An all-new model in the subcompact crossover segment, the 2016 Mazda CX-3 combines a well-built interior, class-best driving dynamics and a small footprint into a curvy body. Excellent fuel mileage, available all-wheel drive and numerous standard and optional features make it one of the top picks in this expanding category.
What Is It?
The 2016 Mazda CX-3 is an all-new, four-door subcompact SUV that slots below the Mazda CX-5 in both size and price. The CX-3 measures 168.3 inches long, making it 11 inches shorter than the CX-5 and about 1 inch shorter than the Honda HR-V, another brand-new subcompact SUV. Mazda says the CX-3 will start "in the low $20Ks" when it goes on sale late this summer. That should put it a few grand more than a Mazda 3, and a couple grand less than the HR-V and the larger CX-5.
All CX-3s are powered by a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine rated at 146 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 146 pound-feet of torque at 2,800 rpm. Unlike the Mazda 2, Mazda 3 and the CX-5, the new CX-3 is only available with a six-speed automatic (meaning: no manual transmission option). Front-wheel drive is standard, but all-wheel drive is available.
There are three trim levels: Sport, Touring and Grand Touring (tested here). The base Sport model is equipped with features like a 7-inch infotainment display screen with a central multifunction control knob, rearview camera, Bluetooth phone connectivity and push-button start.
Upgrades on the Touring include a blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, leather-wrapped steering wheel and keyless entry. The top-level Grand Touring adds navigation, satellite radio, leather seats with suede inserts, 18-inch alloy wheels, sunroof, LED head- and taillights and steering wheel paddle shifters. The Grand Touring model should start somewhere around $26,000 range.
How Does It Drive?
In typical Mazda fashion, the CX-3 is one of the sportiest vehicles in the subcompact crossover segment. It feels just as small as it looks, backed up by precise steering and thoroughly confident and agile handling manners. This is a car that relishes corners, and with its extra ground clearance and ample suspension travel, even bumpy back roads are enjoyable.
As with most every vehicle in this burgeoning segment, the CX-3 has only modest power. Still, it makes the most of what it has. In our testing the front-drive CX-3 hit 60 mph in 8.5 seconds, which is a half-second quicker than the Fiat 500X (which has 34 more horsepower), 1.5 seconds quicker than the Chevy Trax but a little over a second slower than the class hot-rod, the turbocharged Nissan Juke.
Even though the CX-3 is quick for the class, you'll still need a willing right foot to make moves in traffic. Need to pass a car on a two-lane? Plan ahead, leave room and give it full throttle. The six-speed automatic transmission is responsive and performs quick upshifts, but the engine's lack of grunt means even the slightest request for more power translates to an immediate downshift. The Mazda's transmission operates more directly to driver requests during manual paddle-shift control than most.
At our test track the Mazda CX-3 acquitted itself well, with excellent-for-the-segment slalom and skid-pad numbers. Although it exhibits more body roll than most lower-slung sedans, our test driver called it one of the best-handling small SUVs and was impressed by its sharp steering. That steering feels natural, whether making a turn into the grocery store or carving a line through a sweeping highway on-ramp. Those who care about these kinds of things will appreciate the feedback the CX-3 gives to the driver through the steering wheel.
Ride quality is solid for the class, soaking up small bumps and ripples well, with a few vibrations occasionally creeping into the cabin. It can feel a bit stiff-legged over the rough stuff, for sure, and it struggles with big bumps, thanks to the short wheelbase. Really big hits will knock your elbow off its perch on the door armrest.
Mazda says the CX-3's lightweight body allowed engineers to add in an extra dose of sound-deadening material. To that end, wind noise is minimal, with only a small amount of whistling sometimes heard from the thankfully large side mirrors. The all-season tires are also quiet, giving less "thumping" over road imperfections than most. The hard-working four-cylinder engine remained pretty silent during 40-60-mph cruising, but at freeway speeds you'll notice it and at full throttle the engine is loud and a bit coarse-sounding.
How Does It Rate in Terms of Interior Comfort?
If you're expecting a tall-riding crossover with a commanding view of the road, look elsewhere. Although it's easy to get into the CX-3's front seats, once you're in it feels more Mazda 3 than CX-5. We liked the low center of gravity (the driver seat is height-adjustable) and it also gives good headroom, even with the standard-for-Grand-Touring sunroof.
Our preproduction test car didn't have a center armrest, but production Touring and Grand Touring models will come standard with it (a dealer-installed option on the Sport). The front seats themselves are fantastic, firm yet comfy with good lateral support to hold you in place through corners. We also quite liked the GT model's suede seat inserts, which are soft and grippy. Door armrests are on the hard side.
Getting into the rear seat is a different story. The doors are reasonably large, but the entryway is small. Plus, the raised rear-seat height means you have to duck your head as you hop in, and it's easy to brush a leg on the rear wheel well. Rear headroom isn't bad considering how small the CX-3 is, but the car feels narrow in back and the high beltline and thick pillars make for a claustrophobic feeling.
