SCOTTSDALE, Arizona – For a long time, Mazda struggled to keep up with the SUV craze. Under former parent company Ford, the small Japanese automaker was at least able to join in on the fun in the 1990s and early 2000s, but did so with jointly engineered models such as the Navajo and the Tribute. These Mazda SUVs didn’t sell anywhere near as well as their Ford equivalents and, more importantly, they didn’t really feel like Mazdas.
Once independent of its Dearborn overlords, Mazda struck gold when it created a crossover of its own called the CX-5. The CX-5 impressed us so much we gave it an AUTOMOBILE All-Star award in 2013, and it impressed customers worldwide so much that a smaller follow-up, the 2016 Mazda CX-3, was a logical next step.
Like its big brother, and like nearly all crossovers on the market, the CX-3 is basically a hatchback (in this case the Mazda2) with optional all-wheel drive and a more rugged appearance. But given Mazda’s track record of engaging, well-rounded cars that appeal to enthusiasts like us, we had high expectations for our first drive of the all-new 2016 Mazda CX-3 in Arizona.
Looks great, drives great
Mazda’s design team sure hit it out of the park when it comes to the CX-3’s curb appeal. With an aggressive, angular face, flowing character lines, and a sleek, tapered rear end, its sharp exterior lines give the already attractive Mazda3 and CX-5 a run for their money in the looks department. We even think it’s the most appealing of the growing subcompact crossover segment that includes such standouts as the rugged Jeep Renegade and funky Nissan Juke.
The good vibes continued as we set out in the CX-3 on our drive route through Arizona’s twisty canyon passes and challenging mountain roads. The 2016 Mazda CX-3 handled everything we threw at it with aplomb. Its steering had a satisfying heft to it, the firm but composed suspension tuning made for supremely balanced handling, and the CX-3’s overall fluidity and confidence made us want to keep driving it with gusto. It’s yet another Mazda that skyrockets to the top of its class in terms of driving pleasure and enjoyment.
The 2.0-liter four-cylinder, on the other hand, was a bit of a letdown, especially considering that its 146 hp and 146 lb-ft of torque has such a small car to move — the CX-3 is nearly a foot shorter than the CX-5 and has a 5-inch shorter wheelbase than the Mazda3 hatchback, and it’s lighter than both of those models. Perhaps the elevation of 5,000-plus feet on our driving route was partially to blame, but we repeatedly put the CX-3’s pedal to the floor in attempts to merge or pass and got much more noise than actual acceleration. At least the Skyactiv four-cylinder sounded somewhat sporty, and the quick-witted six-speed automatic transmission (no manual is offered) was responsive when pushed, especially in Sport mode.
But there’s a catch
After a few hours behind the wheel, we were quite impressed with the 2016 Mazda CX-3. It’s yet another attractive, fun-to-drive, sophisticated car from Mazda. But then we realized something: Mazda already sells a great small hatchback. It’s called the Mazda3. As we thought more about the new CX-3, we struggled to see any tangible benefits of stepping up to this crossover, other than the availability of all-wheel drive.
First, we started to question whether the CX-3’s style quotient is worth the packaging compromises made on the inside. Though the dashboard’s attractive layout, intuitive ergonomics, and high-class materials are a noticeable step above any of the CX-3’s competitors, the cabin is unacceptably cramped. Sitting in back with the front seat adjusted for an average-sized driver meant that our knees brushed up against the seatback. The high beltline that makes for such a swoopy silhouette also cuts visibility for rear-seat passengers, creating a slightly claustrophobic feeling. Above all, the paltry amount of space available in the cargo area and its high load floor eliminate any impression of utility. A Mazda3 five-door hatchback is more spacious inside in every respect and offers a more usable hatch opening and a more accessible low load height. Aren’t crossovers supposed to be more practical than traditional cars?
And as much as we enjoyed driving the 2016 Mazda CX-3, we can only imagine that the same route in a Mazda3 would have been just as much fun, if not more so. A Mazda3 five-door has a lower center of gravity, a sportier driving position, and is available with compelling powertrain options — a manual transmission, and a larger, 2.5-liter four-cylinder — that the CX-3 lacks. The CX-3’s fuel mileage estimates of 29/35 mpg city/highway also fall short of the 3’s 30/40 mpg rating with the same powertrain. To top it all off, the CX-3 should command a slight price premium over a Mazda3 hatchback, with Mazda predicting a starting price in the low $20,000s — before you add all-wheel drive and any other options.
Easy to love, hard to recommend
It’s hard to write off an alluring car like the 2016 Mazda CX-3 when it looks so sharp and drives with so much fluidity and confidence. But we can’t deny that success in this new class of crossovers requires a delicate balance between desirability and practicality. Competitors such as the 2016 Honda HR-V prove that it’s possible to achieve this tough ideal, but the math just doesn’t add up for Mazda’s new small crossover.
While we’re now suitably convinced that Mazda is fully capable of creating fun-to-drive SUVs that embody the brand’s best qualities, the CX-3 blurs the lines between crossover and car to a degree that makes us question whether this is a gap that needed filling in the first place.
2016 Mazda CX-3 Specifications
- On Sale: Fall 2015
- Base Price: $20,500 (est)
- Engine: 2.0-liter DOHC 16-valve I-4/146 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 146 lb-ft @ 2,800 rpm
- Transmission: 6-speed automatic
- Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD/AWD crossover
- EPA Mileage: 27-29/32-35 mpg city/highway (est)
- L x W x H: 168.3 x 69.6 x 60.7 in
- Wheelbase: 101.2 in
- Weight: 2,809-2,952 lb