The CUV sales boom is in full force.
Many automakers are revamping their product plans to take advantage of this renewed level of demand. Mazda is one of these companies and has invested large amounts of money and effort into revitalizing its CUV lineup. The 2016 Mazda CX-3 is the first fruit of this renewed effort, and promises to bring Mazda’s trademark levels of sportiness and vigor to the compact CUV segment. But has this focus on driving perfection blunted its capabilities in the process?
The exterior styling of the CX-3 incorporates many of the cues that made their debut on the Kodo concept car. This “Soul of Motion” design language includes the classic long hood short rear deck styling that also defines the company’s iconic Miata roadster. While the end result looks a bit odd in the case of the CX-3, it is a welcome departure from blander rivals such as the Chevrolet Trax and Jeep Renegade as well as the equally eccentric Nissan Juke. My favorite feature was my tester’s LED headlights which featured LED daytime running lights, LED fog lights, as well as Mazda’s Adaptive Front Lighting System. This potent suite of LED infused technology not only helped light up the night during my time with the CX-3, but the headlight’s ability to follow corners when turning helped improve safety and even helped me spot a small herd of deer on the side of the road that I would not have otherwise seen.
The interior of the CX-3 also embraces Mazda’s recent commitment to improved quality and value. The driver faces a big tachometer that also incorporates a small digital speedometer. The oversized tachometer is a welcome touch in this type of vehicle, and really drives home the performance oriented nature that has always defined Mazda vehicles. The leather sport seats in my tester were comfortable and offered commendable amounts of side bolstering and back support with suede inserts helping to keep occupants in place during spirited driving. My tester also came equipped with heads up display capability (“Active Driving Display” in Mazda speak), and the firm’s 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system. The screen delivered crisp images, but actual touch functions were limited to controlling the radio, with the other modes requiring the use of the I-Drive style control wheel. As stated before, the interior features higher quality materials, and while the faux carbon fiber trim still has a long way to go before it can truly duplicate the real thing, the suede inserts in the door panels, as well as the seven speaker Bose audio system were welcome highlights.
With such a strong opening salvo, it was a shame that the second row seats couldn’t produce a follow up performance. Rear seat room was poor with leg and head room standing out as two key offenders. An indentation built into the front seat back does help resolve this issue slightly, but not by much, and leaves only one map pocket for passengers to use. Cargo space also lags behind some of its rivals, but it can be increased by folding the rear seats down which is where they stayed for the duration of the CX-3’s stay with me.
Despite the interior’s strange blend of refinement and frustrating quirkiness, the CX-3 managed to make up for these faults by rewarding the driver when pushed to its limits. While the 2.0 liter 146 horsepower SKYACTIV four cylinder engine doesn’t sound very impressive, its 148 lb-ft of torque as well as the slick six speed automatic transmission made my tester an enjoyable treat when out on errands, as well as on my daily commute to work.
The suspension does a great job absorbing bumps and dips, while also mitigating body roll at the same time. Very playful out on twisty roads.
Putting the CX-3 into sport mode enhanced these traits even further, and transformed my tester into a spirited companion that was both playful and fun thanks in part to its louder exhaust note (which also had a tendency to occasionally reverberate into the brake pedal when braking.)
While the CX-3 may not hold top honors when it comes to cargo capacity or interior room, its surprising levels of performance and distinct character traits make it a compelling cross shop in the CUV segment. Pricing starts at $20,800 which puts it in the crosshairs of the Honda HR-V but the Mazda has more standard equipment including a six speed automatic transmission wheras the HR-V starts out with a six speed manual. This also puts it in range of the $20,800 Chevrolet Trax but the Mazda offers more power, and also outguns the Chevy in standard equipment. Grand Touring models like my tester start at $24,990 with all-wheel drive and optional goodies pushing this Deep Crystal Blue Mica example to $26,240. This is solid pricing for a truly unique offering, and we hope that improved rear seat comfort and ergonomics will help transform the CX-3 into a truly balanced blend of fun and functionality.
Model: 2016 Mazda CX-3 Grand Touring (AWD)
Engine: 2.0 liter SKYACTIV four cylinder
Options: Rear Bumper Guard ($100) Door Sill trim plates ($100) GT-1 Active Sense Package ($1,920)
Price As Tested: $29,260 with $900 delivery charge
Carl Malek has been an automotive journalist for over 10 years. First starting out as a freelance photographer before making the transition to writing during college, his work has appeared on numerous automotive forums as well as websites such as Autoshopper.com.
Carl is also a big fan of British vehicles with the bulk of his devotion going to the Morgan Motor Company as well as offerings from Lotus, MG, and Caterham. When he is not writing about automobiles, Carl enjoys spending time with his family and friends in the Metro Detroit area, as well as spending time with his adorable pets.