The Mazda CX-3 burst onto the scene in late 2014, combining the company's sexy Kodo design language with a very compact crossover body. I'll admit it, I fell in love with the looks alone when I saw it for the first time a few years ago.
Fast forward to 2017, and Mazda's smallest SUV has proven to be a hit with Australians, consistently topping the sales chart for the class, with no signs of slowing down.
This year also saw the first update for the CX-3, though it was pretty much limited to some new technology and some extra sound-deadening materials.
Here on test we have the flagship Akari petrol variant with all-wheel drive, which will set you back $35,490 before on-road costs. There's also a front-wheel drive version (from $31,490), and a turbo-diesel with all-wheel drive ($37,890).
While some of you will be scratching your heads saying "wtf", there's a healthy amount of standard equipment to offset the spend, including adaptive LED headlights, leather trim with suede inserts, power front seats with memory function, an electric sunroof, front and rear parking sensors, along with lane departure warning.
That's just on top of the lower sTouring grade's 18-inch alloy wheels, LED running lights and tail-lights, automatic wipers, a colour head-up display, climate control, keyless entry with push-button start, driver attention monitor, and traffic sign recognition.
Other features include blind-spot monitoring, a rear-view camera, leather steering wheel and gear shift, a 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment screen with rotary controller, satellite navigation, digital radio, rear spoiler, along with Bluetooth phone and audio streaming.
All Mazda CX-3 models also come equipped with six airbags, autonomous emergency braking (AEB) in both forward and reverse with pedestrian detection, and ISOFIX child seat mounts for the two outboard rear seats.
The only glaring omission from the Akari's equipment list is adaptive cruise control, which unfortunately isn't available at all, despite rivals like the Toyota C-HR featuring the technology as standard across the range.
No CX-3, annoyingly, gets auto up/down windows for the passenger windows either, which just seems odd when this is a flagship model and pitched as somewhat of a 'semi-premium' offering, and there's no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto smartphone technology despite the youthful target market.
The only option available on the CX-3 Akari is the company's signature Soul Red metallic paint ($300), which is fitted to our tester, bringing the as-tested list price to $35,790 before on-road costs.
In terms of competitors, our tester goes head to head with the likes of the Toyota C-HR Koba with all-wheel drive ($35,290) and the front-wheel-drive only Honda HR-V VTi-L with ADAS Package ($34,340).
The Mazda stacks up pretty well in terms of standard equipment and overall looks, but what about interior practicality?
Being based on the Mazda 2 light car, the CX-3 was never going to be a practicality standout. While front occupants are treated to plenty of room and a slick dashboard design, rear passengers will struggle to find adequate space, particularly in terms of legroom.
Headroom gets tight for taller occupants too, such as our resident gargantuan photographer, Tom Fraser. There are also no rear air vents, which could be an issue in summer.
Back to the front of the cabin. The CX-3's interior design hasn't really changed with the update, though it does get a new steering wheel inspired by the one used in the MX-5 sports car, along with a new colour head-up display (HUD) and revised instrumentation.
Sitting atop the dashboard is the 7.0-inch touchscreen MZD Connect infotainment system, which can also be controlled via the rotary dial located on the centre tunnel. Despite lacking smartphone mirroring tech like an increasing amount of competitors at this end of the market, the MZD system still features native satellite navigation and digital radio functions which make it look, and feel, high end.
We experienced few niggles with the system unlike Mazda testers in the past, though the Bluetooth audio at times would play up when streaming music through Spotify, for example.
The cabin features quite a mix of soft-touch materials and harder plastics, with main touch points trimmed in more yielding materials, while upper and lower portions of the dash and doors are finished with hard plastics.
Additionally, the centre console actually moves a little when pushed, and there's no centre armrest for front occupants – a complaint carried over from the Mazda 2, which the CX-3 basically clones its interior design.
The headliner isn't very nice either, considering this is meant to be a 'luxury' model. It's that cardboard-like cheap material that already doesn't feel great in sub-$20,000 cars – let alone one that's going to set you back nearly $40,000 on the road.
What is nice, though, is the leather and suede trim on the seats. The materials feel high quality and the trims extend to a section of the dashboard along with inserts in the doors.
Meanwhile, two large cupholders in the centre console make life a little easier, though, as do the decent-sized door bins with integrated bottle holders. Slightly smaller versions reside in the back doors.
Behind the second row is a below-average 254-litre cargo area, which expands to a more adequate 1174L with the rear bench folded. It's enough for light luggage or the weekly shop, though larger suitcases and IKEA trips may be best left to a larger vehicle – especially if you plan to carry passengers.
To compare, the Honda HR-V has a relatively cavernous 437L/1462L, while the Toyota C-HR claims 377L with the second row in place – Toyota doesn't quote a capacity with the rear seats folded.
So, if you carry a lot of stuff often, the CX-3 struggles to match the overall practicality of just about all of its competitors.
It's out on the road where Mazdas tend to shine the most, and the CX-3, for the most part, doesn't disappoint.
