FIRST DRIVE: Mazda CX-3 has the moxie and the moves

Mazda's entry in the sub-compact CUV class raises the ante for the competition

Published: May 1, 2015, 2:00 AM
Updated: November 23, 2021, 4:12 PM

2016 Mazda CX-3

SCOTTSDALE, AZ – Mazda's all-new CX-3 is the latest player to join the sub-compact SUV game and it has the moxie and the moves to raise the ante for the competition.

Just as they've done in every other vehicle segment where they've appeared, SUVs (or more precisely, in this case, CUVs) are invading the sub-compact size class.

By the end of this year, the five existing entries in the category will be joined by at least four more, the most recent being the CX-3. By then, one of every 20 new vehicles sold in Canada is expected to be a sub-compact ute.

As its name implies, the CX-3 is smaller than Mazda's CX-5 compact CUV, slotting between the Mazda2 and Mazda3 sedans in length, but with a taller roofline than both. Within its competitive set, it fits between the smaller Nissan Juke and larger Honda HR-V in size.

Naturally it employs all the goodies from the brand's SkyActiv bag of tricks, as well Mazda's now well-established Kodo design language, which gives it a clear family identity.

A stylish piece

For sure the CX-3 is a stylish piece, with a long hood, truncated rear, short overhangs and complex sculpted surfaces that highlight its haunched rear quarters. Its sleek but aggressive stance belies its diminutive size.

Adding to the drama of its pure form are contrasting details that include big, blacked-out wheel arches, connected to matching lower body sills and front and rear valances. Blacked out D-pillars give the roof a floating appearance that increases the car's visual length.

There's a new texture to Mazda's signature grille shape and top trim models also feature LED headlamps.

Arguably, the CR-X is the beauty among its competitive set.

Interior follows through

Inside, there's a similar focus on both form and detail, with sculpted surfaces that continue the exterior's theme.

Soft and wrapped surfaces abound and plenty of contrasting stitching suggests a degree of craftsmanship typical of more upscale vehicles. So do touches of red accent, even on base models.

It's not just any red, according to Mazda. It was carefully selected, with a lot of blue in it, to provide just the right, rich hue its designers were looking for.

A slim, low-mounted instrument panel with strong horizontal lines helps convey an air of roominess.

The instrument cluster, with two different layouts depending on model, is similarly slim but readily visible through a standard tilting and telescoping steering wheel.

I particularly liked the pop-up HUD (Head Up Display) screen on GT models, which displays speed, directions and active safety warnings right in the driver's line of vision.


All models come with Mazda Connect, which provides Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free phone operation, including Internet access and text message and e-mail readout.

A 7-inch video screen that's standard on all models, is mounted on top of it, Mercedes-style, like a free-standing iPad.

While it functions as a touch screen, selections can also be made using an 'HMI Commander' control knob mounted on the centre console, aft of the shift lever and next to a proper hand-brake or, in some cases, by voice command. Convenient.

Less convenient is the placement of the two tandem cup-holders, which are relegated to positions further back on the console. In a car this small, there's not a surplus of extraneous space for such secondary features, which also means there's a dearth of cubbies and bins for coins and such.

Hits and some misses

There's plenty of room for even XLT occupants like myself in the front seats, however, thanks to extremely long seat travel and ample headroom, even when equipped with a moonroof.

While the seat cushions proved comfortable enough, even after several hours of driving, I missed the availability of lumbar adjustment in the backrests. They're not offered in any model.

As for the rear seat, room back there is dependent on how tall the front seat occupants are. If either front or rear passenger is of more than average build, somebody will find room tight. It is a sub-compact car.

That being the case, cargo space is quite impressive – 452 litres behind the rear seat (408 with GT trim) and 1,528 (1,484) with the seat folded.

I did find a few nits to pick with the interior. In the bright Arizona sunshine, the lines in the instrument panel cover in front of the driver resulted in some annoying windshield reflections.

And, given the low-mounted, the position of the IP, the left side air-conditioning vents blow cold air across the driver's hands on the steering wheel rather than into his/her face.

I'd also like to see the outside mirrors positioned a little further forward on the doors, just to reduce the angle the driver has to turn to see them. Not a big deal, but there appears to be room. As I said, nits.


Power for the CX-3 comes from essentially the same SkyActiv G 2.0-litre, four-cylinder gasoline engine used in the Mazda3 – the one with an ultra-high 13.0:1 compression ratio that runs on regular gasoline.

Packaging considerations in the smaller vehicle necessitated some trimming to its critical four-into-two-into-one exhaust system but the concept remains intact.

Peak power output is 146 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and peak torque is 146 lb-ft at a relatively low 2,800 rpm.

A six-speed automatic transmission, with a Sport mode selector, is standard in all models. No manual transmission is offered. Sport mode holds the transmission in lower gears longer and downshifts sooner to enhance performace.

A novel rev-matching downshift feature simulates the action of a skilled driver with a manual transmission to smooth out the shifts.

The CX-3 is available with either front- or all-wheel-drive, the latter the proactive type that engages drive to the rear wheels when it anticipates a traction need rather than waiting for wheelspin to occur, then reacting.

To enable rear passenger and cargo room in its smaller package, the CX-3 incorporates a twist-beam rear suspension, rather than Mazda's usual multi-link design – even in AWD models – a significant engineering feat.

In other respects, its mechanicals follow familiar Mazda norms, which is a very good thing.

Behind the wheel

The very best part of the CX-3 is its driving dynamics. It may not be a sports car but don't tell it because it seems to think it is.

With Mazda's typical high-caster front suspension design, it tracks bullet-straight on-centre, yet turn-in effort is not excessive and it's rabbit quick. Body roll simply isn't noticeable, even on a 30-km stretch of switchbacks, descending from the Arizona tourist town of Jerome, that are so tight you can all but see your own tail-lights.

Transitioning from accelerator-to-brake and back is butter smooth and the rev-matching downshift really comes into its own in this environment – especially with Sport mode engaged. The GT model has paddle shifters but the automatic is so good at picking the right gear for the moment that they're superfluous.

It was hard to resist the temptation to climb back to the top and do it again.

While the engine sound is a rush in such situations – I really love those rev-matched downshifts – it's not the quietest engine around in more normal operation. And, as befits its size and price, the CR-X is not the quietest vehicle on the road.

That said, it posed no problem to normal conversation at extra-legal expressway speeds and what noise there was seemed homogenous in nature, absent any disturbing peaks or drones.

It did get a bit raucous at high revs, which were sometimes necessary to coax the desired level of acceleration out of the little engine – not surprising given that much of our driving was at altitudes as high as 6,000 feet.

Well-equipped and well-priced

The CX-3 is scheduled to go on sale across Canada in late May or early June.

It will be available in GX, GS and GT trim levels, the first two in either FWD or AWD configurations, the GT only with AWD.

All are extremely well equipped, especially for a sub-compact, with features such as automatic transmission, cruise control and air conditioning standard on all models.

The GS also offers a Luxury package (leatherette and moonroof) and the GT a Technology package (Mazda's iActivSense suite of driver assistance safety technologies and other goodies) as options.

Prices start at $20,695 for the base GX with FWD, $2,000 more with AWD. The top-of-the line GT with the all-in Technology package stickers at $30,495. All incur an $1,895 delivery charge.

It may be small but it's a lot of car for the money. And a lot of fun to drive, too. Just the ticket for people (like me!) who like to season their practicality with a little edge.