by Adam Lynton
The subcompact crossover segment has become the arena in which every manufacturer wants a slice of the pie - it is, after all, one of the quickest growing pies of all automotive segments. It's also the field in which automakers can afford to do something unique, whether it's alien styling, hot performance, or in the case of the Mazda CX-3, giving a subcompact crossover enough luxury to trouble truly niche premium brands and products like the Mini Countryman. At a shade over $20,000, the CX-3 is also Mazda's cheapest offering in the United States, but that doesn't mean they've held back, pairing the Kodo: Soul of Motion exterior design language with an interior that has more than just a whiff of Audi sophistication. We got behind the wheel of the top-spec CX-3 Grand Touring for a week to see whether, in a world of turbocharged corner-cutting, Mazda's 2.0-liter naturally aspirated crossover could cut the mustard in a segment hotly contested with the likes of the Hyundai Kona and Honda HR-V.
Mazda has thrown quite a few changes and improvements at the CX-3 for the 2019 model year, keeping an already top-class competitor even fresher. Incorporating improved materials, sound insulation, and newly available full-leather seating, the CX-3 now offers a more refined drive. A new fully electronic parking brake has been fitted, which allows Mazda to have reworked the center console and armrest for enhanced storage. The front seats have been redesigned and there is a new rear armrest with cupholders. Outside, the 2019 CX-3 has a revised front grille, new taillights, and new wheels. Safety has taken a step up, with a new tire pressure monitoring system and blind-spot monitoring standard from the entry-level trim. The new Sport i-ActiveSense Package adds a full suite of safety gear. Power has increased marginally, with the 2.0-liter engine producing two horsepower more than before.
One of the more attractive subcompact crossovers, the CX-3 maintains its cute yet classy look with a few changes for 2019. A new front grille design, new taillights, and new wheels are the updates. All models have alloy wheels, with sizes going up to 18 inches. Daytime running lights, a roofline spoiler, and auto-off headlights are standard, while more premium trims have LED headlights and fog lights. Admirably, Mazda has managed to make something small look quite substantial and premium, and the Kodo: Soul of Motion design language works as well in subcompact crossover form as it does on the MX-5 Miata.
Tight dimensions make the CX-3 perfect for zipping through congested areas. Length is 168.3 inches, the wheelbase is 101.2 inches, and the width is 69.9 inches. The Sport trim is 60.7 inches in height, with the Touring and Grand Touring being a marginally taller 60.9 inches. The Honda HR-V is larger in all key dimensions than the CX-3, besides width, where the Mazda is just 0.1 inches wider than the narrowest HR-V trim. An SUV more in theory than in practice, the hatchback-like CX-3 offers only 6.1 inches of ground clearance, nearly three inches down on the Subaru Crosstrek. The CX-3's curb weight is 2,809 lbs for the front-wheel-drive variants and 2,952 for the all-wheel-drive models.
Eight shades comprise the CX-3's color palette. Standard colors are Deep Crystal Blue Mica, Jet Black Mica, Ceramic Metallic, Eternal Blue Mica, and Titanium Flash Mica. Added-cost colors are the particularly striking Soul Red Crystal Metallic ($595), Machine Gray Metallic ($300), and Snowflake White Pearl Mica ($200). Our Grand Touring test car wore the disappointing shade of Eternal Blue, which was eternally depressing every time we looked at it. We'd much rather have the Soul Red Crystal - a color designed for the current generation of Mazdas that looks oh so good - or at the very least something with a little depth like the Deep Crystal Blue Mica.
Mazda has long favored naturally-aspirated engines over turbocharging, and that trend continues with the CX-3. All trims use a 2.0-liter engine with outputs of 148 horsepower and 146 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed automatic and front-wheel-drive are standard, while all-wheel-drive is available.
