The automotive world is changing. Bit by bit, day by day, things are deviating from the car scene I knew growing up. Station wagons are the enemy, naturally aspirated engines are dying, and the engine as a whole is being phased out in favour of electrification. Worse still, the world is being conned into believing that crossovers are better to live with than sedans and hatchbacks. That’s the reason the Mazda CX-3 came into being – a jacked-up Mazda 2 with muscular black body cladding and little else to lend credence to its SUV classification. But what it does have over and above the Mazda 2 is more power; courtesy of a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated four-banger, outputs of 115 kW and 206 Nm of torque reach the ground via the front wheels, while in between, a six-speed gearbox – either manual or automatic – handles shiftwork. It’s a simple recipe, but one the CX-3 puts to good use. However, arguably its best-kept secret is the fact that this isn’t really a crossover – it’s just a damn good hatchback that handles better than any Hyundai Creta or Ford EcoSport, and feels far more luxurious in doing so.
Mazda South Africa sent us a 2.0L Hikari model, dressed in Polymetal Grey, to sample for a week. The rain may have prohibited any decent photos, but Polymetal Grey is the new Soul Red, as it looks great on the CX-3’s shapely body. In Hikari spec, it’s well-equipped with 18-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, taillights, and foglights, chrome exterior trim, a panoramic sunroof, and keyless entry. On the inside, automatic climate control, push-button start, cruise control, a head-up display, full leather seating surfaces, and a 7-speaker Bose sound system are standardized items, with an asking price of a not-so-inconsequential R469,700.
Pros and Cons
- Lithe handling dynamics
- Plush finishes
- Available manual
- Keen front end
- Small boot
- Dated infotainment
- Engine doesn’t like to rev
Mazda CX-3 Performance
Engine and Gearbox
In an era where many are turning to turbocharging, Mazda is resolute that natural aspiration still has a place. The Japanese automaker isn’t exactly wrong, and it’s built up a reputation of strong NA motors in machines like the CX-5, and particularly the MX-5. In this instance, the 2.0L SKYACTIV-G motor – which is fundamentally the same as the one used in the MX-5 – churns out 115 kW and 206 Nm to the front axle. Utilising a 6-speed automatic gearbox in this spec, it goes about its business effectively, but not thrillingly. The engine itself is decent, although it requires a good wringing to get the most out of it, and above 4,000 rpm, it tends to groan in protest and not sound particularly happy to be wrung out. This doesn’t negatively harm fuel economy, however, as we registered under 8l/100km, which isn’t too terrible considering the manufacturer’s claims of 6.9l/100km.
The gearbox is a good fit though, smoothly swapping cogs, even if shifts themselves are not fired off as rapidly as many alternative ‘boxes from rival brands. It’s not a massively quick machine, the CX-3, but the engine is a suitable partner. Honestly, the manual gearbox on more basic trims would be a better fit, but that’s for one key reason – something with a chassis this sweet and lacking turbocharged power deserves a manual ‘box and the added sense of involvement it creates.
Ride and Handling
The chassis is a remarkably sweet one. Not only is this typical of many Mazda products, but it’s also something the CX-3 has as a unique selling point compared to rivals who favour riding high for the sake of perceived comfort. There’s a little extra suspension travel compared to the Mazda 2, but for all intents and purposes, the CX-3 rides like a hatchback, and a damn fine-handling one at that. The steering responds well to inputs and the front end is keen to tuck into a corner. The minimal body roll means that you can pitch the CX-3 into and out of corners without losing composure, but there’s enough of it present to translate into a comfortable ride and the ability to soak up mid-corner bumps. The CX-3 rides stiffer than its class contemporaries, but it’s by no means harsh, and overall, it strikes a fine balance between being dynamically talented and comfortable for day-to-day use.
Interior and Infotainment
From an interior perspective, the full leather upholstery on our tester felt plush, the seats were comfortable, and the range of adjustment on both the seats and the steering wheel enables the easy finding of a comfortable driving position. Added touches like a suede-finish panel on the dash make the CX-3 feel more premium than one might imagine, and the infotainment screen, with its iDrive-reminiscent controller, is easy to use. However, the 7-inch screen lacks touch functionality, is devoid of Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity, and the navigation is a little slow. Elsewhere in the world, Mazda has updated its infotainment spec, but locally, we’re still saddled with a system that is now inferior and has aged tremendously in the years since we were first introduced to the CX-3.
Mazda SA has just recently launched the CX-30, which, like the CX-3, is a jacked-up version of another Mazda product parading as an SUV. But the CX-3 still has a role to play, and it’s a role it fulfils well. In a world where the buying public is moving away from the traditional hatchback segment, which includes the Mazda 2, the CX-3 is playing secret agent. This is not a crossover, or a genuine SUV; this is a hatchback parading as a crossover to win over sales, but without compromising on the ride, handling, and agility inherent in a well-engineered hatchback. We can lament the absence of a turbocharged engine, but the CX-3 is dynamically on-point. However, we have a few bug-bears – namely the CX-3’s price and the outdated infotainment. The latter is criminal, especially considering the updated systems sold in other markets, and proper smartphone connectivity is a must in this day and age.
As for price, the base CX-3 2.0L Active starts at R346,700, but in this Hikari trim as tested, the CX-3 commands close on half a million Rand (R469,700). For that money, you can buy numerous Mazda models, including more spacious options like the Mazda 3 hatchback, Mazda CX-30 crossover, and even base CX-5s, or alternatively the more-spacious, turbocharged Suzuki Vitara, with change to spare. The CX-3 might feel great, but it’s now aging, and the price it asks of potential buyers isn’t justified by the now-dated technology and lack of turbocharged performance. As a means of keeping the hatchback alive, the CX-3 is a valiant effort, but we’d advise you to spare some money and opt for a lesser variant rather than going for a top-spec model.