Mazda is on a roll and everything they make from the diminutive Mazda2 to the iconic MX-5 drive like winners. As impervious as they seem, they’ll have to stumble at one point as praises for KODO and Skyactiv can’t go on forever. And though it’s more of a misstep than an outright fall, it has finally happened and it’s with the CX-3. To be fair, it’s unequivocally the best to drive in its segment; heck it’s even more captivating than most crossovers a segment up. Yet, taken in the greater context of the Mazda automotive universe, the CX-3 feels more of a good story than a great one.
With the small crossover segment booming globally, Mazda has followed the lead of its competitors and based their CX-3 off the Mazda2. Yet, understanding that raising the ride height would alter the center of gravity and consequently, the driving dynamics, counteractive measures were put in place. Along with firmer bushings and re-tuned springs/dampers, the CX-3’s platform is stiffer. Made of 66 percent high-strength steel, it has about the same rigidity as the larger Mazda3. The resulting experience behind the wheel is good, but not perfect.
The CX-3 remains, like all Mazda vehicles, an intimate and rewarding driving experience. It doesn’t drive like a tall car and that may be off-putting for some; yet the car-like feel mean it’s a more capable long distance cruiser and occasional corner carver. Despite the “cruder” torsion beam axle, the CX-3 remains a joy in the bends. The revised steering, with a 7 percent slower ratio than the Mazda2’s, is well matched to the chassis. It offers a direct, nice on-center feel and progressive response during cornering. Weight transfer, be it side to side or front to back, is handled well with minimal body roll.
Surprisingly, Mazda is making the CX-3 available with all-wheel drive, only of two in its segment to do so (the other being the Subaru XV). The i-ACTIV AWD uses a smaller and lighter differential that manages to slot in-between the torsion beam. What’s more, it’s a predictive system that uses 27 different sensors to check engine, transmission, steering, braking, and even weather data at a rate of 200 times a second. It then sends power to the wheels that need traction a split-second before it actually needs it. It’s a transparent system: no lights, no levers to pull or switches to push; you just know it’s constantly looking out for you.
But in as much as the CX-3 has dialed in the driving dynamics to a tee, it comes with a big trade off and that’s with the ride quality. Compared to other Skyactiv-generation vehicles, including the MX-5, the CX-3 is sensitive to prevailing road conditions and tire pressures. The ride can go anywhere between plush and crashy depending on where you drive it and how much PSI is in the tires. On smoother or even slightly rougher surfaces, the CX-3 cushions unwanted impacts, yet on larger obstacles like ruts and humps, they shudder through almost unfiltered. Thus, caution must be exercised when tackling Manila Water diggings. If taken at speed, the rear occupants will complain of tremendous chassis hop. Meanwhile, sticking to the prescribed no load tire pressure of 33 PSI results in a well-mannered ride, but bump it up to the prescribed high load tire pressure of 38 PSI and it becomes unbearable.
In addition to the CX-3’ sensitivity to road conditions, it’s also worth noting that its move from hatchback to crossover hasn’t really increased its ground clearance. Stuck at a deceptively low 155 millimeters, it’s just 3 millimeters higher than the Mazda2 on which it’s based on. This can cause the CX-3 to embarrassingly scape through some poorly designed driveways.
It’s the same sort of experience with the drivetrain. The CX-3 is powered by a 2.0-liter Skyactiv-G 4-cylinder engine shared with the Mazda3 and CX-5 yet it loses some 9 horsepower and 8 Nm of torque in this particular application. Though still more powerful than Honda’s 1.8-liter mill in the HR-V, the performance of the CX-3 isn’t enthralling. Though lovely when poked (there are paddle shifters and a Sport mode to help), but without provocation, it doesn’t move with the same kind of verve you’ve come to expect from the zoom-zoom brand. The accompanying 6-speed automatic produce snappy enough shifts, but they aren’t exactly what you call smooth. Equipped with i-Stop but no i-ELOOP, this AWD variant manages just 7.69 km/L at an average speed of 13 km/h, respectable but not good.
