The Mazda3 has set a relatively high standard for hatchbacks in recent years. The car’s fun-to-drive factor, styling and interior quality have set the Mazda3 apart from many of its competitors as a daily driver option. Many Mazda3 fans and enthusiasts, however, have been patiently awaiting an AWD option. The brand new Mazda CX-3 is as close to an AWD Mazda3 as the company can get, for now. The CX-3 is Mazda’s first iteration of their i-ACTIV AWD in a compact vehicle and in this particular case, sub-compact crossover segment. Needless to say, we were eager to chuck this new kid around!
EXT: Mazda’s Kodo design language is truly outstanding across the brand’s product lineup. Our CX-3 is no exception. The hood’s sloping lines, flared fenders and high rear hip arches give the impression of a short, stocky wrestler. The large grille and front fascia lip add to the car’s sporty and aggressive appearance. The headlights are just slim enough to complete the appearance of a combat athlete, looking to strike.
What immediately sets the CX-3 apart from the Mazda3 are the car’s height and ABS plastic fender flares. The cars are practically the same in terms of interior space and share plenty of exterior design elements. However, the CX-3 is noticeably taller than its Mazda3 sibling and height is up to 60.1in, from the Mazda3’s 57.3in. Our car was fitted with the Grand Touring trim level, which includes 18in alloy wheels and Yokohama Avid S34 rubber. Wheel size to fender gap ratios are spot-on with this particular wheel/tire setup.
The CX-3’s rear end compliments the rest of the car nicely. Dual exhaust pipes and high tail lights make for a hot-hatch look that adheres to the rest of the car’s overall sporty aesthetic. There’s no doubt that the CX-3 is a handsome vehicle all around.
INT: Another brand-wide initiative of Mazda’s over the past few years has been to increase their products’ level of interior refinement. Mission accomplished. Given the CX-3’s segment and price, we were very impressed by the interior’s total quality. Leather and faux brushed aluminum are plentiful throughout the dash and instrument panel. Carbon fiber and red stitching accents round out the interior’s edges and give the feel of a much higher-priced vehicle.
Our CX-3’s infotainment is one of the more intuitive and comfortable systems we’ve used. Mazda has done an excellent job at integrating entertainment, navigation, and vehicle settings into an easily visible pop-up LCD screen. Menus are navigated by the driver using a simple scroll wheel which can be turned and clicked, similar to BMW’s iDrive, but much more seamless and user-friendly. Our team could not agree on the scroll wheel’s ergonomics, but most concluded that placement was good. It was unanimous, however, that the infotainment’s overall user experience and connectivity was superb.
Seating was plush enough for long trips, but erred on the sporty side in terms of support and styling. The black alcantara, red stitching and high bolstering were very “zoom-zoom,” indeed. Back seat comfort was great, if the driver or front passenger were not over 6’; anyone taller didn’t leave back seat passengers much leg room at all. The only other interior gripe we had was the center arm rest, which seemed completely out of place in an otherwise refined interior. When folded down and used for what it’s designed, the arm rest completely blocks access to the cup holders. Upon entering the vehicle, any leaning or body adjustment on the thin arm rest caused it to bend slightly.
We put the CX-3 through its paces in a typical hatchback crossover environment; urban centers and suburban neighborhoods. Within minutes of taking delivery of our CX-3, we managed to easily parallel park it in downtown Seattle. However, outward visibility could use some work. Particularly during left turns, the left-side mirror/A-pillar placement made it difficult to view pedestrians and apexes. It was almost as if the seats are placed lower than they should be, despite our attempts to adjust them per driver’s height.
The CX-3 was a breeze to zip through traffic, and the 2.0 liter 4-banger was peppy enough for light-to-light overtaking. On the other hand, our CX-3 certainly did not have gobs of power in reserve during freeway driving. Sport Mode allowed for more precise shift points, but the 146hp engine, not surprisingly, simply didn’t have the mid-range power to impress us at speeds above what is appropriate in the city.
Chassis dynamics and handling were pretty much what we have come to expect from Mazda’s driver-oriented cars. The CX-3 was eager to be thrown into corners and the i-ACTIV AWD performed well, even during mid-corner acceleration on wet Seattle on-ramps. Steering was direct and responsive, with good road surface feedback. Braking was progressive and the CX-3 stopped as well as it sprinted.
In sum, we consider the 2016 Mazda CX-3 as the sportier option in the sub-compact crossover segment, especially in terms of overall feel. Against competitors like the Honda H-RV and Chevrolet Trax, the CX-3 is much more fun to drive and has a more premium aura. In a segment overrun by vehicles that are more about style and fuel efficiency than pure driving enjoyment, the CX-3 stands alone as a champion that is competitive on every level.
Engine – SKYACTIV-G 2.0L DOHC 16-valve 4-cylinder with VVT
Drivetrain – i-ACTIV AWD
Horsepower – 146 @ 6000 RPM
Torque – 146 @ 2800 RPM
Transmission – SKYACTIV-Drive 6-Speed AT with manual-shift and Sport modes
Weight – 2952 lbs
Starting Price – $19,960; Tested at $29,540