2015 Mazda CX-3 Review

Australia is the first country to get access to the Mazda CX-3, and we deliver the verdict

Revealed at the Los Angeles motor show, placed in the checked luggage of a plane from Hiroshima, and now in Melbourne – the Mazda CX-3 has in just three weeks gone from global unveiling to local first drive.

Mazda may be late to the small SUV party, but the Japanese brand is certainly making up for lost time. We’re the first media worldwide to get a drive of the CX-3, and the fact it’s on local soil, or specifically the Anglesea proving ground in Victoria, is indicative of how important our country is to Mazda.

The Mazda CX-3 crossover will wedge itself between Mazda 2 and Mazda 3 hatchbacks and cost between $22-32,000 when it goes on-sale here in autumn 2015. The company admits it may “cannibalise” some sales of each of its popular hatches, but insists that next year it will bring higher overall sales to the brand.

At 4.28 metres from its chiselled snout to its pert behind, the Mazda CX-3 stretches 22cm further than a Mazda 2 but with 40cm less length than a Mazda 3. Despite the final digit in its name, the CX-3 is based on the smaller of the two hatchbacks, sharing the same 2.57 metre wheelbase.

Width is up 7cm on the Mazda 2, but down 10cm on the Mazda 3, though the new crossover blitzes both for height, reaching 5.5cm further up than the former and 9.5cm up on the latter.

Continuing its in-betweener positioning, the Mazda CX-3 will offer a choice of a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine (from the Mazda 3) or 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel (from overseas versions of the Mazda 2).

Local operations are only saying that manual and automatic transmissions will be available generally, but expect DIY-shifting only for the base petrol leaving the diesel to only have P-R-N-D (with + and -) on the console.

Three grades are expected to be available, with a base Neo-like model from about $22,000, a middle spec for around $25,000 and a high-spec for around $28,000, with diesel to command a further premium.

Although competitors such as the Holden Trax, Peugeot 2008 and Ford EcoSport are available only in front-wheel drive format, the Mazda CX-3 will have the option of front- or all-wheel drive.

We tested both a mid-grade petrol FWD auto and the high-spec diesel AWD auto that will top the entire range.

Seeing the Mazda CX-3 under the Australian sun for the first time, it looks for the better like a new iteration of the brand’s familiar Kodo design language.

Mazda says it didn’t just want to create a smaller CX-5, and that’s evident in the more angular five-point front grille and sharply pointing headlights and tail-lights. The character crease that runs over the front haunches kicks back well into the bodyside to match a faster roofline and blacked-out C-pillar that has more than a bit of Range Rover Evoque about it. This is a terrific looking small SUV.

Unfortunately the look comes at a practicality cost.

Up front the Mazda CX-3 shares its interior design with the new Mazda 2, which is no bad thing as it looks funky and cool.

However the plastics quality and some textures start to grate as the price moves towards starting with a 3. The chief designer admits that he was initially “perplexed” at the decision for the CX-3 to share essentially the same dashboard with its cheaper sibling.

The MZD-Connect infotainment system likely won’t be standard on the base CX-3 – therefore ruling out a standard reverse-view camera – but both our test cars had it and it remains the class benchmark for integration of phone, nav and apps (Pandora, Aha) connectivity.

Behind the front seats there is about the same legroom as in a Mazda 2, and less than in 2008 or Trax rivals. While headroom is affected by the slanted roofline, the rear bench itself is also set up quite high, however, meaning longer legs can drop down to the floor without lifting thighs from the seat. The position of the bench is also high enough to afford excellent visibility over the front seats.

Engineered with the need for all-wheel drive hardware underfloor, the CX-3 suffers from a shallow boot floor that means it delivers a 264-litre volume overall. This compares unfavourably with the Trax (350L) and 2008 (410L) in particular, while a basic 60:40 split-fold backrest is the only method to expand it.

Mazda says that styling, performance and fuel efficiency are key considerations for buyers, and that focus groups never found the cabin too small.

On all of those points the CX-3 scores.

Where Peugeot has straddled its baby crossover with a 1.6-litre engine and four-speed automatic, and Holden has given its rival a wheezy 1.8-litre base engine, Mazda has wisely bypassed any petrol engine capacity starting with a ‘1’.

The 2.0-litre in the CX-3 makes 109kW of power at 6000rpm and 192Nm of torque at 2800rpm. Both figures are slightly down on the same engine in the 3 because of a less free-flowing exhaust configuration, but while Mazda won’t yet disclose kerb weights for its newest baby, it confirmed that the front-wheel drive CX-3 will be lighter than the 3.

Economy in the “low 6.0L/100km” region is impressive for the class, but the new 1.5-litre turbo-diesel betters it with claimed economy “below 5.0L/100km”. Both get stop-start technology standard.

The diesel gets a lesser 77kW at 4000rpm but a greater 270Nm between 1600rpm and 2500rpm.

Wearing 18-inch alloy wheels with 50-aspect Toyo tyres, and sending drive to all four wheels, the high-spec CX-3 diesel gets off the line without a scrabble. By contrast the mid-spec CX-3 petrol on 16-inch alloys with chubby 60-aspect Dunlop rubber chirps its front tyres with enthusiasm when floored from standstill.

To our stopwatch the petrol reached 100km/h in 8.7 seconds versus 12.4sec for the diesel.

The latter little engine is quieter, however, with a smoothly zingy note as it revs towards 5000rpm. The larger, non-turbocharged one can get raucous as it is extended, as it does in the Mazda 3.

The tables turn for road noise, with the fat-tyred model throwing up noticeably more roar on the coarse-chip sections of the proving ground, though even the CX-3 on chubby rubber is louder than the (admittedly very quiet) Trax.

The six-speed automatic in the petrol gets a superb Sport mode just like the new 2 does, where the 3 lacks one. There’s no such switch in the diesel, either, leaving it feeling like the slower, lazier, but more economical choice. The petrol can step up to feel genuinely brisk by class standards.

It all gels with a steering, ride and handling package that feels typical new-generation Mazda, in a good way.

Grab onto the same leather-wrapped wheel as you’ll find in the 2, 3, 6 and CX-5, and you’ll also find similarly progressive and mid-weighted steering that is only a little bit loose on centre.

The ride seems very well balanced between comfort and control, on both the smaller and larger wheels, while handling is agile and beautifully balanced enough to be at the pointy end of the class. That’s particularly the case with the all-wheel drive model on grippier tyres, if your preference is sports over soothing cruising.

Indeed for its frugal and willing engines, smart automatic transmission and sweet driving manners, the Mazda CX-3 should muscle its way towards the top of the class. We wish the Japanese newcomer had more packaging smarts, but as the brand no doubt believes, if it looks this good, it is going to sell – and what would you rather be seen in: a CX-3 or Mazda 3?