Standard cargo capacity is 12.4 cubic-feet with all seats up. Lower the second row and the max capacity is 44.5 cubic-feet. That's considerably less than the Honda HR-V, slightly less than the Chevy Trax, but a bit more generous than the Nissan Juke.
How User-Friendly Are the Controls?
The center of the dash is dominated by a fixed 7-inch infotainment display screen standard across all trims. The screen is operated via a control knob on the center console, but many functions require more steps than should be necessary. For instance, changing a satellite radio station is a multi-step process (a simple tuning knob would rectify this) and inputting destinations into the navigation system took longer than it should. Our phone paired immediately, though, so the Bluetooth connectivity works well.
The climate controls are a simple three-knob layout which makes them easy to use at a glance. We like the large central tachometer-digital speedometer readout on the Grand Touring, although lower trims get a smaller, harder-to-read bar-graph tachometer hidden in the left corner of the instrument panel.
The Grand Touring's head-up display comes across as an afterthought. The readout is transmitted onto the windshield via a plastic screen which rises out of the dash upon startup. But the raised screen can be distracting, and it appears there isn't a way to lower it. Although the head-up display itself is height-adjustable, it never seems to stay in your line of sight so its usefulness is debatable.
If you like power-adjustable seats you're out of luck with the CX-3. All trim levels get manually adjustable seats with no option to upgrade. The seatback adjustment lever is partially blocked by the seatbelt and requires a firm hand to use, plus it lacks obvious detents.
How Safe Is It?
No crash-test results are available for the CX-3 as of yet, but Mazda claims "global top-of-class crashworthiness" so we expect good things. All CX-3s come standard with the usual features like antilock brakes, traction control, stability control and multiple airbags.
The base CX-3 Sport comes standard with a back-up camera via the 7-inch display screen. Stepping up to the Touring model brings a blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, while the top-level Grand Touring is optionally available with radar cruise control, lane-departure warning, a high-beam control system as well as Smart Brake Support and Smart City Brake Support (these last two systems can detect a potential crash, and slow the vehicle to avoid a collision).
Speaking of the CX-3's brakes, it stopped from 60 mph in 121 feet, which is about average for the segment. The Grand Touring's 215/50R18 all-season tires offer reasonable grip, and the CX-3 was stable and confident during our panic-stop tests. Around town the brakes deliver a feel that's firm enough to let you know they have some power, but soft enough so you can modulate the brake pedal for perfectly smooth stops.
What Kind of Mileage Does It Deliver?
Mazda claims "class-leading fuel economy" for the CX-3. At an EPA-rated 31 mpg combined (29 city/35 highway), the front-drive CX-3 does deliver superior city mileage (by 1 whole mpg) over the Honda HR-V, although the combined and highway ratings are otherwise identical between the two. The Chevrolet Trax and Nissan Juke aren't far behind, at 29 and 30 mpg combined, respectively. The Kia Soul (26 mpg combined) and Jeep Renegade/Fiat 500X (25 mpg combined) are less miserly.
The CX-3 AWD is rated at 29 mpg combined (27 city/32 highway).
During our time with a front-wheel-drive CX-3, we averaged 29.9 mpg over 794 miles of mixed driving, including 31.4 mpg on our admittedly highway-heavy 116-mile standard evaluation loop.
What Are Its Closest Competitors?
The Chevrolet Trax was an early entry into the subcompact crossover segment. It has respectable passenger space for its size and more cargo volume than the CX-3, but it is painfully slow and the interior feels cheaper.
The Fiat 500X brings Italian flair to the small crossover segment, and it's our favorite version of the 500 so far (it shares underpinnings with the Jeep Renegade). There's reasonable room inside the cabin, but less cargo space than the CX-3. The Mazda is quicker and more rewarding to drive, too.
The Honda HR-V took a page out of the Fit's engineering handbook, with the best-designed interior in terms of usability, especially the rear-seat area. Cargo room dwarfs all competitors. The ride is comfy and fuel mileage matches the CX-3 at the top of the class, but with only 141 hp and a continuously variable transmission (CVT) it's hardly a speed demon.
The odd-looking Nissan Juke pretty much invented the subcompact crossover segment. With a 188-hp turbo four-cylinder and plenty of ground clearance, it's an absolute hoot to drive on bumpy back roads. It's considerably quicker than rivals, but at 162.4 inches long and with just a 10.5-cubic-foot trunk, it's positively tiny. Did we mention it looks like a frog?
Why Should You Consider This Car?
Because you want the nicest interior materials in the class. Or you want a subcompact crossover that beckons you to take curvy roads, rather than shy away from them. Although it's far from quick compared to most cars, the CX-3 is speedy for this segment, yet fuel mileage is superb.
Why Should You Think Twice About This Car?
You can get more for your money with the Mazda 3 which is a couple grand cheaper, has a bigger rear-seat area and more cargo room, plus the availability of a larger engine and a manual transmission.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.