Under the bonnet is a 2.0-litre naturally-aspirated petrol engine shared with various stablemates like the Mazda 3 and entry-level versions of the larger CX-5, developing 109kW of power at 6000rpm and 192Nm of torque at 2800rpm. Compared to its rivals, those outputs are pretty up there for the class.
Our tester sends drive to an on-demand all-wheel drive system via a six-speed automatic transmission. Front-wheel drive petrol CX-3 variants also get the choice of a six-speed manual for those who like to shift gears themselves.
In terms of performance, the CX-3 feels pretty zippy around town, though it can feel a little short of punch when accelerating to freeway speeds,
The lack of turbocharging means you have to push it a little harder from take-off, but it does the job just fine considering our all-wheel drive Akari has a kerb weight of 1356 kilograms.
Under load, though, the petrol can get a little whiny. The six-speed auto does a pretty good job of keeping you in the power band when you need it, and then coasting once you're at speed, providing snappy and intuitive shifts.
At 100km/h, the CX-3 is humming away at just over 2000rpm, rendering the engine almost silent on the freeway. Wind noise from the windscreen and mirrors is kept to a minimum even at high speeds, however, tyre roar can get intrusive on coarser surfaces. Turn up the music a little though, and the latter issue is addressed.
Riding on large 18-inch wheels, the Mazda's firmer ride can get a little jittery over successive imperfections at lower speeds, which may get a little annoying for some. It's damped well enough that it doesn't crash over larger bumps, but it lacks the cosseting ride over things like speed humps that SUVs are generally known for.
The advantage of having such a suspension tune, however, is that the CX-3 feels really darty through corners and exhibits very little body roll – another trait commonly associated with higher-riding vehicles. It also feels very planted and stable at higher speeds, making the Mazda feel bigger than it actually is.
Speaking of the CX-3's perceived size, it shrinks around town thanks to its compact dimensions and tight steering. Tight city streets and shopping centre carparks – areas where this vehicle spends most of its time – are perfectly suited to the Mazda's diminutive figure, while the light yet direct feel through the steering wheel tends to make you feel as if you're driving a regular hatchback rather than a high-riding crossover vehicle.
Parking is a breeze too, aided by the standard rear-view camera and large side mirrors, along with the front and rear parking sensors. Rearward visibility can be limited through the slim rear windscreen and thick rear pillar, though.
Fuel consumption is another plus worth noting. Despite most of our time spent in stop-start city traffic, the CX-3 returned an indicated 8.3L/100km, which is about 1.0L/100km more than our Mazda 2 Neo long-termer in similar conditions.
It may be a little up on Mazda's 6.7L/100km combined claim, but it's not far off the company's urban rating of 8.0L/100km. The standard idle stop/start system is a contributing factor to the relatively good fuel use figure, and isn't bad considering our CX-3 is fitted with all-wheel drive.
With its relatively small 44-litre fuel tank, you can expect a realistic range of around 500km from each fill.
In terms of ownership, the CX-3 is covered by the company's three-year, unlimited kilometre warranty and lifetime advertised services pricing.
Scheduled maintenance is required every 10,000km or 12 months, whichever comes first, while the first five visits will cost between $286 and $314 – though an extra $200 spend is required every 40,000km for the replacement of the cabin air filter ($80) and brake fluid ($120).
The service and warranty programs cannot match the pricing of the Koreans nor the longer 15,000km maintenance intervals, but if you drive around 10,000km per year, this isn't going to be an issue.
Overall, the Mazda CX-3 is still a good choice for anyone looking to buy a small SUV. It's stylish, comes loaded with kit, and offers a range of specification and drivetrain options so that just about everyone is catered for. Add to that the engaging drive experience, and zippy petrol powertrain, and the CX-3 is a compelling urban runabout.
However, this top-spec Akari model with all-wheel drive is a little too expensive for such a small car, and lacks the really premium feel you would expect from a vehicle costing this much money in the segment despite the level of standard equipment.
For $34,390, you can get the much larger CX-5 Maxx Sport with front-wheel drive, which forgoes some of the CX-3 Akari's high end features like a head-up display and adaptive LED headlights, but makes up for them with a still high level of standard equipment while also offering superior interior practicality and a more premium-feeling interior.
Within its own competitive set, the CX-3 Akari also struggles to match the Toyota C-HR for overall refinement, while also being one of the least practical vehicles in the segment.
To conclude, if you love the sexy design and don't mind the compact body, the CX-3 will do you just fine, and you can have a front-wheel drive Akari with all the mod-cons for $31,490 with a six-speed manual or $33,490 with a six-speed automatic.
Otherwise, save yourself some money and get the still-well-equipped Maxx (from $22,890) or sTouring grades (from $26,990) if you can do without the powered leather seats, sunroof, and front parking sensors.
Better yet, you can have a Mazda 2 GT in hatchback or more practical sedan bodies, which have essentially the same interior and all the features of the CX-3 Akari without the higher driving position, from just $21,680 – think of all the things you can do with that spare $14,000!
Click the photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser