The verdict: The CX-3 is more a small hatchback car than full-on SUV, but it can fit an urban buyer who values upscale style and driving manners over more space and utility.
Versus the competiton: Some subcompact SUV rivals are better for hauling cargo, fitting child seats or plowing through snow, but the less practical, carlike CX-3 still stands out for its looks, interior quality, sporty driving, safety tech and good gas mileage.
The 2019 Mazda CX-3 continues to be a favorite of mine among the growing field of subcompact SUVs, and Mazda has updated it for 2019 to be a bit more of a near-premium choice among the littlest SUVs from mainstream brands. The changes are in line with Mazda’s efforts to stand out against much bigger mainstream brands by adding a more upscale feel.
For the 2019 refresh, Mazda also has addressed some of the shortcomings of the original, from cabin noise to cupholders. Meanwhile, it hasn’t altered what has been the CX-3’s strongest attributes since it rolled out as a 2016 model: stylish design and a sporty driving experience with class-leading handling.
Also unchanged is that the CX-3 is more low-riding hatchback car than SUV hauler, with limited backseat and cargo space compared with most rivals. It remains a choice for SUV buyers who value style and driving fun over maximum utility, who want the dessert before the meat and potatoes.
The CX-3 offers Sport, Touring and Grand Touring trim levels; all are powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder paired with a conventional six-speed automatic transmission and front- or all-wheel drive. The test car was a Grand Touring with all-wheel drive.
The CX-3 makes a great first impression. The interesting contours and surfaces of the sleek and swoopy Mazda Kodo design language stand out among its small SUV competition, a group mostly akin to sensible shoes. For 2019, the busy seven-bar grille insert gets a bolder treatment with four more interesting bars; the lower bumper gets chrome accents that echo the trim on the lower doors. Standard on the Grand Touring test car and available on other models are LED headlights and a more distinctive LED taillight design. The Grand Touring also gets LED foglights and LED daytime running lights, and there’s a handsome new design for its 18-inch wheels. To really mix up a striking CX-3, add Mazda’s extra-cost Soul Red Crystal paint and stir.
More than just looking sporty, the CX-3 drives like the sporty hatchback it really is. It’s lower than many rivals, with a carlike 6.1 inches of ground clearance. That helps the handling, though at the expense, even with all-wheel drive, of the kind of go in the snow you’d get with, say, a rival Subaru Crosstrek or Jeep Renegade, both of which ride more than 2 inches higher.
But in most conditions, the CX-3 can run doughnuts around its rivals. That’s thanks to its light weight (at most 2,952 pounds with all-wheel drive) and well-tuned chassis. Cornering is impressively flat and confident, and while the steering has less precision than Mazda’s best cars, it still has good weight and feel. The 2019 chassis improvements build on 2018 tweaks for better handling and the addition of Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control system, which adjusts engine power delivery and shifts weight for better cornering. It still feels very much like a front-drive car, however, even with the all-wheel-drive system.
The ride is firm but not harsh; it’s also more comfortable, though it still has some of the bobbing effect owing to the vehicle’s short wheelbase. The improved ride is thanks to suspension changes for all trim levels, as well as to a new tire design aimed to better absorb road imperfections and improve braking distance for the 18-inch wheels on the Touring and Grand Touring (16s are standard on the base model).
The 2.0-liter engine has gained a couple of more horsepower, for 148 hp total, but more important, it’s been tuned to deliver more torque at lower rpm across the range. The difference at lower speeds is noticeable, and the 2.0-liter continues to be mated to an excellent, crisp-shifting six-speed automatic — no continuously variable automatic transmission (or CVT drone) here as you’ll find with many vehicles in this class. The addition of a seven- or eight-speed transmission might offer more gearing flexibility to take advantage of the power that is available, however.
While it still feels a little hesitant off the line, the CX-3 feels plenty zippy as you get the revs up, and you can boost throttle and transmission response with the more aggressive Sport setting. You also can shift for yourself with the manual mode (with paddle shifters in the Grand Touring model along with the stick).
