Like most of the major motor manufacturers, Mazda started with one crossover model, the rather attractive CX-7, which they launched in 2006, as a replacement for the Tribute, a badge-engineered version of the Ford Escape/Maverick. With the market for this type of vehicle taking off, it was not long before a second crossover was added to the range, the larger CX-9. Combining good looks, with Mazda’s reputation for producing cars that were among the best in their class to drive, as well as a spacious cabin with seating for 7, the CX-9 did well in the reviews, and when I tested one in 2009, I was impressed. The CX-9 was deemed too big for Europe and was not offered there, and whilst the CX-7 had been available, it was also more America-sized than what Europe wanted, so the next step was to produce a smaller model, the even better-looking and great to drive CX-5. This arrived at the Tokyo Show in November 2011, going on sale in 2012, and like most Mazda models, got great reviews, but never managed to get even close to the sales volumes of its closest rivals, cars like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, even though it was in many ways a superior product to them both. But Mazda were not done yet, and with an eye on the burgeoning market, especially in Europe, for small crossovers, it was not great surprise when the wraps came off the CX-3 in November 2014 with a first public appearance at the Los Angeles Show that month, before going on sale in various markets during 2015. Expectations were high for this car, which arrived to find plenty of rivals, none of which were going to score many marks from driving enthusiasts or indeed from those for whom good looks matter. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but most people thought that Mazda had nailed it visually with the CX-3, and expected the first driving reports to relate how good the car was on the road. But those reviews suggested some disappointments. In Europe, it was felt that the car was simply too expensive, which meant it was being compared against other larger models, and the Americans – not for the first time – moaned that it was just too small inside. Perhaps to the surprise of no-one, sales of the CX-3 on either side of the Atlantic have been modest. A few minor changes were made in 2018, but essentially, the CX-3 you can buy is very like the first ones that were available back in 2015.
It’s a car which I have been keen to try for a while, but which is not easy to source. I did note that Hertz in Switzerland had them on fleet, as they carry most of the Mazda range, but the last times I’ve been there I’ve been tempted by something far more costly. In America, Hertz clearly buy Mazda models in batches, so sometimes there are quite a few on fleet and then there can be periods when there are none. Lately what they have had appears to have been limited to Mazda 3 saloons and the CX-5 crossovers. I did spot a couple of the CX-3 not long after the model’s debut, but then the handful that were around seemed to disappear, so I was not expecting to get one by this route, either. But then I noted this particular car, parked up with nothing immediately surrounding it, in the evening when walking back to my hotel having just returned a previous rental. Usually anything that you see one evening will be gone by the following morning, but as I returned the next morning, it was still there, complete with the heavy morning condensation on it. As it was in the Five Star area, I did not have to ask anyone for it, I could simply drive out, wondering why no-one else had done so in the preceding twelve hours. I had a day to find out what I thought of what turned to be an almost brand new car.
European market CX-3s come with a choice of two 2.0 litre SkyActiv petrol or a 1.5 diesel engine, and either manual or automatic transmissions, but in America all the cars come with the 2 litre SkyActiv petrol. It generates 148 bhp and is coupled to a standard 6 speed automatic gearbox. The engine proved willing and smooth, though as you worked it harder, it did sound a bit gruff. And to get the best out of this Mazda, you will need to work it hard. Acceleration is best described as brisk, as opposed to fast. Show the car some inclines, though, and even just one-up, you will need to encourage the engine to work harder and probably in a lower gear than you might be expecting. When you reach cruising speed, the noise levels reduce significantly, and the Mazda is a quiet companion on the freeway. There is a Sport mode, and you can select the gears manually if you want, though I found that the gearbox did a pretty good job of figuring out which ratio it needed to be in, so let it get on with things. I drove a long way before the first bar went on the fuel gauge. At the end of a day’s test up in the canyons, on my favourite roads, and having covered 175 miles, I could only get 3.58 gallons in the CX-3. That computes to an incredible 48.8 mpg US or 58.4 mpg Imperial. I am still struggling to believe these figures, as they are just amazing. Clearly the car was very full when I collected it, not something you can say about many rental cars!
