Mon. Jun 17th, 2024
2016 Mazda CX-3

2016 Mazda CX-3 First Drive

If there’s any doubt in your mind about the importance of B-segment crossovers, consider this: our review of the 2016 Mazda CX-3 arrives on your screen less than 24 hours after our first test of the 2016 Honda HR-V. Both of these vehicles are hugely important entries for their respective automakers. And while they take a similar shape and will compete head to head, the truth is, they’re very different products.

2016 Mazda CX-3

The HR-V is a knockout because of its excellent packaging and added versatility over Honda’s own Fit and Civic. It’s a wholly competent product, and we imagine it’ll be one of, if not the best-selling vehicle in the class. In terms of being desirable for customers, it checks all the necessary boxes: frugal, functional, efficient, and affordable. Mazda takes a similar approach, but focuses instead on its key strength of offering cars that are great to drive, and look damn good.

What’s more, the CX-3 won’t have to share showroom space as the HR-V does with the Fit – the all-new Mazda2 isn’t slated for the US right now. Instead, the new CUV will serve as an entry point into the brand. Because of this, Mazda is betting big on the CX-3.

That all starts with a product that’s appealing to the eye. Design director Derek Jenkins says Mazda “didn’t want to do the funky route” with its compact CUV – a nudge to the Nissan Juke and Fiat 500X, right there. Instead, the CX-3 uses the Kodo design language that Mazda has perfected since its production debut on the CX-5 in 2012. Across the board, the company’s products look incredible, and the CX-3 is right at home amongst Mazda’s latest beauties.

Notice the long hood with a flowing character line that runs over the front fender and down the body side, chiseled off at the end with tight rear proportions and a small overhang. Huge arches draw focus to the premium 18-inch wheels found on our Grand Touring CX-3, but swallow up the 16-inch rollers used on lesser models. The glass area is kept to a minimum, but visibility from inside is still quite good. Details like the LED accents in the head- and taillamps look premium and aggressive. From all angles, this is an attractive crossover. It’s a bold, dynamic entry in a class filled with cutesy, oddball, and bland designs.

Underneath the CX-3 is the Skyactiv chassis found in the new Mazda2. At 168.3 inches long, 69.6 inches wide, and 60.7 inches tall, the CX-3 is smaller than the Mazda3 in every dimension except height. This translates to a compact, tidy crossover that’s noticeably smaller than its big brother CX-5.

Mazda2 influences stop there, though – the CX-3 doesn’t use its new 1.5-liter Skyactiv-G gasoline engine. Instead, it relies on the tried and true 2.0-liter, naturally aspirated inline-four found elsewhere in the company’s lineup, with 146 horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque. Curiously, that’s 9 hp and 4 lb-ft less than this engine’s application in the Mazda3.

Another curiosity is the lack of a manual transmission. We know, it’s a dying bit of enthusiast kit, but stick-shifts are kind of Mazda’s thing. You can buy the mainstream Mazda3, Mazda6, and CX-5 with a manual, and moreover, these transmissions are offered in most of the CX-3’s direct competitors. You can row your own in the Honda HR-V, Jeep Renegade, Fiat 500X, Nissan Juke, and Kia Soul. If any carmaker in this class should be offering do-it-yourself action, it should be Mazda.

But we digress. The six-speed automatic is a great partner to the 2.0-liter engine, and comes with a Sport mode that will eagerly downshift during spirited driving. It’ll even hold gears to redline. That’s especially good because the engine can feel really gutless under 3,000 rpm. You’ll notice a lack of power when accelerating from a stop.

That revvy, enthusiastic transmission doesn’t hurt fuel economy, either. With front-wheel drive, Mazda estimates the CX-3 will achieve 29 miles per gallon in the city and 35 mpg highway. All-wheel-drive models trim those digits down to 27 and 32, respectively. Those AWD numbers are right in line with the HR-V, and the FWD estimations are slightly better than said Honda. Of course, Mazda’s larger 3 hatchback will get you 40 mpg highway with a more powerful version of that same 2.0-liter engine. Just saying.

