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There’s no doubt whatsoever that the small SUV segment is the hottest battle ground in Australia right now – certainly in terms of the market volume that is rushing to it in large numbers.

Some manufacturers are so enamoured with the concept, they even have two entrants in the segment – think Audi Q2 and Q3 for example, which effectively sit in very similar parts of the market even though the marketing blurb will claim otherwise.

Vehicles that effectively amount to high-riding city hatchbacks with obligatory black plastic cladding added to toughen them up, are now so unashamedly city-focused, manufacturers increasingly offer them in 2WD guise only. Regular CarAdvice readers will know how I feel about anything that purports to be an ‘SUV’ but is in fact 2WD. Thankfully, there’s no such malarkey here, then.

Lined up and staged for this small SUV tussle, we’ve selected the Mazda CX-3 sTouring and Subaru XV 2.0i – both AWD, and both petrol. Firm crowd favourite and relative newcomer in the shape of the Mazda; all-new but with decades of SUV heritage in the case of the Subaru – this could be tougher than it might first appear.


Pricing and specifications

While these two haven’t squared off identically on price – keep in mind, you can step up to the Subaru XV 2.0i-L, which starts from $30,340 before on-road costs to really get price parity if you desire.

In fact, CarAdvice recommends you opt for the 2.0i-L and take advantage of the larger infotainment screen, added safety kit and Subaru’s excellent Eyesight system, standard in that model grade. Regardless, the lack of that kit won’t affect our take on the performance and driving dynamics of the two rivals on test here.

The Mazda CX-3 sTouring starts from $30,990 and standard equipment highlights include: rear-view camera, cruise control, satellite navigation, Bluetooth phone connectivity, rain sensing wipers, faux leather, 18-inch alloy wheels, LED tail-lights, and DRLs. Our test model only has floor mats added to that price for an extra $134.

The Subaru XV 2.0i starts from $27,990 (the 2.0i-L we recommend starts from $30,340) and standard equipment highlights include: active torque vectoring, front fog lights with integrated daytime running lights (DRLs), rear-view camera, tyre pressure monitoring system, X-Mode all-wheel-drive system, CD player, six speakers, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, 17-inch alloy wheels and rear privacy glass. Our test XV has no optional equipment fitted.


Powertrain

Interestingly, and despite trading heavily on both the ‘Zoom, Zoom’ and ‘Jinba Ittai’ principles of drivability and the sensation of ‘horse and jockey’, the CX-3 isn’t going to win any awards for sportiness in this segment. That’s our read after taxing both engines as hard as any owner will ever work them during daily driving duties.

The 2.0-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine within the Mazda’s attractive snout generates 109kW at 6000rpm and 192Nm at 2800rpm, numbers which, on paper at least promise to roll the 1344kg CX-3 along rapidly enough. Power is transferred through a conventional six-speed gearbox, which should also earn points over the XV’s CVT, which we generally don’t love.

The Subaru is also powered by a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine, which knocks out 115kW at 6000rpm and 196Nm at 4000rpm. That’s where the two differ though, with Subaru opting for a tweaked CVT – a transmission it has been using for some time now – as opposed to a conventional automatic gearbox. Weighing in at 1462kg, you’d think those numbers will be more than enough to get about town without too much fuss.

The Subaru uses permanent AWD – as expected from the brand – while the Mazda uses an AWD on demand system and decides when it needs drive to all four wheels, despite what you might think or want from behind the wheel.

On paper then, the CX-3 makes 0.081kW per kg and the XV makes 0.078kW per kg. In theory, the Mazda should feel ever so slightly more rapid.

The Mazda therefore wins the power war – just…


Interior

It’s getting a little boring writing it again and again, but Mazda has – once again – executed a stylish, well designed cabin that feels more expensive than the list price indicates. It’s more than just the choice of materials, tight panel gaps and layout, too. The CX-3 does all kinds of things well in the cabin.

The steering wheel controls are excellent, and the steering wheel itself is more sporting and enjoyable to use than that of the Subaru. The centre screen feels premium enough for the money but there is no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Where the XV feels more sporty and youthful, the CX-3 feels like it would better suit a more mature buyer.

We like the application of the Mazda head-up display, even if the little plastic screen itself doesn’t look especially premium. But it works well and is visible at all times, which are the most crucial factors for head-up displays.

There are no active guidelines when you’re reversing and using the rear-view camera, which is decent and clear, but does fisheye at the edges. While we’d like moving guidelines, which would make parking even easier, it works well enough for competent drivers not to have an issue.


Above: Mazda CX-3

The large air conditioning dials look attractive and work well, the infotainment system in general is excellent, but Bluetooth playback isn’t always great. We had a few minor glitches with audio playback and phone calls during our week of testing. There are two USB outlets up front, along with a 12V point and an SD card slot for the navigation system.