A bonus is that the CX-3 also delivers excellent fuel economy, with EPA ratings of 29/34/31 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive and 27/32/29 mpg with all-wheel drive. In the real world, I got better than the highway rating with a pump-measured 32.2 mpg (32.4 on the trip computer) for a Washington, D.C., to New York City round-trip in an all-wheel-drive CX-3 Grand Touring.
Feeling Good on the Inside
The CX-3’s changes for 2019 are most extensive inside and are most apparent in the Grand Touring top trim, but they extend to the Sport and Touring models. The Grand Touring gets full-leather seating surfaces for the first time (not just leather trim), and it has stitching and pleated piping as you might expect in a more expensive vehicle. The 2019 Grand Touring interior also has new Parchment or black seat-color choices, new suedelike trim on the dashboard and stylish red trim accents. If that’s not enough, upscale extras available for the Grand Touring include a heated steering wheel, power driver’s seat with power lumbar support and driver’s seat memory.
But the quality cabin materials and trim for this class of vehicles also extend down the line into the Touring model’s leatherette (imitation leather) seats and the Sport model’s cloth upholstered interior. Neither feels cheap, which can’t be said of many subcompact SUV base models. The CX-3’s seats also have been reshaped and have new bolstering and firmer foam padding. They’re still sporty and hold you in, but they feel less narrow, and I found them much more comfortable for a long drive.
The comfort over a long haul also is aided by more sound insulation on all models that makes the CX-3 cabin now among the quieter small SUVs.
The true highlight of the new 2019 interior may be a real center console with a storage bin and a cupholder that you can use without having to flip up the center armrest (you used to have to pick one or the other). Some will miss the hand brake, but a switch to an electronic parking brake freed up the needed space. Unfortunately, you still have to raise the armrest to use a second cupholder, but baby steps — and if you don’t need the second one, it can be collapsed for more bin storage, so there is that.
Not a highlight is the backseat. Apparently hearing the clamor for cupholders, the rear seat now has a fold-down armrest with two more. But the backseat still feels cramped, even for a subcompact SUV, and it’s inhospitable for more than short distances for adults. While the front of the cabin feels roomy and comfortable for this 6-footer, I did not have enough legroom to sit behind a similarly sized front-seat occupant. Headroom also is in short supply for a tall adult, and an added problem is the clamshell-style head restraints that pushed my head uncomfortably forward.
The small backseat makes the CX-3 more a personal car than a family hauler, so its cargo space might not be as important. Even still, it comes in on the low end among rivals at 12.4 cubic feet behind the backseat (and just 9.6 if you have the Bose premium audio). With the rear seatbacks folded, the CX-3 has 44.5 cubic feet (41.7 with the Bose system). That compares with, for example, the more traditional Nissan Rogue Sport small SUV’s 22.9 cubic feet behind the backseat and 61.1 cubic feet with the backseat folded.
That’s also less space than you could have with a cheaper Mazda3 compact sedan, though in these days of SUV popularity, that may miss the point for most shoppers. Also, if you’re trying to fit into a hard-to-get street parking space, the fact that the CX-3 is a foot shorter (and 3.4 inches taller) than the Mazda3 might make the cargo trade-off seem worthwhile.
While you won’t be using the CX-3 to move your apartment, I did find the shape of the cargo space useful — accommodating three carry-on bags and assorted other gear for a trip below the level of the rear seatbacks. And with roof rails, the low height of the CX-3 could be an asset for tasks such as lifting a bike onto a roof-mounted rack.
Multimedia Tech a Beat Behind
The CX-3 once was among the subcompact SUV leaders in multimedia tech, with a 7-inch touchscreen that can be operated when stopped, and knob and steering wheel controls for use underway. But as the subcompact SUV class has gotten more crowded and others have upped their game, the system now seems a beat behind the best. The interface is looking dated next to some of the flashier new high-definition graphics, and it’s a slower and more menu-driven user experience. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which are fast becoming expected in a new car, still are AWOL in the CX-3.
