In a burgeoning class of tall hatchback cars masquerading as small SUVs, the Mazda CX-3 is … a hatchback — a sharp-looking, nimble one, with a quality interior and high gas mileage, but hardly an SUV.
Versus the competiton:
In a not-very-sporty, not-very-quick class, the CX-3 is definitely sporty and reasonably quick, with a great drivetrain but less cabin and cargo room and lower ground clearance than competitors.
Editor’s note: This review was written in November 2015 about the 2016 CX-3, but little of substance has changed for this year. To see what’s new for 2017, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years. To read the full review of the 2016 CX-3, click here.
Apart from its optional all-wheel drive, the only thing distinguishing the CX-3 from the hatchback version of Mazda’s own Mazda3 compact car is interior space — of which it has less. Oh, and also its price, which is higher (see them compared side by side). Having established that, I predict the CX-3 will excel in the market and demonstrate why automakers are producing these subcompacts and successfully selling them for more money than hatchback cars. Americans prefer SUVs over hatchbacks and (gasp!) wagons, practical considerations be damned. What else could explain the unquestionable appeal of what’s proving to be a class of unremarkable vehicles?
The CX-3 comes in Sport, Touring and Grand Touring trim levels, each with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, a six-speed automatic transmission and a choice of front- or all-wheel drive. I tested the Touring and Grand Touring. (Compare all three trim levels here.)
Exterior & Styling
Like so many of Mazda’s current models, the CX-3 looks great. Its snub-nosed front end recalls a competitor, the 2016 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport. The CX-3 also has the same kind of gray trim along its rocker panels and wheel arches that’s seen on direct competitors, such as the Subaru XV Crosstrek and the upscale Audi Allroad — both current market stars.
With ground clearance of 6.1 inches, the CX-3 is probably the most grounded-looking of the subcompact SUVs, though the Mini Countryman sits just 5.9 inches off the ground. The otherwise tall Chevrolet Trax clears just 6.2 inches. The Honda HR-V tops out at 6.7 inches, the Fiat 500X at 7.9 and the Crosstrek, Outlander Sport and Jeep Renegade max out between 8 and 8.7 inches. (See what I meant by the burgeoning subcompact SUV class?)
Also note that the CX-3 has no ground-clearance advantage versus the Mazda3 hatchback, so only its all-wheel drive will improve snow performance. For comparison, the CX-3 is 7.3 inches shorter from bumper to bumper, narrower by more than an inch, but 3.4 inches taller at the roofline versus the Mazda3. The compact CX-5 is 10.4 inches longer and 5.0 inches higher.
How It Drives
Where the CX-3 clearly beats every other model in its class is with its powertrain. The CX-3 has a 2.0-liter four-cylinder whose 146 horsepower compares to the Trax, HR-V, Outlander Sport and Crosstrek, but its curb weight is much lighter than all four — by as much as 388 pounds comparing all-wheel-drive models. It seems like a recipe for quick sprints, but the CX-3 initially felt a little poky to me. While this isn’t the quickest vehicle class, the Renegade, 500X and Countryman S (with all-wheel drive) offer 14 to 35 hp more.
In time I concluded the feeling of modest acceleration in the CX-3 was just that: a feeling. The HR-V has a continuously variable automatic transmission, and the Fiat and Jeep have nine-speed automatics, both with a wide range of gear ratios that help make the most of a small engine, especially off the line. Note that the HR-V’s CVT, though a good one, still comes with the whine and drone we don’t care for, and the nine-speed shared by the two other models induces engine fury when it hops down to low gears, for better and worse.
Compare the CX-3, whose broad engine torque band and responsive six-speed automatic cause less drama and provide vastly more pleasing operation in normal driving. But because there are just six speeds, sometimes you can stand on the accelerator and it doesn’t seem to do anything. There’s just modest acceleration and no kickdown to a lower gear, because at some speeds there just isn’t one to go to, even when in Sport mode.
When there is another gear to access, the CX-3 gets to it promptly. That can’t be said of some competitors, especially the nine-speeds, which have a terrible case of indecision. If you want to shift the CX-3 for yourself, you can move the gear selector into the manual mode — or, in the Grand Touring, use the steering wheel’s shift paddles.
Some of our editors found the CX-3 unduly noisy, but this vehicle class isn’t the place to go if you’re looking for serenity, either.
The CX-3 earns points for matching the class-leaders in gas mileage without a higher gear count or a CVT. Equipped with all-wheel drive, it’s rated 27/32/29 mpg city/highway/combined, tying the comparable HR-V exactly. The Crosstrek also gets an estimated 29 mpg combined, but 1 mpg less in the city and 2 mpg more on the highway. With all-wheel drive, the Outlander Sport tops out at 27 mpg combined and the 500X and Renegade at a mere 24 mpg.
For those keeping score, the front-drive CX-3 rates 29/35/31 mpg, and the Mazda3 hatchback (which is exclusively front-drive) tops out at 30/40/33 mpg.
The CX-3’s roadholding was excellent with Yokohama Avid S34 all-season tires. The Touring trim level with front-wheel drive and 16-inch alloy wheels was good, but I preferred the all-wheel drive on the top, Grand Touring, trim level, which had 18-inch wheels. All three trims share the same suspension tuning. I felt no great difference in ride quality between the 16- and 18-inch wheels. Both are sporty but comfortable.
Though Mazda touts this all-wheel-drive system as intelligent, it never gives the feel of a rear-biased drive system. It’s very much a front-drive-based configuration with about 60 percent of the weight in the front — just like every other model in this class.