The canyon roads were a perfect test for the CX-3, as they allowed me to see whether Mazda had managed to retain the fun to drive feel that imbues their saloon and hatch models in this car. And I can confirm that they have. The steering is a delight, with just the right amount of weighting and the sort of feel that you hardly ever come across in these days of electrically assisted set-ups. Couple with a chassis that seems made for bendy roads, excellent levels of grip and this car was a lot of fun on the Angeles Crest and Angeles Forest Highway, a place where it seemed every LA enthusiast was out enjoying their car on these roads. Indeed, the chassis struck me as one which could well handle more power, and given the comment about needing to work the CX-3 hard on inclines, this would be perhaps to the car’s advantage. I would not change anything else. Riding on 215/60 R16 alloys, the car was comfortable on the variety of surfaces which you get in the area, and the brakes were well to par. There is an electronic handbrake in the centre console. A generous glass area, by modern standards and sensibly sized door mirrors meant that visibility was good, and there was a blind spot warning feature, which was useful on busy freeways. The standard rear-view camera helped when reversing and parking up, too.
Mazda have made a concerted effort in recent years to upgrade the quality of their interiors, and the results of their endeavours are pretty obvious in the CX-3. With black cloth upholstery, the inside was mostly all black, with just some dark gunmetal coloured insets on the door casings around the door handles, as well as smaller inlays on the dash. The plastics are mostly softish to the touch and there is a strip of what could actually be stitched leather (it is not the real stuff, apparently) across the width of the dash in front of the passenger. Although the steering wheel in this entry level spec car was a plastic moulding it was not unpleasant. The instrument cluster is exactly the same as that of the outgoing Mazda 3. There is a large central speedometer, with a rather smaller rev counter to the left and on the right a bar chart for fuel level and a reading for instant economy. The graphics of the speedo are particularly clean and easy to assimilate. Twin column stalks take care of indicators, lights and wipers. Cruise control is on the right hand steering wheel spoke and audio repeaters on the left. The top of the centre of the dash is where you will find the 7″ colour touch screen for the Mazda Connect Information System, mounted up high where it is easy to see and to access. There is a control wheel and buttons for this in the centre console, which made it easy to use, as an alternative to use the touch screen interface. Annoyingly, the menus gave the impression that there is navigation there until you select it, at which point the system tells you it is not fitted. Mazda are far from alone in doing this, of course. The audio system also lacked XM Satellite, though it did have a full complement of the more popular other options including internet streaming apps such as Pandora and Aha. Beneath the display screen is the slight odd looking arrangement of one single round air vent then a pair of horizontally placed ones, the left hand of which is a faux one. Three rotary dials below this are used for the air conditioning. The centre console contains the button for the selection of Sport mode, as well as the electronic handbrake.
Getting comfortable was not hard. Seat adjustment is manual, as you might expect from a car of this price point, with a bar under the cushion for fore/aft movement, and a ratchet lever on the side of the seat for height and a separate one for backrest. The front passenger does not get the seat height adjuster in this trim version. The steering wheel telescopes in and out as well as up and down. I did not spend prolonged periods behind the wheel of the Mazda during my day’s test, but the seat seemed to be comfortable and the cloth covering was not unpleasant.
