Many of us at CarAdvice believe the Mazda CX-3 is the pick of the city-sized SUV bunch, and sales in its first six months on the market show it’s a favourite among many new car shoppers too.
It’s no secret the popularity of urban crossovers has exploded in Australia in recent times, with the likes of the Mazda CX-3, Honda HR-V and Nissan Qashqai becoming the default choice for buyers looking for a little more size for only a little bit of money.
Interestingly then (but certainly not unsurprisingly), that quirky Czech car maker is once again swimming against the tide. Its challenger, the new Skoda Fabia wagon, conceptually belongs to an age long past – from its old-school body style to its acid wash interior.
But unlike thick-rimmed glasses and facial hair, the little load-lugger promises both hipster-cool form and function in equal measures for today’s generation. So, does it have the substance and style to match, or better, the Mazda’s smallest SUV?
PRICE AND FEATURES
Pricing gets the Skoda off to a strong start. The Fabia wagon is available from just $17,140 plus on-road costs, though the variant most Australians will opt for is the 81TSI, which is the sole variant offered with an automatic transmission (a seven-speed dual-clutch (DSG), in this case). It costs $21,440, though the car you see here costs $24,540 with its optional pearl-effect paint ($500) and Premium Sports pack ($2600).
That pack brings a host of additional features, including 17-inch alloy wheels and 15mm-lower sports suspension, LED daytime running lights, front foglights, auto headlights and wipers, privacy glass, keyless entry with push-button start, a flat-bottomed steering wheel, climate control, DAB+ digital radio and fatigue detection.
The contrasting white dashboard panel and aforementioned pale blue upholstery highlights are available free with the option pack, and lighten what is a neat but somewhat bland cabin.
The Mazda CX-3 may be the cheapest mainstream SUV on the market but it can’t match the Skoda’s entry price, kicking off at $19,990. Our car is the front-wheel-drive Maxx petrol manual, which has a base price of $22,390. Finished with Soul Red metallic paint ($200) and fitted with the Safety Pack ($1030, adds blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and smart city brake support), the price climbs to $23,620.
Mazda didn’t have a six-speed automatic available for us to test, though for the purpose of comparing auto with auto, an equivalently equipped model would cost $25,620, making it $1080 more than the Fabia on test.
Common between both cars is emergency city braking, rear parking sensors, keyless entry with push-button start, cruise control, a large touchscreen (6.5-inch for the Skoda, 7.0-inch for Mazda) and a six-speaker audio system with Bluetooth phone connectivity and audio streaming, AUX and USB inputs, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, gear lever and handbrake.
The Fabia is best dressed on the outside, boasting 17-inch alloy wheels (CX-3 gets 16s), as well as those LED daytime running lights, roof rails and tinted privacy glass, while the Mazda’s only unique elements are its chrome exhaust finishers.
The CX-3 wins back big points on the inside where it exclusively features in-built satellite navigation, internet radio integration (Pandora, Stitcher, Aha) and a CD player, as well as key safety features including a reverse-view camera, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.
The Skoda attempts to counter with some unique tech of its own, headlined by the SmartLink smartphone connectivity system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto that allows you to, among other things, stream navigation from a paired phone app (more on this later) and a graphical display linked to the rear sensors for visual reversing guidance, as well as DAB+ digital radio, SD card slot, tyre pressure monitor, multi-collision braking system and fatigue detection. Auto headlights and wipers, climate control and floor mats add extra value to the tiny Czech’s package.
More affordable and with more equipment, the value of the Fabia wagon can’t be overlooked, though lacking some of the key features of the CX-3, it claims only a narrow win in this important first match-up.
WARRANTY, SERVICING AND RUNNING COSTS
The Fabia is more convincing when comparing the pair’s aftersales packages. Both offer three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranties, but Skoda throws in three years of roadside assistance for free, where Mazda charges $204.30 for the same peace of mind.
The Fabia is also cheaper to service over four years/60,000km, totalling $1789 versus $2146 for the CX-3.
The Skoda’s super-frugal combined cycle fuel consumption claim of 4.8 litres per 100 kilometres makes it, on paper at least, more than 20 per cent more efficient than the Mazda’s 6.3L/100km measure for the manual and 6.1L/100km for the auto. Our real-world testing showed the difference to be much less significant, however, with the Fabia using 8.1L/100km and the CX-3 slightly more at 8.3L/100km across a mix of conditions.
Combine our test figures with the fact that the Skoda requires premium unleaded while the Mazda is happy with regular and it’s the latter that claims a small advantage. Assuming annual mileage of 15,000km, an unleaded petrol price of 119 cents per litre and a premium price of 130 cents per litre (based on current prices in Sydney) and the CX-3’s fuel bill comes to $1482 compared with the Fabia’s at $1580.