The CX-3 gets off the line with zip, the 0-60 mph sprint taking around eight seconds, which is faster than many other subcompacts, but not quite as quick as the turbocharged Hyundai Kona. This makes the little Mazda ideal within the confines of a city, where being confined by traffic lights and roundabouts are all too common. It's outside of the city and at higher speeds that the engine takes some strain. When properly equipped, the CX-3 can tow up to 2,000 lbs.
Mazda keeps things simple with just one engine option across three trims: the 2.0-liter Skyactiv-G producing 148 horsepower and 146 lb-ft of torque, a slight increase from the 146 hp produced previously. A six-speed automatic transmission is standard. Featuring precision manufactured intake ports and a new piston shape with a reduced height, combustion can be completed more quickly, thereby increasing torque at lower engine speeds.
It's decently quick off the mark, and our front-wheel-drive tester seemed happy zipping between traffic lights, but there's no mid-range punch associated with modern turbocharged motors, and when pursuing highway speeds, the engine feels unwilling. It's not the most tuneful, either, sounding unrefined and at odds with seeking out the redline. We get the impression things would be far better if there were a manual with which to row your own gears, but Mazda's reliance on the six-speed auto 'box puts paid to that dream. The automatic shifts smoothly, but it's dreadfully slow, and there's a palpable pause between throttle inputs and the decision to hunt for a gear.
There is both a sport mode for the gearbox and manual shift paddles, but the former merely hangs onto gears rather than speeding up their selection, and the latter just requires far too much foresight in order to get the right gear selected when you need it. Left to its own devices, the CX-3 is happiest in traffic.
While the option might exist for all-wheel-drive, unless you live in a state frequently visited by Jack Frost, we'd avoid the option. The front-wheel-drive models are more than good enough at dealing with the available power, and the chassis is simply one of the best in the subcompact segment. It's easy to forget the CX-3 is a crossover, as, truth told, the 6.1 inches of ground clearance is barely more than hatchback status, and the way the CX-3 behaves is nothing like a traditional crossover.
The steering is beautifully weighted, feels fluid, and points the front end exactly where you want it. And while there isn't much feedback, the linearity of responses and the keenness to change direction are more than fair compensation. There's an abundance of grip from the front end too, and if you can look past the slow gearbox and hustle the CX-3 down a twisty road, you'll be amazed at the balance and poise provided by the chassis.
It's largely down to the suspension setup, which absorbs all but the largest bumps with aplomb while dealing with mid-corner abrasions as if they were barely even there. It affords some playfulness, too, with little tastes of lift-off oversteer for the enthusiastic driver. The brakes are good, too, but they lack feel. However, they'll stop consistently quick and take all the abuse standard road use should send their way.
The ride is super-refined as well, with noises from the outside environment kept at bay incredibly well. But unfortunately, so is the view of much of the outside world, as the large B and C pillars create fairly sizable blind spots, making the CX-3 feel larger on the road than it is.
The CX-3 returns impressive gas-mileage, with the all-wheel-drive variant's EPA figures working out to 27/32/29 mpg city/highway/combined, and the front-wheel-drive an even thriftier 29/34/31 mpg. By comparison, the highly-rated Kia Soul manages combined consumption of 28 mpg from the most fuel-efficient model, despite a smaller-capacity engine. FWD models have a 12.7-gallon gas tank and will travel around 393 miles on a full tank, while AWD models will manage about 345 miles from a smaller 11.9-gallon tank.
In reality, we were able to match and even beat the claimed estimates, with combined use yielding 34 mpg with a bit of care.
Mazda has been on a roll with their interior designs for a while now, and the CX-3 is no different. Long gone are the days of durable but plasticky Japanese cabins, with the CX-3's cabin featuring soft-touch plastics, attractive stitching on the dashboard top, and a clean design that blends form and function brilliantly. An ideal driving position places all controls within easy reach, while controls for the air-conditioning and infotainment system are easy to use. Space utilization depends on where you're seated, with the driver and front passenger getting more room than those in the back. Opt for the higher trims, and features like a power sunroof, a head-up display, and more driver-assist safety features become available. Overall, the interior quality and layout is a CX-3 highlight.