Though the rear end employs a relatively inexpensive, but space-efficient, torsion-beam suspension rather than a fully independent setup, it seemed unfazed in relentless switchbacks and hairpins. Though the chassis is impressive, I wasn’t bowled over by the steering. Mazda tuned the electric assist nicely, with good torque buildup off-center, and the ratio is well-suited for the car. Overall, however, feedback wasn’t up to Mazda standards. It felt a bit artificial to me — though some editors lauded it. In the underwhelming context of subcompact SUVs, though, it’s certainly more impressive.
Interior space is arguably the CX-3’s greatest shortfall. By the numbers, front-seat legroom is on the high side, shy of only the Crosstrek. Front headroom is less than all competitors, yet at 6 feet tall, I was perfectly fine in the driver’s seat — even in the Grand Touring, whose standard moonroof (optional on Touring) robs almost an additional inch of space. Some of our editors found the front seats themselves a bit snug, and one editor wished powered seats were offered, as they are on some competitors but aren’t here, even as an option.
Maybe he was just expecting a taller seating position. That’s understandable, because the CX-3 driver sits just two-tenths of an inch higher than in a Mazda3 — a good 2.2 inches lower than the compact CX-5’s driver’s seat. Subcompact SUVs hardly tower over surrounding traffic, but the CX-3’s competitors typically give a higher seating vantage.
For backseat legroom, the CX-3 is definitely among the smallest of the bunch, with fractions of an inch less than the Trax and the Crosstrek but several inches less than the HR-V, which is one of the roomiest. Rear headroom is also down more than an inch versus some of those models. (See all the specs side by side.)
With all its newly introduced models, the subcompact SUV class has some nice interiors, and the CX-3 is right up there. The Sport has cloth seats, the Touring gets a nice combination of cloth and imitation leather, and the Grand Touring’s genuine leather has faux suede seat inserts and door panels.
Rather than using crappo Thin-Mint-style air-conditioning vents, Mazda included intricate, nicely finished vents, complete with air-volume knobs. Prominent items like this are a wise place for automakers to spend some money; it pays off. The 7-inch touch-screen display is another high-value standard item.
The main shortfall I noted was that the displays flanking the Touring’s speedometer gauge were too dim to see, even in overcast daylight. The Grand Touring, which has a central tachometer instead, with an inset digital speedometer and seemingly the same bookending displays, didn’t have this problem. The Grand Touring also adds Active Driving Display (a head-up display using a small, transparent window atop the dashboard).
Ergonomics & Electronics
The CX-3 combines a few simple mechanical controls with a standard Mazda Connect system, which comprises a 7-inch display atop the dashboard and a controller knob and buttons on the center console. The display functions as a touch-screen when the car is stationary, but the knob is necessary once in motion. Though it looks like what we’ve come to perceive as a navigation system, the navigation function comes only on the Grand Touring, where it’s standard. The system has control sections labeled Applications, Entertainment, Communications and Settings. As of now, Mazda doesn’t support Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, which some cars offer as a means to add onscreen navigation from a compatible smartphone.
The standard stereo supports AM/FM/CD, Bluetooth hands-free telephone and audio streaming, plus internet radio stations Aha, Pandora and Stitcher. Connections include two USB ports and an analog audio input jack. The Grand Touring brings the aforementioned navigation and a nice-sounding Bose premium stereo that adds HD radio and SiriusXM satellite radio with a four-month trial subscription. The Touring trim can optionally have this sound system, too.
A relatively new offering from Mazda is Mazda Mobile Start, a telematics-style system that allows the owner to remote-start the car, find the car, lock and unlock the doors and more by means of a smartphone. It requires $500 dealer-installed cellular hardware and, after one year of initial service, a $65 annual subscription. In the Trax, OnStar hardware is standard.
Cargo & Storage
The CX-3’s cargo volume behind the backseat is roughly half that of several competitors, and it’s among the smallest with the backseat folded down, as well. The Mini Countryman is one exception, having less cargo volume with its seats down, but it still edges out the Mazda with the seats up. Specifically, the CX-3 has 12.4 and 44.5 cubic feet behind the seats and maximum, respectively. The Mazda3 hatch has 20.2 and 47.1 cubic feet.
The CX-3 has a reasonably accommodating glove compartment, door pockets and a cubby in front of the shifter for mobile devices. There’s no center storage console, though. The most unique feature is a smartphone cavity built into higher trim levels’ center armrest. Interesting idea, but in the first car I tested the tab intended to hold the device in place marred my phone’s plastic-film screen protector. In the second car, a felt pad I presume is there to prevent the earlier mishap smeared backing adhesive on the phone. Proceed with caution.
An all-new model, the CX-3 had not been crash-tested as of publication. Once results are published, they will appear here.
A backup camera is standard. The Touring adds a blind spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, and the Grand Touring adds an adaptive front lighting system. Available only on the Grand Touring, the i-Activsense option package includes forward collision warning with low-speed autonomous braking, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, rain-sensing windshield wipers and auto on/off headlights with automatic high-beam control. See all safety features listed here.
For child-safety seat use, the CX-3’s grades are mixed, partly due to the small backseat. See the details in our Car Seat Check.
Value in Its Class
We want to believe subcompact SUVs are valued for their roominess and versatility, and if that’s true the CX-3 has some disadvantages due to its smaller interior volume. But it’s cleverly equipped with features that count, including the multimedia system and nicer materials and controls up high, where occupants see and interact with them.
You’ll have to step up to a Sport trim for more advanced features, like heated seats, keyless access and heated side signal mirrors, along with the first tier of active safety features detailed above. Naturally, it’s the top, GT trim that impresses most, with LED headlights, fog lights and taillights, a head-up display, automatic climate control, leather seats and more. Of course, it will cost you. Loaded with the i-Activsense option package and Soul Red paint, the CX-3 GT tops out at $29,340 including a destination fee.