As the CUV market continues to grow in importance, the diverse selection of models, sizes, and trims can sometimes make the process of buying one of these vehicles a daunting endeavor. While the old adage "bigger is better" still resonates in the minds of many buyers, is it really indeed better? To find out, we went behind the wheel of two of Mazda's bread and butter CUV entries to find out if size really does matter, and whether other factors emerge in the quest for the perfect family hauler?
2018 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring
It's no secret that Mazda's CX-5 is proving to be a real winner for Mazda. Combining sporty styling with a handsome profile has created one of the most visually stimulating CUVs on the market today. Our time with the CX-5 was brief (due to it serving as a stand in for the RC 350 reviewed earlier) but the few days we did experience it were enough for us to dissect some of its greater attributes. For starters, our tester arrived with a rare color, Soul Red Crystal Metallic. This color is our favorite hue, but is the equivalent of Bigfoot or a Unicorn in terms of sheer rarity. In fact, our tester was the first such Mazda model to arrive at the Michigan office with this photogenic hue. Even in the dead of winter, the paint really stands out, especially when the sunlight hits it at just the right angle. The paint's hypnotic effect also partially masks the rather bland rear styling, which is balanced out by the bolder front fascia and its big front grille.
The interior of our tester did a good job keeping the majority of road noise out, and the flair for design that permeates the exterior, also seeps its way into the cabin. Material quality is quite good for the most part, with plenty of leather accents scattered throughout our Grand Touring grade tester. Some cheap plastics are scattered in a few spots, and we even noticed some fit issues in the center stack. But those minor blemishes do little to detract from its broader charms. The seats in our tester were comfortable, but lack the support seen in some of its other rivals. Second row occupants will also enjoy commendable levels of comfort, but taller passengers will undoubtedly feel cramped especially in regards to leg and headroom. Mazda's infotainment system as always, is still annoying to use at times. But the control wheel does offer better accuracy than many touchscreen based units, and a 2018 update brings full color capability to the HUD display which is a welcome change.
Performance for our tester is derived from a 2.5 liter four cylinder that is good for 187 horsepower and a balanced 185 lb-ft of torque. These are commendable figures, but buyers looking for the spirited experience that defines the CX-3 and Mazda's more conventional car lineup will not find it here. Like the bigger CX-9, this engine is saddled by the additional curb weight generated by the all-wheel drive system, and that causes it to make the sprint to 60 mph in a rather leisurely 8.4 seconds (the old model needed 7.8 seconds to accomplish the same task.) Braking also felt somewhat distant with long pedal travel accenting the otherwise smooth stops.
However it's not all bad news, with the CX-5 delivering excellent handling dynamics during our brief time with it. Steering feel is quite good with crisp transitions, and plenty of feedback being communicated to the driver's hands. This sounds like the perfect recipe, but it is marred by the stability control, which is too intrusive, and cannot be turned off. Mazda reps claim that the stability control system is a crucial component of the brand's i-Activ all-wheel drive system, and thus cannot be defeated. Thankfully, the traction control can be turned off, which does make up for it somewhat.
Pricing for the 2018 Mazda CX-5 starts at $24,150 for a base Sport model, with Touring grade boasting a slightly higher $26,215. Grand Touring models represent the top of the CX-5 litter and start at $29,645. Our example had a base price of $30,695 with options and fees raising the final price to $34,380. This pricing puts it in contention with rivals such as the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV 4, though the Mazda has better athletic prowess than the both of them put together. However, it also puts it perilously close to the smaller CX-3 Grand Touring in base pricing which might tarnish its value quotient slightly.
2018 Mazda CX-3 Grand Touring
Wheras the CX-5 is clearly geared towards large families, the CX-3 is a family hauler that serves a completely different niche. Currently the smallest member of Mazda's crossover army, the CX-3 still has several weapons at its disposal that help it hit above its weight class. For starters, it's more athletic than the CX-5, with our tester retaining the eagerness and playful handling that has come to define our prior encounters with the CX-3. The 2.0 liter engine may lose out on displacement slightly to the bigger CX-5, but the 146 horsepower it does generate is still put to good use, with our tester delivering good amounts of acceleration. We missed the lovely six speed manual transmission that is found in other Mazda offerings, but the six speed automatic that is present, is no slouch, with the unit in our tester delivering smooth and accurate shifts. Sport mode raises its sharpness, and also alters the shift points, which helps the CX-3 feel more confident and composed.
With all of this vigor and poise, it's a shame that the CX-3 also embodies some of the flaws that define the larger CX-5. Fuel economy is not a strong suit, with our tester guzzling fuel during a long trip to Saline, Michigan to see some friends. The snowy commute to Saline also revealed the limitations of the CX-3's passenger area with our third passenger suffering from cramped leg room. Taller passengers will also experience tight head room, while its cramped rear cargo area forced us to get creative with fitting our bags. This included putting some in the lap of our cramped third passenger. Despite these drawbacks, we can still see the CX-3 as a great fit for young couples, as well as those with small children that can make better use of the rear seat room.
Pricing for the 2018 Mazda CX-3 starts at $20,110 for a base front wheel drive Sport model, with the addition of all-wheel drive raising the price slightly to $21,360. Our Grand Touring spec tester had a starting price of $26,415, with options such as its $1,435 Premium package, and accessories helping to push the final sticker to $29,615. This pricing includes shipping, and puts it in line with rivals like the Honda HR-V as well as the Toyota CH-R. In addition, this pricing also makes the CX-3 an interesting cross shop against certain versions of the CX-5, especially with certain options equipped.
In a way, the CX-5 and CX-3 are like two sides of a coin, each one offers a distinct arsenal of advantages and disadvantages to buyers. The CX-5 is the refined mature offering designed to cater to weekend warriors looking for a dash of fun in an otherwise family first offering. The CX-3 on the other hand is like an eager rookie, offering flashes of brilliance and yet enough compromises to balance things out. Either way, both are solid offerings, and choosing one will ultimately depend on which is the right fit for your needs. As for the saying "bigger is better," it is becoming less relevant, especially with this generation of CUV offerings.