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.
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.
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?
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 HR-V 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|
|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|