We live in a world where a compact crossover is a dime a dozen. It’s the latest segment for everyone from Ford to Mahindra to have a slice of the pie in, and Mazda is no different. Trying to get the lion’s share of the pie, the Mazda CX-3 is their entrant to the market, seen here in base-spec 2.0L Active Auto guise.
The Mazda is one of the more expensive options in the marketplace though, so it’ll need to be good to earn its place amongst the crossover elite. Does it deliver the goods?
As far as being stylish – a must in this segment – it definitely does. Despite finding a basis in the Mazda 2, the Mazda CX-3’s slightly swollen proportions (still with the same wheelbase though) and dark body cladding are well suited to the ‘Kodo – Soul of Motion design language’. The blacked out C-pillar creates a floating roof effect, and the Soul Red paint just looks oh so pretty.
On the inside though, the Mazda CX3’s underpinnings are less distinguishable. It’s all very Mazda 2 in here, from the low seating position to the Audi A3-aping dash design and circular air vents. However, in this base trim, the BMW iDrive-esque screen and rotary controller is absent, as is the thin leather strip in the dash. It’s the former that is most noticeable though – the lack of MZD Connect also meaning a lack of navigation and a distinct lack of premium feel. So you’re left with hard dash plastics and a peculiarly small radio display perched atop the dash.
But for its price the Mazda CX-3 is incredibly skimp on features, as it only has cruise control and air conditioning – complete with controls from a mid-90s Mazda 323. I would say it also has Bluetooth, but for the life of me I couldn’t get the damn thing to work. By prodding telephony buttons in desperation to try and connect, I accidentally summoned the spirit of Adolf Hitler who proceeded to shout a series of what I would presume to be German profanities at me. If the Mazda CX-3 had navigation, I’d imagine Adolf was telling me to take the ‘3rd Reich’, but that’s an option the ‘Active’ spec CX-3 doesn’t have.
However, the Mazda CX-3 isn’t without its virtues. Despite the hard plastics, the dash looks well designed, and from the driver’s perch – low slung with the steering wheel punching out well towards your chest – visibility isn’t half bad, and you feel one with the car rather than sitting atop it. It feels far more hatch than crossover in that regard, and the space you occupy is little bigger than the Mazda 2 upon which it’s based. In fact the Mazda 2 offers more boot space with the rear seats up than its crossover cousin – 280-litres in the 2 vs 264-litres in the CX-3.
But what is different from anything in the 2 is the engine offered in the Mazda CX-3. There’s no sign of the 1.5-litre petrol or diesel 4-bangers from the hatch. The 2.0-litre naturally aspirated engine is the only one you’ll find in a Mazda CX-3, where others have opted for smaller 1.6-litre mills or even turbo-triple 1-litre efforts. Driving the front wheels, its 115kW and 204Nm are hardly figures to scoff at, although with the auto ‘box as we have here, the edge comes across rather blunted.
The engine responses are good, but at full throttle the Mazda CX-3 feels laboured and impotent. Sure it’s quick – perhaps not as quick as it might be at sea level – but the auto ‘box seems to sap some of the impetus and as a whole the drivetrain seems loathed to be wrung out. With added displacement, you’d expect a 2-litre mill to sound half-decent too, and yet it doesn’t. It’s loud, but not sonorous or booming, rather whining and unwilling – grousing at your attempts to eke out extra oomph.
The gearbox, a 6-speed automatic unit, lacks razor sharp incisiveness when it comes to making its own decisions – picking out the right gear but always feeling just a bit slow to do so when you’re really ‘on it’. The shifts themselves are slow too, and although smooth enough when comfortably cruising, if you want rapid responses, you’re better off slapping the shift-lever to the right and making your own decisions.
But the Mazda CX-3 does excel in one particular area. The chassis and suspension are simply phenomenal. With extra ride height, the slightly softer springs do away with large bumps in a comfy manner, but it’s what happens when you hit pockmarks and corrugations that is most astounding. The Mazda CX-3 quite literally irons the creases out of the road. Corrugations become smooth, and rumble strips are made to be a single blip in the backside rather than a series of teeth-rattling bumps. At any speed, on any surface, the Mazda CX-3 rides as smoothly as a spoonful of Ultra-Mel custard down your throat.
It’s fantastic to chuck about. Through twists and curves it feels light and buoyant – again more hatch-like than crossover in its agility, and rewards drivers who enjoy driving.
In other areas, Mazda have also been able to work some magic. Efficiency for example – a key point in Mazda’s ‘SKYACTIV’ technologies – is in full force here where the Mazda CX-3’s 2.0-litre motor proved to be the most fuel efficient motor we’ve ever tested with this displacement. A tick over 6l/100km is all it dutifully sipped; and whilst it may not have felt particularly grunty, that consumption is truly astounding.
At the end of the day, the Mazda CX-3 poses a curious answer to the question that is the compact crossover market. According to the body cladding and marketing garble, this is a crossover; yet it feels like a hatchback in every other regard. In fact I’d be pressed to say that barring the aforementioned cladding and the 2.0-litre engine, the Mazda CX-3 is just a way of asking more money for something not much better than a Mazda 2 diesel…
If that’s what you’re after, a fancy faux-by-four, then it’s got a lot to offer – albeit only in more expensive specs with MZD Connect. But if you’re after a genuine crossover that feels semi capable, has more features at this price point, and still looks the business, you’re better off looking at another, also Japanese, crossover – the Suzuki Vitara.
Words: Roger Biermann
Pictures: Roarke Bouffe, Vaughan Humphrey