrounding the wing-like analog and digital primary gauges, plus the twinned lower steering wheel spoke and upper door garnishes around the door pulls. Additional metallic trim surrounds the tablet-style infotainment system perched atop the dash, while nice knurled metal rims surround all three automatic climate control dials. Knurled metal detailing surrounds the infotainment controller on the lower console too, which itself is surrounded by various quick-access buttons for the main menu, audio system, navigation, radio favorites, and the back button, while a handy rotating volume selector gets the same knurled metal treatment.
Other details include textured matte carbon fiber-like trim on the upper steering wheel spokes and each side of the center stack, red armrests and stitched door inserts that nicely match the red contrast-stitched and piped perforated and suede leather seats. Speaking of upholstery, Mazda goes so far as to pamper each front occupant’s inside knee with a padded red leatherette bolster. Like I’ve been saying all along, the attention to detail in the CX-3 Grand Touring is very high-end.
The aforementioned pop-up head-up display projected key information up above the dash-top, which kept eyes on the road more often than not, while the Bose audio system provided superb sound quality. Again, just a couple more premium-level features.
Of course, performance is one good reason consumers have long flocked to premium brands, and having driven most luxury crossovers in the subcompact class I can attest to a difference in off-the-line power. The CX-3’s sole Skyactiv-G 2.0-liter direct-injection four-cylinder only puts out 146 horsepower and an identical 146 lb-ft of torque, which wouldn’t be enough to measure up among the premium players but it’s plenty powerful for mainstream volume-branded SUV that weighs just 2,952 lbs.
This said it could be a lot sportier, because Mazda unforgivably doesn’t offer a manual transmission in the U.S. market at all, the CX-3 standard with a six-speed automatic with manual mode, while other markets enjoy their six-speed manual in lower trims. At least Mazda was smart enough to include an engaging set of steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters in this top-line Grand Touring, and best of all it’s not a CVT.
This transmission is one of the reasons I’d place the CX-3 high at the top of the sportiest subcompact SUV list, plus the wonderfully zippy four-cylinder engine. This little ute loves to zig and zag too, especially in Grand Touring trim that provides those larger rims wrapped in 215/50R18 Yokohama Avid all-season rubber. Even at higher speeds its very controllable, something I’ve experienced each and every time I’ve had one at my disposal. This time I took the opportunity to test it on some of the rural backroads that surround farmland in the outskirts of my lush delta suburb, some straight and narrow, and others bordering rivers and waterways that made for some fun cornering action. The CX-3 doesn’t get a sophisticated independent rear suspension like some others in this class, but it nevertheless handles as if it did. It was even quite controllable over bumpy surfaces during tight turns, which can cause some similar suspension designs to become unsettled as they lose traction, but the CX-3 held on, while its ride quality was excellent for the size and class of vehicle.
I should also mentioned, my tester was upgraded with $1,250 worth of AWD, which aided traction in dry and wet yet didn’t detract much from overall efficiencies as noted by an EPA fuel economy rating of 27 mpg in the city, 32 on the highway and 29 combined, compared to 29 city, 34 highway and 31 combined in the front-drive model.
One of the reasons the CX-3 is so thrifty with fuel is its size, but even though it’s on the smaller side its spaciousness should be good for most people. My five-foot-eight medium-build body fit in nicely, with about four inches above my head and even a little more room between my left shoulder and the driver’s door. The seats are extremely comfortable too, which is normal for Mazda, while sizable side bolsters keep backside in place during hard cornering.
It’s tighter in back, which is the norm for this class, with about two inches ahead of my knees when the front seat was set ideally for me, plus a little more room next to the door for shoulders and hips. On that note I was surprised to find more than four inches above my head, which means someone six-foot-four should fit back there providing their torso isn’t much longer than their legs and someone ultimately height-challenged is driving. I jest, of course, so those with really tall teens should probably consider a CX-5. The rear seats are very comfortable, just like those up front, with good lower back support, although there’s no center armrest available.
Those back seats fold in a 60/40 configuration via latches that are easily accessible from behind, making it possible to flip them forward when loading things into the back without having to walk around to the side doors. Another CX-3 benefit is a good rear headrest design that’s not only comfortable when sitting inside, but slide completely down and out of the way to allow excellent rear visibility when not in use.
I can’t tell you which subcompact SUV you should purchase, but if you choose to take home a new Mazda CX-3 I can’t imagine you’ll suffer from buyer’s remorse. It’s about as close to premium as you’ll likely get form a mainstream volume automaker, while its styling, performance, feature set and fuel-efficiency should help resale values. It’s even one of the safest SUVs on the road according to the IIHS, which gave this 2017 model a best-possible Top Safety Pick Plus rating when its aforementioned front crash prevention and specified headlights are added on. I can’t help but recommend it.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press Inc.