Meanwhile, the available head-up display, standard on the Grand Touring, now is brighter and packs in information, but it’s still reflected on a pop-up panel rather than higher on the windshield, making it awkward for some taller drivers to see (though I had no problem). And a backup camera is there, but the grid lines are static, missing a sure bet for an SUV with otherwise city-friendly parking ability.
The CX-3 does, however, have a pair of USB ports and a device cubby in the front of the redone center console, plus a 12-volt power point. A navigation system and good-sounding Bose premium audio system are standard on the Grand Touring, and the Bose audio also is optional for the mid-level Touring trim.
Unlike the multimedia tech, the CX-3 is a class leader among subcompact SUVs in safety and driver assistance tech. A low-speed automatic emergency braking system, blind spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert are standard on all models.
Mazda’s more sophisticated Sport i-Activsense Package of safety and driver assistance features is standard on the Grand Touring and optional on the lower trims: $1,100 on the base Sport and $1,000 on the Touring. We’d recommend getting it for either model. The robust package includes a more advanced and higher-speed front collision system with automatic braking and urban-essential pedestrian detection, as well as adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go, high-beam assist, lane departure warning and adaptive LED headlights. (Depending on the trim level, the package also may add a head-up display, LED taillights and automatic climate control.)
Family buyers should note that the rear seat did not impress Cars.com’s child-safety seat experts in our Car Seat Check. It earned no top scores and got low grades for compatibility for a rear-facing infant seat or convertible. Our technicians would not recommend this SUV for families with small children; Mazda’s larger CX-5 would be a better choice.
The 2019 CX-3 had not been safety-rated by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety as of publication. Once results are published, they will appear here. However, the 2019 is structurally nearly the same as the 2018 model that is rated a Top Safety Pick, with the top scores in all crash tests, a superior score for the advanced safety tech package and an acceptable score for headlights.
Value in Its Strengths
The growing field of subcompact SUVs (and SUV-like vehicles) is a big tent with more variety in personality, strengths and weaknesses than almost any class. They arguably range from the large Subaru Crosstrek with standard all-wheel drive to the quirky front-drive-only Toyota C-HR to an off-road-capable Jeep Renegade. The carlike CX-3 carves its own niche, so its value depends on whether its strengths match what you want most for your daily driving.
As for pricing, the all-in Grand Touring test car was priced at $29,625 (all prices include destination charges), and it felt more expensive than that. If it seems like a lot for a subcompact SUV, even with all the options, consider that it’s comparable to loaded top models of other city-friendly small SUVs such as the 2018.5 Nissan Rogue Sport SL with Premium Package ($30,530), 2018 Hyundai Kona Ultimate ($29,680) and 2019 Honda HR-V Touring ($29,535). Compare them all here.
But you don’t need to spend that much to get most of what makes the CX-3 attractive. The Sport model — with the same excellent chassis, ride and noise improvement and retuned powertrain — is a well-featured base model that includes alloy wheels, push-button start, two USB ports, a 7-inch multimedia display and the standard safety tech detailed above. Even with the more advanced safety package, its sticker is a competitive $22,500 with front-wheel drive or $1,400 more for all-wheel drive.
And a sweet spot for value is the mid-level Touring that adds some nice-to-have extras, such as piano-black trim, a good-looking leatherette interior with heated front seats, 18-inch wheels, keyless entry, heated side mirrors, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear shift, automatic climate control, and LED headlights and taillights. Even adding the options of all-wheel drive and the advanced safety package, the Touring totals $25,870. See a full comparison of the three trim levels here.
The CX-3 doesn’t try to be all things to all people — it’s a Mazda, after all, and reflects the brand’s core values of stylish design and driving fun. But subcompact SUV shoppers who want a good-looking and fun-to-drive hatchback with good gas mileage should have the CX-3 on their list.
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