But there’s a lot to love in the CX-3 – traits that we enjoy on all of Mazda’s other vehicles. The steering, for example. The electronically assisted rack offers sold on-center feel that’s great for freeway cruising, and it’s simply a joy to use in the bends. It’s direct and nicely weighted, and makes the CX-3 feel really nimble on its toes.

It’s important to note that the CX-3 uses different suspension geometry than the rest of its Skyactiv kin. The MacPherson front strut setup is largely the same, just redesigned for a more compact application. The big difference is found at the rear, where multi-link geometry has been removed in favor of a torsion-beam system. But this is a Mazda, so even this more archaic setup still proves solid when tossing the CX-3 in and out of corners. We love the way this car transfers weight from side to side, as well as fore and aft. Body roll is minimal, as is nose dive during hard braking.

Once again, Mazda has created the best-driving car in the segment. That goes for both front- and all-wheel-drive models. We drove both, and didn’t find one noticeably better than the other. Instead, both setups perform well, and and work to make the car feel light. The front-wheel-drive CX-3 weighs in at 2,809 pounds, and AWD ups that to 2,952.

We also don’t have cargo capacity or passenger volume numbers just yet, but we don’t need that data to know that the CX-3 lacks interior space. It’s fine up front, for two passengers – Mazda fully admits that this is a car for single folks or younger couples – but the rear compartment and cargo area are pretty tight. You could sit in the back seats for short distances and be fine, and there’s enough room in the hatchback to carry a weekend’s worth of luggage or a full load of groceries. But buyers who like crossovers because of their functionality will be disappointed with the CX-3, especially when compared to the incredible storage and versatility offered by the HR-V. What’s more, the Mazda’s cargo hold has a high load-in height, and a small opening. There isn’t even a flat load floor, though the rear bench does split and tumble.

So functionality isn’t the CX-3’s thing. Look past that, however, and you’re rewarded with a nicely arranged, genuinely premium-feeling interior. The choice of materials in both the mid-grade Touring and top-level Grand Touring models are above average for the class, with nicely grained plastics and soft-touch stuff mixed into a design that is both simplistic and modern. It may be a step down in terms of packaging, but the CX-3’s interior is a leap above segment average.

The cockpit uses a well-organized instrument cluster, and the dash is low and flat, with just the standard seven-inch infotainment control screen taking its position in the center. Beneath that, Grand Touring models feature automatic climate control with high-quality knobs to modulate everything. The Touring interior, pictured here, uses old-school-ish big dials for the HVAC, but it’s all very simple and intuitive. As is the navigation/infotainment system control, housed aft of the gear selector. As more and more automakers get on board with large dials to operate this technology, we’re happy to report Mazda has a premium feeling setup, even in its most affordable models.

And affordable it should be. Official pricing will be released closer to the CX-3’s on-sale date later this year, and the first cars should start arriving at dealers in August. For now, Mazda is simply targeting a starting MSRP around $20,000, which would put the CX-3 right in line with its toughest competition.

That also includes the Mazda3. We can’t help but think that one of the CX-3’s biggest competitors will be sitting right next to it in the showroom, with what feels like a more spacious interior, sleeker styling, and better fuel economy. It doesn’t offer all-wheel drive, though – something that’s available across all three CX-3 trim levels. The small crossover gives drivers a higher seating position, too, and we know that’s a super desirable trait for a lot of drivers.

Combine that with a car that’s genuinely great to drive, and the CX-3 is truly the Mazda of compact CUVs. What it lacks in functionality it more than makes up for with driver engagement. This is how Mazda makes cars these days, and it’s a formula we can get behind. This class of B-segment crossovers is growing like crazy, and will only get bigger. But until someone comes along and takes its place, Mazda has once again given us the best driver of the bunch.