2016 Mazda CX-3 Grand Touring AWD
The subcompact crossover class is relatively new compared to larger compact, mid-size and full-size SUVs, and it’s growing exponentially. This model year alone three models have been added to a segment that still only holds nine competitors combined, although it’s seen attrition too. Remember the wacky Nissan Cube?
I happened to like its ovoid second-gen styling, but I was obviously outnumbered by those who were either appalled or simply not interested and therefore the Cube died a quiet death a couple of years ago. Nissan’s unorthodox Juke continues on, and is actually more of a true SUV than the taller wagon-like crossover as it offers optional all-wheel drive, which is why it’s probably best to leave the funky Kia Soul and even more oddball Scion xB out of this subcompact SUV conversation too.
This tiny segment isn’t as niche as it used to be either. The CX-3 might have only placed fifth out of six Mazda models during its first three full months of sales that started in September and ended in November, but the 4,045 they sold came very close to upending the 4,245 CX-9s delivered. Expect CX-9 numbers to grow as the brand introduces an all-new redesigned model next summer, but until then it’ll have to work hard to stay ahead of the little upstart CX-3. Its bigger CX-5 brother is the brand’s top selling model at 27,127 units during the same three-month period, so the wee tot has a long way to go before it catches up, but the potential is there if buyers catch on to how very good this little CUV is. For example, the Jeep Renegade, a competitor to the CX-3 that was also new this calendar year having hit the market in March, is already the segment leader by a long shot with sales of 23,064 units in the same 91 days. Granted Mazda doesn’t have the same showroom traction as Jeep, but a vehicle like the CX-3 is exactly what’s needed to introduce new younger consumers to the stylish, performance-oriented yet fuel-friendly Japanese brand.
There are good reasons for the CX-3 achieving long-term success, the first being styling. It all starts off with Mazda’s trademark Kodo “Soul of Motion” design language, easily the best of recent attempts to give the brand clearly recognizable and highly emotive character traits. As with all of Mazda’s new redesigns, a large pentagonal grille reaches upwards and outwards from its lowest vertex with chrome-trimmed arms that pierce right through each lens of its narrow, elongated headlamps, whereas vertical fogs just below lean in unison with the outside edges of the lower center grille.
The CX-3’s profile is at least as interesting, with X-pattern bodylines that crisscross down each flank while an eye-catching greenhouse that narrows as it flows rearward and then visually blends into the rear glass via glossy black-finished D-pillars hovers above.
Black is the theme on the opposite pole as well, an aggressive rally-style front spoiler joined by flared wheel arches, extended side rockers and a bold rear bumper underscoring the design, while narrow squinting taillights somehow manage to follow all the juxtaposed cutlines while looking positively brilliant doing so, and dual chrome-tipped exhaust pipes impertinently poke out from the rear valance.
Rounding out my top-line Grand Touring tester was a racy set of 18-inch twinned Y-design five-spoke machine-finished alloys with gray painted pockets circling 215/50R18 Yokohama Avid S34 rubber, adding to the go-fast sporting image.
From nose to tail the CX-3 seems alert and alive, but not in a happy and playful puppy sort of way. Carnivorous for sure, but it’s more bug-like or reptilian. Either way, it’s a design I can-t take my eyes off of.
Inside, the CX-3 measures up to Mazda’s high level of quality if not its usual cabin size. My Grand Touring loaner (let’s call it a GT, shall we?) was finished in a two-tone motif of dark gray/blacks and wine red, an unusual combination yet still quite nice compared to the normal bright red contrast most companies go with when they want to get sporty. The majority of surfaces are hard plastic, mostly par for the course in the subcompact class, but a softer synthetic covered primary gauge shroud butts up against a nice padded leatherette accent piece that stretches right across the instrument panel ahead of the front passenger. A thin strip of metal adorns a recessed section just above, this item bisected by two circular vents and another rectangular vent hidden in between, while Mazda’s BMW-like freestanding infotainment screen sits above, accessed via a BMW iDrive-style rotating controller on the lower console.
