There are two new Japanese-branded contenders crowding up the increasingly popular small SUV segment — the Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3.
Launched in February and March, 2015 respectively, the two baby crossovers are designed as higher-riding city runabouts for adventurous empty nesters and new families alike.
True to the form of these divergent car makers, they go about fulfilling the brief in two very different ways. To break it down to its essence, the Thai-made HR-V is about space and the Japanese-made CX-3 is about style.
However, they will both be among the segment’s top sellers. Honda wants upwards of 800 registrations per month, and Mazda wants about 1000 if it can get decent supply lines, 55 per cent of which are expected to be the Maxx tested here.
They will also, in all probability, steal sales from within their own brands, from the Civic and Mazda 3, given people have a growing desire to deal with quotidian traffic from a raised vantage point.
The pair we test here are right in the sweet spot, price-wise. The HR-V VTi costs $24,990 plus on-road costs, while the CX-3 Maxx 2WD costs $600 less at $24,390. The Honda is a base-level offering, while the Maxx sits one step above the entry Neo in the Mazda range.
Both come with front-wheel drive — the Mazda can also be had in AWD for $26,390, unlike the Honda — and automatic transmissions, though again the Mazda range is more diverse, given you can have a Maxx with a six-speed manual for $22,390. The HR-V is auto-only.
Both come with a decent list of standard equipment that covers the basics. Both have USB/AUX points, Bluetooth streaming, 7.0-inch colour touchscreens, reverse-view cameras with guidelines and rear sensors, cruise control, trip computer, cloth seats, rear spoiler and 16-inch alloy wheels.
Mazda, though, is the only company to offer in-built satellite navigation (the HR-V comes with an app-based system that only works with Apple, and uses your data unless you download your route with WiFi in advance, which is often impractical), as well as integrated apps including Pandora music and Stitcher podcasts, a rotary dial on the transmission tunnel a la BMW’s iDrive, and keyless push-button start.
The HR-V does have climate control on a nice digital screen, though.
So, the Mazda is both $600 cheaper and better equipped than the Honda, no doubt reflective of the fact that it isn’t a base variant. A win for the CX-3 here.
On a side note, you might also consider investing this $600 saving and putting it towards the Safety Pack option kit on the CX-3 that costs $1030, and adds blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and low-speed city autonomous braking under 30km/h.
Both the Honda and the Mazda have well-presented cabins, both of which have premium touches including leather touch points on the dash and/or doors, and silver plastic highlights, that lend ambience.
Above: Honda HR-V.
The HR-V’s cabin is an especially welcome step up for Honda compared with some of its other offerings. It offers superior interior storage to the Mazda by way of a large closed console and a hidden storage area behind the instrument fascia and under the cubby-filled transmission tunnel.
The Mazda counters by offering a superior infotainment system, with its MZD Connect system being easier to navigate, and the rotary dial alleviating the need to touch the screen with smudgy, shaky hands. It also offers splashes of red in its round air vents, and in general offers a funkier interior design bound to appeal to a younger audience.
Both offer the requisite raised driving position over the light-sized hatchbacks on which they’re based, though it is the Honda that has a more (conventional) SUV-like seating position.
Above: Mazda CX-3.
In the second row of seats it is clearly the Honda that takes the chocolates. It offers noticeably more rear legroom, foot room and shoulder room than the Mazda, and its large side windows are easier to see out of. It also has a flat floor, meaning the centre seat is comfier.
Its elevated rear seating height and sizeable rear doors also make loading in awkward objects such as a child seat a little easier than in the Mazda.
The leather armrests, bigger door pockets, single cupholder and rake-adjustable rear seats native to the Honda also help it edge the Mazda as a proposition for back-seat drivers. Neither offering comes with rear air vents.
Above: Honda HR-V. Below: Mazda CX-3.
Honda’s Magic Seats are also supremely versatile, with multiple configurations. They fold perfectly flat into the floor, or you can flip up just the seat base so you can store tall and narrow objects with ease. The Honda also has a lower loading lip and a quartet of tie-down points
The HR-V’s flimsy cargo cover pales next to the Mazda’s sturdier unit that can be hidden in the neat compartmentalised under-floor area, though, as does Honda’s roof-mounted centre seatbelt compared with the Mazda’s hidden seat-mounted unit. The Honda’s tailgate when open is also at forehead level for anyone around 190cm tall.
Both cars have a space-saver spare wheel accessible from the cargo area. In the areas of rear seat space and cargo area usability, the Honda clearly knocks the CX-3 off the perch.
Above: Honda HR-V. Below: Mazda CX-3.
This is reflected in the numbers: the Honda offers 437 litres with the rear seats in place, expanding to 1462L with the seats folded to maximum flat-ness. The Mazda by comparison offers 264L/1164L.
This substantial difference in capacities points to better packaging, given the two cars are similar dimensionally. The Honda is 4294mm long, 1772mm wide and 1605mm high, making it only 19mm longer, 7mm wider and 55mm higher than the Mazda. The HR-V’s wheelbase of 2610mm is 40mm longer than the CX-3’s.