Where the CX-3 is let down in SUV terms, is the awful storage layout throughout the cabin. The door bins take one bottle each, and the centre console storage isn’t useful for larger smartphones. There is a sunglass holder above your melon up front, but little else in the way of useful or cleverly positioned storage. In the second row, there are no power outlets, no vents, no centre armrest, one map pocket only and only bottle holders in the doors.

The padded knee rest in a contrasting colour is a quality touch, and the red stitching looks funky. The CX-3 does however, have hard plastics, despite appearances to the contrary. The seats are decent, but are smaller in width and squab length than the XV, making them less comfortable overall, especially for drivers with wide hips and over long distances for a range of body types.


Above: Mazda CX-3

In the second row, you can really sense the reality of the Mazda 2 platform beneath the CX-3. There is no room for adults, basically, unless they are of the super short variety. Your knees will be firmly pressed (read, wedged) against the back of the seat, your head touches the roof, and you won’t want to spend too much time back there. There are stitched, soft sections on the inside of the back doors, red piping on the seats, and an integrated lap/sash middle belt.

The luggage section which is only just beyond tiny does have a luggage light, the seats fold flat, and the luggage floor can be dropped as well. It’s clever and it has two height settings to make it a bit easier to store taller items. The hard luggage cover feels premium, unlike some of the floppy material covers you get in small SUVs, and the  hatch opens tall enough that you don’t wallop your head on it trying to escape the rain.

Swap into the Subaru XV and the seats are immediately more comfortable. They are wider, and longer in the squab meaning they will be better for more drivers and more comfortable for nearly all of them. We noticed the added comfort the minute we slid into the front seats.

Up front, there is one USB outlet, one 12V socket, as well as two more USBs and one more 12V in the console bin. Crucially, there is way more useable storage, with larger door pockets, covered centre storage and, compared to the Mazda, smarter storage ahead of the shifter as well.

The Subaru’s screen doesn’t look or feel as premium as the Mazda’s, but the XV does get Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, which works well in both instances. The screen is clear, and the rear-view camera gets moveable guidelines and a fixed reverse indicator. The camera itself is decent but does fisheye at the edges, much like the Mazda’s.


Above: Subaru XV

We’d call the steering wheel controls decent rather than excellent, but the wheel itself feels really cheap. It’s hard and moulded from ugly plastic – not a good look. The trim itself is more hard wearing than attractive, and certainly not as premium with aspects like the faux stitching, which lets it down against the Mazda’s cabin overall.

There is however, significantly more room in the second row in every respect. There’s more knee-room to the front seat back, we weren’t touching our heads on the roof, and there was space to spare. The second row doesn’t get air vents, or charging outlets either, but it does get a centre armrest with cupholders.

The XV feels significantly wider across the second row, it has larger rear door pockets, a single map pocket, and the seat is softer and more comfortable. It’s not as supportive at the edges as the Mazda, perhaps because it is less contoured, and there’s a silly middle seat belt arrangement that drops down from the passenger side of the roof aperture.

Above: Subaru XV

At the luggage area, there is a small lip but the floor is almost flat when the seats are folded down. You also get a light and takeaway bag hooks but the load-in height is higher than the Mazda’s. There is also a retractable luggage cover, and most importantly, the hatch lifts higher, meaning you’re less likely to bash your head on it.


On the road

The CX-3’s central focal point on sealed roads above about 70km/h is road/tyre noise – and plenty of it. We’ll get to that in a minute, though.

As I noted when I tested the sTouring FWD not so long ago, the CX-3 is hampered by the Mazda 2 platform beneath, and it’s why it doesn’t make particularly great sense as an SUV, even in AWD guise as tested here.

The ride isn’t SUV-like at all in that it crashes and skips over minor road surfaces issues, more like a sports car than an SUV. The problem is that the CX-3’s around town ride is slaughtered by stablemates like the Mazda 3, and yet it doesn’t even do the SUV thing especially well either. Drive a Mazda 3 back-to-back with a CX-3 and you’d be mad to choose the ride of the CX-3 for comfort and compliance.

CarAdvice testers all agree the suspension tune for CX-3s across various model grades is simply too firm for our urban road network, and the AWD model is blighted by the same malaise as the FWD variant.

At speed, that road/tyre noise I mentioned earlier, develops into a roar, something that jars with the otherwise gentile confines of the cabin. The design, layout and equipment all feel premium as we keep mentioning, but the amount of noise that filters in, doesn’t. Coarse chip surfaces merely add more grist to the mill in terms of the amount of noise entering the cabin at speed.

The CX-3’s engine, while unrefined in terms of the soundtrack at high rpm, is willing to rev cleanly to redline, and hustles the little Mazda along without ever feeling like you’re asking too much of it. The peaky way in which power is delivered means you will have to work it up near redline to extract the best out of it, again a little at odds with the SUV concept.