The strongest criticism of the CX-3 in the US has come from the amount of space in the rear seat and boot, which most have declared to be unacceptably cramped. For sure if you are comparing the car with all the other Crossovers that come in the same rental car category, then it will seem very tight. But remembering that the CX-3 is based more on the Mazda 2 than the Mazda 3, so its real competitors are cars like the Ford EcoSport, Chevrolet Trax and Jeep Renegade, in America (and a number of others in Europe, of course), I did not think it was as unaccommodating as others have said. With the front seats set well forward, as they are for my driving position, then leg room will not be an issue, but with them well back, then, yes, there is not a lot of space, but then this is a relatively small car. It’s not that wide, either, so three full-sized adults in here may be rather tight, and the centre console unit does come quite a long back, so while there is not much of a central transmission tunnel, the middle occupant would have to sit with their legs astride. I did note that there was not a lot of clearance between my head and the roof, suggesting that you sit relatively upright. You will need to pull the rear headrests up, too, otherwise they will be digging into your shoulders rather than supporting your neck and head. There is a drop down central armrest which incorporates cupholders. Occupants here get bins in the doors and there is a map pocket on the back of the passenger seat.
The boot is similarly modestly sized, with the floor flush with the bottom of the tailgate, but high up off the floor, so you will have to lift items quite a long way to get them in. There was no parcel shelf in the test car, but if one were there, you would note that the boot is that deep from bottom to parcel shelf level, though it is a nice regular shape. There is a false floor, with quite a bit of storage space under it, or you could remove it altogether for a deeper load bay. The rear seat backrests are asymmetrically split and simply drop down to create a much longer and larger cargo area. Inside the cabin there is a decently sized glove box, bins on the doors, an area in front of the gear lever and an open stowage area under and in front of the central armrest, which in total should meet most people’s needs.
In America, Mazda offers the 2019 CX-3 in three trim levels: Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring, and all are competitively priced in a market sector which is still growing. All have the same 2 litre engine and automatic transmission, and each can be upgraded to include all-wheel drive for $1,400. The test car was the entry level CX-3 Sport, which starts at $20,390 and comes as standard with 16-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, remote keyless entry, push-button start, cloth upholstery, a rearview camera, low-speed automatic emergency braking, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, and an infotainment system with a 7-inch touch-screen display, a six-speaker audio system, Bluetooth, a USB port, and internet streaming apps such as Pandora and Aha. The i-Activsense package ($1,100) adds a suite of advanced safety features, including adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, automatic high beams, adaptive headlights, a head-up display, and full-speed forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking. Starting at $22,475, the Touring trim adds automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers, proximity keyless entry, automatic climate control, synthetic leather upholstery, and heated front seats. An optional Preferred Equipment package costs $1,410 and includes a moonroof, satellite radio, HD Radio, and a seven-speaker Bose sound system. The Grand Touring model (priced at $25,745) tops out the range. In addition to gaining all the equipment listed in the packages above, the Grand Touring adds leather-trimmed seats and navigation. The Premium package, available for $710, has a power-adjustable driver’s seat, a heated steering wheel, and a traffic sign recognition system.
There was lots to like about this CX-3, and very little, really, that was off the pace. And yet, I found two statistics as I was checking facts to allow me to write this review. The first is that sales of the CX-3 in America are down a staggering 21% year-on-year, in a sector which is still growing, and that it is outsold by rivals like the Honda HR-V and Buick Encore by around 6 to 1. For sure, there is more space in the Honda, so I can see why it might appeal to a number of buyers, but the Encore is basically a Vauxhall Mokka with a few sequins and bangles added to make it look like a posh party frock, yet my experience of the Mokka suggests it is not a pleasant car in any respect. But then, the market is like this, as the CX-3’s sedan and hatch brothers know only too well, as their sales are a tiny fraction of those of the utterly ordinary Toyota Corolla. Sometimes, the market really does do strange things! It’s a rare sighting in rental car land, too, but then that is true of most Mazda models. And for sure, putting a car of this size in the same category as much larger models like the Toyota RAV4, Kia Sportage and indeed the Mazda CX-5 is always going to deter people from picking this one unless they really don’t need the space. But those who do select a CX-3 will be getting not just a car that is attractive to look at, and well finished inside, but also which is rather pleasant to drive. It gets a thumbs up from me.