As always, Mazda has nailed the styling on the CX-3. Instead of going cutesy, oddball, or bland, this crossover is attractive from every angle. The trademark cues: long hood, cab-rearward design, small overhangs, and tight rear proportions are all there. Yet because it’s a bigger canvas compared to the Mazda2, designers have drawn more attention to details like the LED accents in the head- and taillights and the huge wheel arches filled with 18-inch alloy wheels.
The biggest highlight of the CX-3, however, is its interior which is wonderfully upscale and highly ergonomic. It mimics the Mazda2 with its slim, flowing design accentuated by three circular vents and a slat-type one hidden beneath a chrome piece. There’s a wonderful play of color and texture going as well with tasteful red and metallic accents, contrasting stitching on the seats and dash, and even suede inserts on the seats and doors. Meanwhile, the horse-and-rider-as-one philosophy is intact equating to an easy-to-drive experience. There’s absolutely no learning curve and the driving position is spot on perfect. Even the seats, well the front ones, are supportive and the visibility is great.
Imagining that the CX-3 and Mazda2 have the same interior space given the same platform and wheelbase is partly right. Thanks to higher hip points, the CX-3 gains more legroom (20-mm up front and 30-mm at the back) compared to its passenger car counterpart. Even the rear bench itself has been raised theater style affording better visibility for the rear occupants. However, these changes don’t sound like much and quite frankly, they aren’t. Though sitting at the back feels slightly better than in the Mazda2, it’s still best left for smaller folks and children. It’s the same for luggage space which can carry a weekend’s worth but not more. It’s nowhere near the levels of versatility expected of a crossover.
And in the end, that’s exactly what’s lacking with the CX-3. Would-be buyers are expecting a lot of things in a crossover nowadays—space, versatility, comfort—traits that are absent in this particular Mazda. There’s no questioning that the CX-3 is a Mazda through and through with solid driving dynamics, a premium interior, and attractive styling, but unless you’re an empty nester or resigned to being single for life, this formula feels stretched to accommodate the typical small crossover segment buyer. Add to that the P 1,480,000 price tag and that niche becomes even smaller. In the end, you can still applaud Mazda for what they do and there will always be someone out there who’d want this kind of car, but for the vast majority of small crossover buyers out there, the CX-3 may be just a bit too Mazda for their taste.
2017 Mazda CX-3 AWD Activ
|Ownership||2017 Mazda CX-3 AWD Activ|
|Vehicle Classification||Sub-compact Crossover|
|Body Type||5-door Crossover|
|Engine / Drive||F/AWD|
|Under the Hood|
|Fuel Delivery||Direct Injection|
|Layout / # of Cylinders||I4|
|BHP @ rpm||148 @ 6,000|
|Nm @ rpm||192 @ 2,800|
|Fuel / Min. Octane||Gasoline / 91~|
|Fuel Economy @ Ave. Speed||7.69 km/L @ 13 km/h|
|Dimensions and Weights|
|Curb Weight (kg)||1,290|
|Suspension and Tires|
|Front Suspension||Independent, MacPherson Strut|
|Rear Suspension||Torsion Beam Axle|
|Front Brakes||Vented Disc|
|Tires||Toyo Proxes R40 215/50 R 18 V (f & r)|
|Anti-Lock Brakes (ABS)||Yes|
|Traction / Stability Control||Yes|
|Parking Sensors||Yes, Rear with Camera|
|Other Safety Features||No|
|Fog Lamps||Yes, Front|
|Steering Wheel Adjust||Tilt/Telescopic|
|Steering Wheel Material||Leather|
|Folding Rear Seat||Yes, 60/40|
|Power Door Locks||Yes|
|Power Mirrors||Yes, with Fold|
|# of Speakers||6, Bose|