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2020 Mazda CX-30 First Drive Review: So Good You Might Not Notice It

The subtle art of turning the Mazda 3 into an SUV.

Aaron GoldWriterThe ManufacturerPhotographer

If you've read enough Mazda reviews, you probably know what's coming in this one. You're expecting the new CX-30 to be good to drive, easy to use, and roomy everywhere but the back seat. That's what we were expecting, too, and the latest Mazda did not disappoint.

But there was something a little different about the CX-30, and it took us a while to pin down that quality: It's an overarching subtlety that pervades every element of this tidy little SUV. This is the killer app that sets the CX-30 apart from its competitors, and it's kind of a shame that subtlety, when done correctly, is so subtle.

The CX-30 is an all-new vehicle that fills an almost imperceptible gap between the CX-3 and the CX-5. (Mazda's explanation for the nonstandard nomenclature is that the CX-4 name is used for an SUV exclusive to China. Why that would stop them from calling this one the CX-4 in the U.S. and other markets is beyond us.) The plan, at least what we can gather from the marketing Venn diagrams we were shown, is that the CX-30 will fill the vacuum left by shrinking Mazda 3 sales, while the slightly-smaller CX-3—probably our least favorite Mazda—will be pushed farther downmarket.

From the outside, the CX-30 looks rather like a 3 on stilts. The black fender cladding extends to the rocker panels and bumpers, giving the CX-30 a nice go-anywhere look. As with other Mazdas, the CX-30 is short on chrome jewelry; the designers relied instead on surfacing of the sheetmetal, and the CX-30 has a rather nice "S" shape in its doors as opposed to the curvy-road-fading-into-the-distance shape one sees in the 3. Critics of the 3 hatchback's massive D-pillar will no doubt prefer the more traditional shape of the CX-30's windows. From the back, the taillights have been raised and the hatch lid narrowed, giving the CX-30's posterior an uncanny resemblance to the dearly departed Infiniti FX.

We didn't realize it at the time, but our first drive of the all-wheel-drive Mazda 3 was a preview of the CX-30. The two vehicles are closely related, sharing a 186-hp, 2.5-liter naturally aspirated engine and front-strut, rear-torsion-beam suspension, although the CX-30 is slightly smaller (it's roughly three inches shorter in length and wheelbase). Like the 3, the CX-30 is available with front- or all-wheel-drive, but the CX-30 is only offered with a six-speed automatic transmission.

And like the 3, the CX-30 is a delight on the open road. Acceleration could be better, especially as the CX-30 weighs a couple hundred pounds more than the Mazda 3 AWD. So far Mazda is keeping mum on an expansion to the engine lineup, but we imagine we'll see the advanced Skyactiv-X engine join the lineup at some point, and the 250-hp turbo mill from the CX-5 would certainly slap a grin on our grizzled faces.

How the CX-30 uses what power it has tickles our inner geek. Like the 3, the CX-30 offers Mazda's i-Activ all-wheel-drive system and G-Vectoring Control Plus (GVC+) vehicle-dynamics system. The details of these two systems could fill their own article; suffice it to say that the car uses real-world data to construct a virtual model of the vehicle's dynamics, predicts when and where traction will be needed, and shifts power appropriately, the idea being that power to a given corner will increased or reduced before the CX-30 has a chance to slip. If the system is wrong and a wheel starts to break loose, it will make a correction (usually within a couple of degrees of wheel rotation) and factor its mistake into its near-future calculations.

More geekiness: The time-proven cure for wheelspin is to momentarily reduce the throttle and grab the wheel with a touch of brake, but Mazda wanted to avoid that expedient. The engineers' logic was that if a person jumps on the accelerator hard enough to break a tire loose, there's probably a reason—perhaps the driver is trying to zip into a tight gap in fast-moving traffic. Their logic is to maximize traction without reducing acceleration.

Conversely, when the car is turned into a bend, the GVC+ system makes a slight reduction in engine torque—not enough to be noticed by the driver, but just enough to put some more weight on the front wheels for crisper turn-in. As the CX-30 rounds the bend, the AWD system shifts some power to the rear to prevent understeer brought on by the overworked front tires. As you exit the turn, GVC+ drags the outside front brake to help the car straighten out.

All of this works seamlessly—or should we say subtly. Hop in and drive and the CX-30 feels a lot like its competitors, but more steady and serene. Crank up the speed and it retains that same smooth demeanor.

This, too, is the result of yet more subtle science. Mazda spent an inordinate amount of time studying how humans walk. Think about it: When you walk, your head bounces around like a Cadillac Fleetwood with leaky shocks, and yet your eyes register your progress as straight and level. Mazda made tweaks to everything from the suspension to the way the seat cradles your torso in order to imitate that same motion, in the hopes that the driver's head (and, just as importantly, those of the passengers) would mimic those walking actions and subconsciously cancel out the motions. Does it work? Well, we can tell you it's a damn sight better than the CX-3, which makes us feel like a bobblehead doll.

Mazda set us up on a drive from San Diego to Palm Springs, presumably to ensure us a day of dry, sunny roads, and so of course it rained buckets on our entire drive. Wet roads put a limit to our antics, but the CX-3 delivers a drive experience much like the all-wheel-drive Mazda 3, and we can tell you that one is a champion when you crank up the speed—and yet it's as comfortable as it is agile. Ditto for the CX-30, which has a pleasantly mature attitude given its market position and price.

Mazda's goal is to move its products upmarket, and we like most of what they've done with the interior. Though much of the switchgear is a Xerox copy of what's found in the 3, the dash gets a slightly different treatment, and the nearly full-width dash pad—done up in either blue or brown depending on which package you order, with the color echoed in the door panels—has the strange effect of making the CX-30 feel a great deal wider than it is. It's easy to convince yourself that you're driving a midsize SUV until you hop into the back seat, which is adequate for adults but not particularly generous for legroom. The trunk is fine, though, with 20 cargo feet of space.

We also like the simplicity of the control layout—it's refreshing to see a car with little more than basic air conditioning controls on the dash. Mazda moved the CX-30's touchscreen close to the windshield to reduce distraction; all control is done via a dial in the center console, and Mazda has attempted to limit the menus to no more than five items. We've always liked this placement for the stereo volume knob, but scrolling through them requires much of the distraction that Mazda is trying to eliminate.

Pricing for the CX-30 will start at $21,900, with options bundled into packages called Select, Preferred, and Premium. An all-wheel-drive CX-30 with the Premium package and extra-cost Soul Crystal Red paint will list for $31,240. For the most part, we're pleased with the list of standard equipment (including safety features), but we're a bit puzzled as to why Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard only with the Select package and above. Aren't strapped-for-cash youngsters the one who want connectivity the most?

Still, no car can be perfect, and the Mazda CX-30 made a good first impression. We're not jumping up and down with excitement, but we appreciate the addition of a good-driving crossover to an overly crowded market. We like the way the CX-30 goes about its job, but let's hope that it's not so subtle that potential buyers pass it over.

2020 Mazda CX-30 Premium AWD Specifications
ON SALE Now
PRICE $30,945 (as tested)
ENGINE 2.5L DOHC 16-valve I-4; 186 hp @6,000 rpm, 186 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual or automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 26 mpg (combined)
L x W x H 173.0x 70.7 x 62.2 in
WHEELBASE 104.5 in
WEIGHT 3,408 lb
0-60 MPH N/A
TOP SPEED 124 mph
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