2015 Mazda CX-3 review

Mazda’s promising CX-3 small SUV – its fourth all-new model in 18 months – marks the next step in its ‘SkyActiv’ product offensive.

The Mazda CX-3 is Hiroshima’s strikingly modern entrant into the burgeoning small SUV segment. Sharing DNA with both the Mazda 2 and Mazda 3 ranges, but more closely related to the smaller 2, it is aimed at younger couples looking for a lifestyle vehicle, rather than the families coveted by the larger CX-5. And unlike several rivals, Mazda will offer both front- and all-wheel-drive versions of the Mazda CX-3.

Given the sizeable market share Mazda enjoys in Australia, we were the first media in the world to drive pre-production versions of the CX-3. Mazda had both a top-spec AWD diesel auto and a mid-spec FWD petrol auto on hand at Victoria’s Anglesea Proving Ground. Expect the CX-3 to hit Aussie showrooms during the second quarter of 2015.

Many, of all types, from a wide range of manufacturers. For now, CX-3’s main competitors include Holden Trax, Ford EcoSport, Nissan Juke, Peugeot 2008, Suzuki S-Cross and Mitsubishi’s entry-level ASX, though due to arrive in 2015 are the Renault Captur, Citroen C4 Cactus, Suzuki Vitara, Jeep Renegade and Fiat 500X, among others. As a category, the small SUV is booming.

Guaranteed to win people over simply by looking great, the CX-3 will compound that love with its sporty handling and keen engines. The all-wheel-drive version is particularly good, but CX-3 has some refinement issues and it can’t challenge its roomiest competitors for rear-seat or boot space. One for singles or couples without sprogs.

PLUS: Striking styling; taut and balanced chassis; AWD availability; cool factor
MINUS: Refinement still not what it should be; noisy petrol engine; rear-seat side vision

AS MAZDA'S ‘SkyActiv’ engineering philosophy and ‘Kodo: Soul of Motion’ design aesthetic keep charging forward, the hits from Hiroshima keep getting bigger. We’re talking figuratively, of course, because the last two – the excellent new Mazda 2 and now this CX-3 ‘crossover’ – have shown that small doesn’t need to mean less.

Tested here in pre-production form at Anglesea Proving Ground before launching in Australia next autumn, the CX-3 has much in common with the 2, including its 2570mm wheelbase. The CX-3 is a significantly larger car though – 215mm longer, 70mm wider, and 55mm taller, riding on tracks that have swollen by 25mm at the front and 40mm at the rear. Mazda wouldn’t provide a kerb weight, but the internal dimensions it supplied suggest the only areas where the CX-3 is roomier than the 2 is for rear legroom and knee clearance, and cargo space (264 litres versus 250, in addition to a dual-height floor and almost fold-flat capability).

The measurements don’t convey the whole story, though. The CX-3’s rear seat is mounted quite high – theatre-style – giving passengers a decent view forward, though rather less over its ‘fast’ hipline. Up front, seat comfort is respectable, despite a lack of finite seat adjustment, while forward vision is impressive thanks to fairly upright A-pillars. Unlike the CX-5, you never feel like you’re sitting too high in the CX-3. Mazda wanted to achieve a “sweet spot” in terms of the driver’s hip placement and the CX-3’s feels spot-on – high enough to command the road, yet low enough to still feel sporty and car-like.

The dashboard and centre console are identical to the 2’s, which is no bad thing. And neither is the carry-over tech, including collision mitigation, a head-up display and the 7.0-inch MZD Connect colour screen with central controller on high-grade variants. Mazda Australia plans “a broad range”, according to senior public relations manager Steve MacIver, so expect everything from a steel-wheeled manual front-drive petrol to the 18-inch-wheeled AWD diesel automatic like we tested at Anglesea.

Two engines will be offered here – a 2.0-litre petrol four (shared with the Mazda 3) producing 109kW at 6000rpm and 192Nm at 2800rpm, and a new-to-Australia 1.5-litre ‘SkyActiv-D’ turbo-diesel four producing 77kW at 4000rpm and 270Nm from 1600-2500rpm. Both six-speed manual and six-speed automatic transmissions will be offered, though Mazda wouldn’t confirm with which engine type or drive layout.

Unusually, while the front-driver shares its torsion-beam rear with the 2, the all-wheel-drive version gets a unique De Dion rear suspension design that offers a degree of independence – double-jointed driveshafts, plus longitudinal and lateral linkages for each coil spring – while still having a rigid connection between each rear wheel. And it’s this AWD version that is the sweeter drive.

Our first laps at Anglesea were in the front-drive petrol auto. Wearing 215/60R16 Dunlop Enasave tyres, the mid-spec CX-3 felt sharp and responsive once into a corner, with plenty of grip and a neutral balance tending towards understeer when pushed hard. But Mazda’s “linear motion” steering still lacks the off-centre immediacy that we used to expect from its products.

More apparent was the 2.0-litre SkyActiv-G’s vocalness. Foot to the floor, the auto petrol upshifts at 6600rpm, accompanied by plenty of induction noise, though at least it doesn’t sound unpleasant like a Holden Trax. Indeed, for much of the time, it’s the torquey 1.5-litre turbo-diesel that seems the quieter of the two, even though it lacks the petrol’s punch. Upshifting at 4700rpm, the baby diesel isn’t the fastest thing around but then this is hardly a performance car. Mazda’s estimates of a “high four” (litres per 100km) fuel consumption average for the diesel, and a “low six” (litres per 100km) for the petrol.

The AWD diesel was notable for two other things. Its chubby 215/50R18 Toyo Proxes R40 tyres produce considerably more coarse-chip tyre noise – still likely to be an issue with the CX-3 on Aussie roads – but its De Dion rear suspension and AWD system endow it with a sweeter chassis.

Feeling more poised on bitumen, with a seamless transference of drive to the rear wheels to keep understeer at bay, yet also neater on dirt with far less ESC intrusion, the all-wheel-drive CX-3 might carve itself its own little dynamic niche. With the (presumably) lighter petrol engine and Mazda’s superb six-speed ‘SkyActiv-MT’ manual gearshift, the CX-3 could offer a level of dynamism and driver appeal lacking in so many of its competitors.

Ultimately, though, what’s likely to send the CX-3 straight to the top of the small-SUV sales charts is its styling – particularly the 18-inch-wheeled version in a stunning new colour called Ceramic Metallic (pictured). It isn’t perfect, but in a class where so many SUVs are frustratingly mediocre, Mazda’s CX-3 seems destined to succeed.

Model: Mazda CX-3 FWD
Engine: 1998cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v
Max power: 109kW @ 6000rpm
Max torque: 192Nm @ 2800rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Kerb weight: 1300kg (estimated)
0-100km/h: 10.0sec (estimated)
Economy: 6.2L/100km (estimated)
Price: $25,000 (estimated)
On sale: Q2 2015

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