Back to interior trim, beautiful brushed aluminum door inlays surround metal-like door handles that really feel weighty, while the inserts are made from a suede-like material and slightly padded wine red door pull/armrests are finished in stitched leatherette, just like the sides of the center stack that are padded even more to benefit each front occupant’s inner knee. Mazda’s carbon-look plastic surfacing adds a little more splash to the steering wheel spokes, center stack recess and window switch panels than mere matte black, and is much easier to keep clean and scratch free than piano black lacquered plastic, a trend steeped in Japanese tradition that Mazda helped to initiate but appears to be leaving behind, thankfully.
The primary gauges are gorgeous and ideally simple with a large tachometer at center, the only actual dial in the cluster, the speedometer shown in a simple and clear LCD readout that gets duplicated in the head-up Active Driving Display unit when equipped. That auto-deploying transparent screen is especially helpful when using the navigation system, as it shows directions right where the driver needs them without forcing eyes from the road, Mazda following this user friendliness up with the usual redundant controls on the steering wheel spokes. Three-way heatable seats are a nice touch compared to simplistic high/low settings, as is the three-dial HVAC interface that offers single-mode automatic temperature control for added convenience.
An SD card slot, two USBs, an aux plug and a 12-volt charger occupy the lowest portion of the center stack, these standard items being part of a superb sounding upgraded seven-speaker Bose audio system in GT trim, while sitting just behind is a nicely detailed shift lever with a leather and metal finished knob plus a two-tone leather boot, the pair as nicely finished as anything from the premium leagues.
A Sport mode button is positioned just behind, that when actuated allows for higher engine revs before shifts, especially enjoyable when the gearbox is slotted into manual mode and paddle shifters engaged.
That’s where I left it much of the time, as the CX-3 is a joy to drive quickly. Its Skyactiv 16-valve, DOHC, direct-injection 2.0-liter four puts out 146 horsepower and 146 lb-ft of torque that connects through a quick shifting six-speed autobox before sending twist to the front or all four wheels, my tester being the latter, while an as-tested curb weight of 2,952 lbs meant takeoff was zippy and continued progress to highway speeds brisk.
Despite its diminutive dimensions the CX-3 feels solidly planted at those high speeds too, whether cruising down the freeway or slaloming through sets of S turns, its independent strut and stabilizer bar equipped front suspension and rear torsion beam setup absolutely stable even over mid-corner bumps, while electrically powered rack-and-pinion steering delivered good response and my GT tester’s 215/50R18 all-seasons provided all the grip this little tyke will ever need.
As important with anything subcompact is fuel economy, and Mazda answers pump concerns with an EPA fuel economy rating of 29 mpg in the city, 35 on the highway and 31 combined with FWD, or 27 city, 32 highway and 29 with as-tested AWD, plus the requirement of cheaper regular unleaded.
All this is good, but does it also do duty as a practical family and gear hauler? That’s where I came away surprised. Few should complain about the CX-3’s front seat accommodations from roominess to comfort, the leather and suede covered seats of my GT extremely supportive with good adjustability and an excellent design for bearing the lower back, but there was also plenty of room in the rear where the seats were much better than I expected.
Additionally, Mazda endows the little CX-3 with a sizable 15.9 cubic-foot cargo compartment behind those seats, which is more load space than the majority of trunks in the compact and mid-size sedan segments, while dropping its standard 60/40-split rear seatbacks forward, an easier process than with some rivals, produces an impressive 53.9 cubic feet of total gear toting space. The rear hatch opens up wide enough to stuff large items inside too, as I experienced during my test week when it became necessary to remove a big living room swivel chair and two bar stools from home. Dropping the two-level cargo floor allowed the widest portion of the chair to fit inside easier, while, with the load floor back in its upper position, it served as a handy storage bin for hiding valuables the rest of the week.