Sat upon the leather upholstered seats of our Grand Touring test car, it would be hard to say we weren't behind the wheel of a true luxury car. The front seats offer ample adjustability, accommodating a six-foot-two driver with surprising ease, with the only flaw being substantial blind spots carved out by chunky B and C pillars. Sadly, though the front of the cabin is generously proportioned, the rear isn't, and although it's claimed as a five-seater, the CX-3 will only realistically accommodate four adults, of which those occupying the rear seats need to be on the small side of the size chart. Legroom is the most problematic aspect back there, as with a driver comfortably in place, rear legroom all but disappears. Fortunately, the smaller occupants who will sit back there can look forward to seats as comfortable as the front pair, with support and cushioning enough to keep you comfortable whether on a short commute or long cross-country cruise.
Mazda caters to all walks of life with the interior finishing. Base Sport models get plain black cloth while the Touring gets black leatherette with cloth inserts. On our Grand Touring tester, the seats and door panels were upholstered in premium black leather with perforated upper backrests, but buyers can also opt for Parchment colored leather if they want the interior to feel a little airier. Regardless of your upholstery choice, though, the dash looks and feels of high quality. The main dash panel is upholstered in Alcantara, while above and below, the materials are all soft-touch. The center console is padded and covered in black leatherette with gray stitching, a trait carried over to the dash and center armrest, and the air vents boast tactile faux aluminum surrounds with red ring inserts. There's more than a hint of Audi A3 in here, but imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and the Mazda crossover pulls the look off well.
Those compact dimensions don't only impact rear-seat space, but cargo capacity too. With the rear seatbacks up, the CX-3 only has 12.4 cubic feet of space. With one large suitcase loaded, there's not a lot of room for anything other than a few grocery bags. This is also a best-case scenario, because when equipped with the lovely Bose audio system, trunk space takes a further dive to just 9.6 cu.ft. This means that the range-topping Grand Touring we tested (which has the Bose system fitted as standard) is the least practical choice. Fold down the rear seats, and there's 44.5 cubes of total space or 41.7 with the Bose system installed, but at least the load area is almost completely flat.
Thanks to the addition of an electronic parking brake for 2019, the center console now has improved space for stashing smaller items such as a mobile phone or wallet. Still, the CX-3 isn't overly generous for small-item storage, and the front cupholders are only in place at the expense of additional storage nooks. Rear passengers don't get much, either, with tiny door pockets and seatback pockets all they're offered.
Even at base Sport level, the CX-3 offers a decent amount of standard equipment. This trim has push-button start, cruise control, air-conditioning with a pollen filter, a rearview camera, blind-spot monitoring, a tilt and telescopic steering column, remote keyless entry, and automatic headlights. Moving up to the Touring adds automatic climate control, heated front seats, Mazda's advanced keyless entry system, and rain-sensing windshield wipers. The top-line Grand Touring trim features an active driving display, paddle shifters mounted on the steering wheel, and radar cruise control with a stop and go function. Among the options are a power driver's seat, a heated steering wheel, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. A full suite of driver-assist safety features can be added to the lower two trims under the i-Activsense packages.
The Mazda Connect infotainment system has taken a leaf out of BMW's playbook for design and operation, with the seven-inch dash-mounted display primarily controlled by a rotary controller between the front seats. Alternatively, it is equipped with touch functionality, but it only functions when the car is at a complete standstill. The system is fully integrated with AM/FM radio, voice command functionality, Aha, Pandora, and Stitcher internet radio, and media can be streamed via Bluetooth, USB, or auxiliary input. HD Radio and SiriusXM are available on the Touring trim and standard on the Grand Touring, but Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are notable absentees from the system's set of functionality. Navigation is only included at the Grand Touring level.
