We still came away with more questions than answers.
The Mazda CX-3, like most other bite-sized crossovers, is half animal and half man, cursed to live an existence where it will never be accepted. Except for the fact that it is being accepted, sought after even by an SUV-infatuated public. It’s a tough case to make, especially when it’s crowded by hugely capable sedans and SUVs in its own family. During our week with the Mazda CX-3, it was these five defining characteristics that left us scratching our heads over the reasoning behind the little CUV and the segment in general.
1) The entire point of a crossover is to retain SUV capabilities in a car-like package that handles well, gets good gas mileage, and is easy to park. For one reason or another, the Mazda CX-3 isn’t a standout at any of these tasks. Leaving my driveway, which has a polite incline that usually only makes troubles for sports cars, the CX-3 scraped its front end, eroding any faith I had in its off-road prowess. Investigation reveals that the CX-3 has the same 6.1 inch ground clearance as a Mazda3, the only difference being that AWD is available along with plastic armor on the crossover. In theory, it might sound like the perfect alternative for the active and versatile millennial, but rest assured, once the pavement ends, it’s not going far.
2) Most modern vehicles are fairly isolated from the outside world save for a few exceptions. In many situations, engine noise, outside temperatures, and bumps in the road are cancelled out through thick insulation and cushy suspension systems. Not so in the CX-3. It’s easy to see how Mazda kept the CX-3 under 3,000 pounds because the engine and tire noise is loud, and the outside elements tend to mesh with the cabin atmosphere fluidly. Inside, things are much more cramped than most people would be happy with, with the rear seat falling just shy of being a punishment. Still, most other cars in the segment suffer from the same problems.
3) The CX-3’s small size makes it a breeze to mark in a crowded city. The suspension, while stiff, is as engaging as money can buy within the segment and plays nice with winding roads. While it’s no speedster (the 2.0-liter four-cylinder only makes 146 horsepower and 146 lb-ft of torque), it’s the CUV for the enthusiast, especially because it’s available with a manual transmission. Even with its sub $20,000 starting price (AWD starts at $21,210), it’s interior feels special and despite some ergonomic inconsistencies, the CX-3 squeezes an upscale feel with the little it has to work with.
4) Unfortunately for the CX-3, it’s outclassed by its own family members. Those wanting CUVs for their carlike handling may want to take a look at the Mazda3 hatchback, which has the same ground clearance, is cheaper, and has more cargo volume and passenger compartment volume than the CX-3. On the other side of the coin, buyers looking for more utility need only to spend less than $5,000 extra for a CX-5, which is much more spacious and has more cargo capacity. The single way that the CX-3 outdoes the Mazda3 and the CX-5 is if a buyer wants all-wheel drive in something with the footprint of a Mazda2.
5) It was a bit tough getting into the CX-3 after having driven a luxury cruiser like the Genesis G90 the week prior, but that being said, our experience with the little car wasn’t all pain and tears. In that process, we took a trip to Sonoma County in Northern California for a wine tasting adventure and realized that, as uncomfortable and relatively nonsensical that the CX-3 is, it retains Mazda’s signature characteristic: the ability to bring a driver joy simply by driving. The little CUV soaked up the curves and felt tossable and direct, and despite the fact that our week with it ended us scratching our heads wondering why it even exists, we got our fill of fun.