So, a recap before we continue: the CX-3 offers better value for money and a funkier design, but the Honda is more family friendly and practical. Interestingly this echoes the divide between the van-like Honda Jazz and the chic Mazda 2 in the light-car class.
Under the bonnet, it is the Mazda that appears to have the edge, with its 2.0-litre SkyActiv high-compression non-turbo petrol engine producing an extra 4kW of power and 20Nm over the Honda’s normally-aspirated 1.8.
The CX-3’s outputs are 109kW at 6000rpm and 192Nm at 2800rpm, while the Honda’s unit makes 105kW at an even higher 6500rpm and 172Nm at 4300rpm.
As the figures suggest, both engines need revs under their belt to hit their respective stride — the Honda more so — but each also has the linearity and immediacy at low speeds inherent to natural aspiration, making them zippy enough around town.
Above: Honda HR-V. Below: Mazda CX-3.
Over the crucial 0-60km/h test — forget nought-to-100km/h times in cars such as these — the Mazda is about six-tenths faster than the Honda. Maybe it’s because the Mazda’s 1200kg tare mass is a significant 128kg lighter than the porky HR-V’s…
The Mazda has a six-speed torque-converter automatic transmission, while the Honda has a more efficiency-focused CVT. The CX-3 has a sports button that holds lower ratios to make throttle response feel more immediate, while the Honda’s unit has a sports mode that does similar – after a fashion.
The Mazda’s gearbox is sharper and more ready to kick down to wring the most out of the engine, whereas the traditionally ratio-less and slippy CVT flares between 2000rpm and 3000rpm at times, and exacerbates the already droney engine note.
Despite offering a sportier gearbox and engine combination — in relative terms — the Mazda is also more frugal. Officially, Honda claims a combined cycle reading of 6.6 litres per 100km, compared with the Mazda’s 6.1L/100km. Only the CX-3 offers idle-stop.
We actually managed to nearly mirror these figures for both, and the difference between the pair over both urban and extra-urban roads was generally somewhere close to the 0.5L/100km mark.
Both models are noisier than we would like at highway speeds — the Mazda’s 215/60 tyres emit more roar over coarse chip roads, while the Honda’s drivetrain is more intrusive and there’s more wind noise from the A-pillar. Our decibel reader hovered between 70-85dB on both cars.
On a twisting road, the CX-3 also feels livelier, courtesy of sharper steering with no numb spot on centre, better body control and slightly firmer damping lending better body control. The Honda’s damper rebound rates make it floaty and inelegant, and its light steering and screechier 215/60 tyres exacerbate this flaw.
However, both yours truly and my fellow tester Trent agree that the HR-V offers marginally softer suspension and better travel at lower speeds over Sydney’s broken roads. Its superior approach angle also means it breezes over bumps and down-angled driveways without scraping its front apron.
The CX-3 fails that test, and because of this it sometimes scarcely feels like a crossover SUV at all. More of a slightly tall hatch.
That said, the CX-3’s urban ride compliance and behaviour is much closer to the Honda than the Honda’s back-road performance is to the Mazda’s. And let’s not dismiss the fact that a weekend getaway in your funky little crossover SUV will include winding country roads more often than not.
As such, it’s fair to say the Mazda is zippier and more fun to drive, but playing into the Honda’s family friendly approach, the HR-V offers superior outward visibility almost by default (the CX-3’s blind spots are notable, making that blind-spot monitor a good option box to tick) and feels a little softer, and less likely to scrape over uneven surfaces.
A key element of any buying decision is cost of ownership. Mazda offers a three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, as well as lifetime capped-price servicing, with increments of 10,000km and up to 12 months.
The cost of each visit on the 2.0 SkyActiv CX-3 alternates between $280 and $307 — based on current pricing levels — though there are additional costs such as new brake fluid every two years/40,000km ($116), and a new cabin air filter every two years/40,000km too ($69). It doesn’t cover spark plug replacements every 120,000km either, which are $260 a pop.
The HR-V is the first Honda to come with 12-month/10,000km service intervals (whichever comes first) rather than the company’s usual six months. It also gets capped-price servicing over five years, with each visit capped at $298 (or $284 at 10,000km), again at current levels that can change in time upon agreement.
Like the Mazda, there are other costs not factored in, including various filters (pollen, cabin air and engine), brake fluid and spark plugs. The costs are similar on both, though the Mazda’s term of cover is longer. Very tight call, though.
At the end of the day, these cars embody the divergent ethos of each brand, The Mazda is well equipped, funky and sporty, the Honda practical, capacious and — a welcome touch, here — adventurous to look at and somewhat upmarket inside.
If you’re buying a second family car, and practicality is your priority, then the Honda is the one for you. Its cabin flexibility is second-to-none, and it’s one of the brand’s better efforts of late in terms of cabin presentation as well.
That said, it’s the Mazda that just wins on points here, given its better value and drivetrain, funky style and more rounded dynamic compromise. It’s a very close battle, and both are good choices if a baby crossover is what you’re after.
Click the Photos tab for images, taken by Mitch Oke.