The setup is a little rudimentary, but the rotary controller is easy to use, the system simply laid out, and overall, easy to understand. We'd love full smartphone integration, and most rivals have it, but that aside, the system was excellent, and the seven-speaker Bose sound system on our Grand Touring test car in place of the standard six-speaker system sounded exceptional.
Beyond two recalls by the NHTSA back in 2016, the CX-3 hasn't been the subject of further serious problems. Those two recalls were for lift gate stays which may corrode, causing the liftgate to fall down and potentially cause injury. The other recall was for the possibility of steering loss due to insufficient bolt torque. The overall number of complaints also dropped significantly after the first year of launch. However, a J.D. Power rating of 69/100 is below-average in this segment.
For peace of mind, the CX-3 range is covered by Mazda's three-year/36,000-mile limited warranty, a five-year/60,000-mile limited powertrain warranty, and 24/7 emergency roadside assistance for three years or 36,000 miles, whichever comes first. An anti-perforation limited warranty is for five years with unlimited miles.
Despite a five-star rating for overall safety from the NHTSA, the tests also revealed a safety concern for the CX-3. In the side barrier rear passenger test, it was found that a higher likelihood of a thoracic injury is possible. There were no such issues found by the IIHS, which awarded the CX-3 five stars and a Top Safety Pick award. Only the headlights were a bit disappointing, being rated as Acceptable or Poor depending on the trim.
Mazda has increased the CX-3's safety specification for 2019, making the small SUV an even safer prospect than before. The full complement of airbags includes side curtain airbags both front and rear. Sport trim gets blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, smart city brake support, a rearview camera, and a direct tire pressure monitoring system. The Touring model includes all of this plus rain-sensing wipers, while the Grand Touring's safety specification encompasses pedestrian detection, smart brake support with collision warning, radar cruise control with stop & go, lane departure warning, and high beam control. The Sport and Touring trims each have their own, optional i-ActiveSense safety packages, which adds on all of the Grand Touring's standard safety gear.
Crossovers are appealing for a number of reasons, chief of which are the increased ride height and increased practicality afforded by a larger vehicle. Both of these are areas in which the CX-3 falls short, with ride height no greater than a regular subcompact hatch and extremely limited cargo space, as well as limited rear passenger space. It's no more than a hatchback with some wheel arch cladding giving it the title of 'faux by four'. But forget about the classification and enjoy the CX-3 for what it is, and you'll find there's much to love. Safety is top-notch, and the best features are at least available on base trims, the driving dynamics are superb, and the interior feels like it belongs in the premium segment, not in something that costs less than $30,000. It's a frugal runner, too, and the levels of available specification are excellent. But the automatic gearbox is a letdown, the limited cabin and cargo space a deal-breaker for small families, and the lack of smartphone integration a very sore point. The CX-3 is a wonderful car, but it's best enjoyed by someone who enjoys living a solitary life enjoying the finer things, without having to pay all that much for them.
The cheapest trim is the Sport, with an MSRP of $20,390. The mid-range Touring costs $22,475 and the fully-loaded Grand Touring is $25,745. These prices exclude tax, licensing, registration, and a destination charge of $1,045. All-wheel-drive is available on all trims at an additional $1,400.
A straightforward Mazda CX-3 range comprises three trims: Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring. Front-wheel-drive is standard on all, with all-wheel-drive an option. Common to every CX-3 is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine producing 148 horsepower and 146 lb-ft, mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.
The Sport doesn't feel obviously entry-level, and still gets features like 16-inch alloy wheels, daytime running lights, and a rear roofline spoiler. Inside, there are cloth-upholstered seats, along with air-conditioning, a seven-inch touchscreen as part of the Mazda Connect infotainment system, a six-speaker audio system, cruise control, and push-button start. Even this base model gets some key driver-assist equipment as standard: blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and a rearview camera are included on every CX-3.
The Touring is the mid-level trim and is distinguished by larger 18-inch alloy wheels, automatic on/off headlamps, and heated body-color power mirrors with integrated turn signals. Automatic climate control, heated front seats, leatherette/cloth combination upholstery, and an advanced keyless entry system are among the upgrades over the Sport.