Extrapolate these fuel expenses out over four years and combine them with the aftersales costs calculated above and it’s the Skoda still with its nose ahead, though by less than $200.
BOOTS AND BACK SEATS
Undoubtedly the greatest advantage of the Skoda Fabia wagon is the size and functionality of its cargo area. At 505 litres, it’s close to twice the size of the CX-3’s disappointingly tiny 264L boot, and remarkably still more than 100L larger than the boot of the size-larger CX-5. For those prioritising practicality, this fact alone will be checkmate for our little Czech, erm, mate, especially considering the Skoda is also shorter and skinner than the Mazda on the outside.
Skoda’s ‘simply clever’ slogan rings true in the boot too. It features a nifty roller blind that you can tap to retract, three elastic nets to secure loose items, plastic side compartments that are ideal for wet things, a removable plastic fence to contain additional knick-knacks, and a 12-volt port to charge and run electrical devices. The boot’s low loading lip also makes it easier to pack and unpack than the CX-3’s higher-set and comparatively sparse load area. Both feature 60:40 split-folding rear seats to expand the load space into the cabin.
In their upright position, the CX-3’s well-cushioned and supportive back seats are much more comfortable than the Fabia’s flat and firm pews. There’s a good trip to the barbershop’s worth of extra headroom in the Skoda, but with less kneeroom and shoulder-room it feels tighter overall than its rival. While the Fabia’s seat fabric feels nicer than the shiny black cloth in the CX-3, its hard plastic door liners look and feel a bit ‘eastern European’ compared with the Mazda’s quality material lining.
DRIVER’S SEAT, INSTRUMENTS AND INFOTAINMENT
Despite its low-slung stance, the Fabia wagon’s front seats position you more upright than the CX-3’s that tend to sink you into the cabin. The Mazda’s higher ride height gives you a more commanding forward view, but its swoopier lines can’t compete with the excellent side and rear visibility afforded by the Skoda’s squarer windows and thinner pillars.
Unsurprisingly, the Fabia’s front storage options are better thought out, with a bigger glovebox, a compartment incorporated into its folding centre armrest, more space at the base of the centre stack for phones and wallets, and a very nifty sealable and reusable plastic bag rubbish collector that clips into the door bins, which themselves will hold larger bottles than those in the CX-3.
Both the Fabia and the CX-3 inherit their basic dashboard layouts and plenty of parts from more expensive models from their respective manufacturers, which is good news for buyers of these relatively budget models.
The Skoda’s buttons and dials have a quality tactile feel and the Premium Sports pack’s perforated leather-wrapped flat-bottom steering wheel feels great in your hands, while the Mazda gets nicer soft-touch materials, gloss red/black and sporty carbonfibre-look plastics, and elegant satin chrome trim highlights, lifting the interior ambience.
This duo’s infotainment systems are also among the best available from mainstream manufacturers.
We’ve long been fans of Mazda’s MZD Connect system, which combines a floating tablet touchscreen with a rotary dial positioned on the centre tunnel. The touchscreen works when you’re stationary, while the dial is a cinch to operate when you’re on the move. The graphics are sharp and modern, navigating the menus is intuitive, and the ability to ‘thumbs up’ songs on Pandora and operate other integrated radio applications will appeal to connected audiophiles.
It’s hard not to love the Skoda’s SmartLink-enabled infotainment system, however, which is one of the first in the country with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality. As an iPhone user, CarPlay feels instantly familiar. With your phone paired (it needs to be connected via USB), the car’s screen mirrors your phone’s home screen, providing access to the applications supported by the system.
CarPlay cleverly utilises Apple’s voice assistant Siri for a number of functions, including reading out received text messages and helping you reply to them. Another handy (albeit slightly creepy) function is its ability to recommend destinations through the Maps navigation app based on places you regularly visit according to the time of the day and day of the week. It’s worth remembering, however, that streaming nav information will eat up your phone’s data, unlike the Mazda’s in-built sat-nav, so it may pay to keep an eye on your usage if you plan to use it regularly.
Once again, splitting these two, despite all their differences, is a difficult task. The Skoda is more practical and has a more modern infotainment system, while the Mazda’s finish is nicer and its infotainment system is simpler to use on the go.
Speaking of, it’s about time we started these thing up…
ENGINE AND TRANSMISSION
The differences don’t end under the bonnets, either, where one conceals a small-capacity turbocharged engine with a dual-clutch automatic transmission and the other teams a larger naturally aspirated unit with a manual or an optional conventional auto.