The six-speed auto is excellent under any driving situation. It’s smooth, and it shifts either up or down at any load without any nastiness. We liked the way the engine and gearbox were matched around town especially, and the combination is paired nicely to the way the CX-3 hustles through the city effortlessly.

The Subaru XV, on the other hand, is every bit the SUV on-road, around town, in the ’burbs or even out in the country. Possibly the only area, beyond cabin appointments, where the XV can’t match or better the Mazda, is the way the engine and gearbox combination works.

The engine feels a little too power light, possibly due to the way it always favours the lowest revs possible in the search for ultimate fuel efficiency. We thought roll-on acceleration was impressive, and the XV was more content to buzz up to redline from 50km/h than it was to get cracking from a standing start.

This XV is based on Subaru’s brand new platform and the tweaks it has made to suspension and steering are noticeable. It’s more sorted, better planted, more competent, and more comfortable than the CX-3. Unlike the Mazda, the Subaru seems able to conquer both ride quality and handling ability with a well-tuned suspension package that does exactly what it needs to do.

We liked the quick steering rack, which made darting round the city a breeze, but there is some heft to it at lower, parking speeds. It’s funny how a more sorted suspension system can make the overall experience feel more premium and that’s definitely the way of the world with the XV. It’s cabin ambience and execution doesn’t quite match the CX-3, but the drive experience drags it up more than one notch.


Off-road

The CX-3 is capable enough off-road and, to be fair, it eases into as much, if not more, than most family adventurers will ever ask it to do. We did find the snout would touch down on sharp washouts, it will scrape across the middle on taller ramp-over sections, and it just doesn’t feel as off-road focused as the XV.

The steering and brakes both work well off-road, but tax the engine up a steeper hill, and you’ll find the CX-3 is not quite sure what it needs to do to maintain rapid forward progress. We weren’t sure whether it was the engine, the gearbox, or the traction control making things harder than they needed to be, but the CX-3 simply wasn’t as effortless as the XV.

And it’s not just about gaining speed either, the CX-3 struggled to maintain speed uphill off-road.

As expected, the Mazda’s off-road ride and bump absorption can’t match the Subaru’s either, and most of the time it feels too firmly sprung, while still tipping in and leaning into corners. It’s like the springs and shocks aren’t quite evenly matched. There’s no doubt which is the better option here if you intend to head off-road regularly.

The XV on the other hand is an exceptional off-road tourer if you enjoy camping or exploring national parks. Its larger interior means you can store more gear, and it rides better, soaks up nasty surfaces better, has more ground clearance, and is generally more pleasant to use off-road.

At all times, the XV is more rapid, more effortless, and more comfortable than the CX-3. You never get the sense that either the engine or transmission are working too hard, it never scrabbles for grip, and the fact it never touches down means it feels more secure all round when you do head off-road. X Mode is a worthy addition to the off-road chops as well.

Subaru’s AWD system is, as ever, excellent under all conditions, and the XV will only stop heading onward and upward if you do something silly. The fact you’d have to try to get into trouble in the XV (when using it the way it is intended to be used) is a solid pointer to it being absolutely fit for its intended purpose.

The Subaru takes the win off-road.


Ownership Costs

The Mazda CX-3 is backed by a three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty and servicing is required every 10,000km or twelve months. Mazda has also added a capped-price servicing scheme that covers the vehicle for life, so long as you adhere to those intervals.

The Subaru XV needs to be serviced every 12 months or 12,500km and is backed by a three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty. The average annual fee is $433 per service over the first three years. There is no free Subaru roadside assist though.


VERDICT

After a week and good few hundred kilometres behind the wheel, on- and off-road, both the Mazda and the Subaru illustrated their strong points, but also their weaknesses.

While there’s no doubt the Mazda looks more stylish and will probably remain a firm favourite with buyers, the Subaru XV is unquestionably the more capable small SUV – and that’s what we’re here to judge, right?

The XV is bigger inside, more comfortable for both driver and passengers, rides better over poor surfaces and handles more assuredly at the limit on twisty roads. Its engine and gearbox feel more refined, more resolved and more powerful in the real world.

Off-road, the XV streaked even further ahead. We didn’t do anything more than the average family would when heading into a national park to go camping, but the XV shone on scrabbly and rutted dirt roads. It soaks up said ruts with ease, never bottoms out or scrapes the nose crossing a washout, and it’s comfortable when you’re plugging on dirt.

We could more easily recommend the CX-3 in sTouring guise to buyers who never leave the urban confines, but even then, the XV rides more comfortably over Sydney’s rutted urban road network. So, the Subaru steals the win here, and steals it a lot easier than we initially suspected.

There’s nothing especially wrong or offensive with the CX-3, but there’s plenty of things right with the XV. Subaru has once again nailed the SUV brief with this all-new platform. Heritage and decades of experience are invaluable in delivering exactly what the market wants.

Click on the Photos tab for more images by Sam Venn.

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