The range-topping Grand Touring has a power glass moonroof, LED lighting for the headlights, fog lights, and taillights, and an adaptive front lighting system. Although it has the superior seven speaker Bose sound system, this does impinge on cargo capacity. Leather upholstery, SiriusXM satellite radio, and radar cruise control are among this variant's long list of standard features.
2.0-liter Inline-4 Gas
2.0-liter Inline-4 Gas
2.0-liter Inline-4 Gas
While there isn't a plethora of optional packages or extras for the CX-3 range, those that are available are certainly useful. On the Sport trim, the i-ActiveSense Package bundles together an array of driver aids like radar cruise control, lane departure warning, and smart brake support with collision warning. You also get LED adaptive headlights, an active driving display, automatic climate control, and rain-sensing wipers. It's good value at $1,100.
Moving onto the Touring, the i-ActiveSense Package is similar to the Sport's, but is cheaper at $1,000, since the Touring already has some features as standard over and above the Sport. The Preferred Equipment Package is $1,410 and packs in a Bose sound system, power moonroof, HD radio, SiriusXM satellite radio, and a cargo cover.
The Grand Touring's package options are limited to the Premium Pack, which costs $710 and includes an auto-dimming rearview mirror, six-way power driver's seat with memory, heated steering wheel, and traffic sign recognition.
A front and rear bumper trim package is $525 for all trims, while standalone options include a frameless auto-dimming rearview mirror with homelink for $325, an interior lighting kit for $300, and rear parking sensors for $500.
It's tempting to jump headlong into buying the Grand Touring model we had on test, as it's a fully-loaded premium offering right off the showroom floor, and frankly, that's how we'd spend our money. Opting for a mid-spec Touring and adding on options packages to achieve the same level of spec ends up being pricier, and you don't get full leather seats or LED headlights that come standard on the Grand Touring. We'd choose Soul Red for the exterior color - there really doesn't need to be any other available color choice in our minds - and forego the optional Premium package, as the manual seats are fine, the heated steering is unnecessary, and the auto-dimming rearview mirror can be added as a standalone option. As for all-wheel-drive, unless you live in a snow-prone area, it's not worth the extra outlay.
While the CX-3 could easily be mistaken for a regular hatchback, there will be no such misjudgments with the larger CX-5. Starting at $4,000 more than the CX-3, the CX-5 immediately atones for the CX-3's major shortcomings by offering more rear-seat space and over double the amount of cargo space, which is significant. The underpowered base engine aside, the CX-5 has the option of a 250-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder that comfortably outperforms the CX-3. Both have smart interiors that feel more premium than you'd expect, but the CX-5 also has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, with both smartphone integrations missing from the CX-3. Both SUVs are among the most fun to drive in their respective segments, with sharp steering setting these Mazda twins apart from the pack. With its extra space and much larger trunk, the CX-5 is the better SUV, but if you'll be using the back seat for little more than extra storage space, the CX-3 remains a compelling little crossover.
An interesting foil to the Mazda CX-3, the Subaru Crosstrek edges closer to the traditional SUV experience, with a raised ride height making it not only look like the more rugged option, but also giving it an edge over the CX-3 when not driving on smooth tarmac. Also more SUV-like is the Crosstrek's cargo capacity, which at over 20 cubic feet comfortably outclasses the CX-3's puny offering. The Subaru is also better for carrying passengers in the back. However, the Mazda fights back with a far more engaging driving experience, outpacing the Subaru in a straight line and when the road gets twisty. The Crosstrek is found wanting with its sluggish 152-hp engine. Although the Crosstrek's cabin is a pleasant enough affair, the CX-3 looks and feels more premium. If you want some actual SUV versatility and space, the Crosstrek takes this easily, but if you prefer your SUV to offer an experience that's more car-like, the CX-3 wins.