The latter combination belongs to the CX-3. Its 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine produces 109kW at 6000rpm and 192Nm at 2800rpm. Those outputs outgun the Fabia’s boosted 1.2-litre four-cylinder by 28kW and 17Nm, though the Skoda’s peak power and torque are far more useable, with its 81kW delivered between 4600-5600rpm and its 175Nm made across a broad 1400-4000rpm range.
Around town, it’s the Mazda CX-3 that’s more responsive and refined. Power flows from its bigger engine immediately and confidently, feeling effortless at urban speeds.
My embarrassment at bunny-hopping our six-speed manual CX-3 in first gear was eased by colleagues Curt and Matt, who agreed it’s more sensitive than most to your coordination of the clutch and accelerator pedals. Beyond that, the manual is a smooth and effortless shifter.
The vast majority of buyers will opt for the six-speed automatic, however, and though not available for this test, previous experience with that transmission has proven it to be an almost flawless unit.
Less convincing is the Skoda’s low-speed performance. The combination of its of seven-speed DSG, engine stop-start system and hill-hold function can create an odd ‘sticky’ feeling when you go to take off quickly, leading to a delay in power delivery and an eventual lunge forward when it everything engages and disengages.
Like many small-capacity turbo/dual-clutch combinations, it’s lurchy on zero to light throttle when crawling through traffic, and can deliver frustrating pauses when suddenly called to duty once on the move. It’s sharper with the transmission in Sport mode, where gears are held onto for longer and lower gears are grabbed sooner.
But these are small criticisms of the Fabia’s otherwise impressive powertrain, which is more spritely and eager than the CX-3 through its torquey mid-range, and much quieter and zingier higher in the rev range where the Mazda can get loud and boomy.
STEERING, RIDE AND HANDLING
As with powertrains, it’s the Mazda’s dynamics that impress most on urban run-around trips, with its ride comfort in particular standing out. Firm but compliant is what we’ve come to expect from Mazda suspension, and the CX-3 is no different. Comfort in our Maxx is not doubt enhanced by its 60-aspect tyres that help take the edge off sharp surface imperfections.
The Fabia’s set-up is likewise characteristic of its brand, being slightly firmer again but quicker to correct after encountering bumps. The Premium Sports pack’s 17-inch alloys and skinny 40-aspect tyres exaggerate the Skoda’s extra firmness, providing less cushioning and allowing more disturbance into the cabin: everything from small vibrations from corrugated roads to harsher jars from potholes and road joins. The Skoda is noticeably quieter on smooth surfaces, however, though both send up plenty of road noise over coarser patches of the black stuff.
Again matching their powertrains, though, the Fabia revels once away from the city, where its superiority over the CX-3 mirrors its dominance in the battle of the boots.
At higher speeds the Skoda feels brittle over bumps but is endearingly fast to settle itself and plough on over whatever you point it at. There’s inherent balance and composure to its chassis (shared with the highly capable Audi A1 and Volkswagen Polo) that give the driver an overarching sense of control behind the wheel.
It’s more than can be said for the softer Mazda, which lopes and bounces over the same bumps (enough to lift my bum off its seat over one undulation!) and is perturbed by conditions that don’t cause the Skoda to break a sweat.
Both steering systems are light and easy in tight city streets and the suburbs, but it’s the Fabia’s that shines brightest around back-road twists and turns, where it’s consistent and precise compared with the Mazda that requires you to hunt and correct a little more.
The Fabia’s sportier Bridgestone Potenza tyres prove their worth out here too, particularly in the wet where they grip expertly. The CX-3’s Dunlop Enasave rubber by contrast loses traction much more easily, especially on rough roads.
Once again, the CX-3 and Fabia are dynamically adept in very different ways, making picking a winner even more difficult…
The very nature of comparing two very different cars means each has different strengths and weaknesses. The good news is both the Mazda CX-3 and the Skoda Fabia wagon are impressive options for those wanting a little bit more car in a city-sized package.
The Mazda CX-3 is the best to drive around town, the most comfortable to sit in, has a better-specced infotainment system, more available safety features, and was cheaper to refuel on test, but is more expensive to buy (when equipped with the auto) and service, less feature-packed, has a tiny boot, and is found wanting when thrown at corners.
Conversely, the Skoda Fabia wagon excels when driven enthusiastically, has an enormous cargo capacity as well as some other clever storage solutions, is well dressed inside and out, provides excellent visibility, and has a cutting edge infotainment system, but can be tiresome to drive around town, rides too firmly, isn’t as spacious or comfortable in the back, and lacks some basic features.
For me, the Skoda’s unique style and superior practicality and dynamic ability hold the greater appeal. Ask me in an hour, however, and I may have a different answer…
Click on the Photos tab for more Mazda CX-3 and Skoda Fabia wagon images by Christian Barbeitos.
Videography by Christian Barbeitos and Glen Sullivan.