Mazda CX-3 2018 neo sport (fwd)
launch-review

2019 Mazda CX-3 review

Australian first drive

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You could be forgiven for missing the changes to Mazda’s CX-3 at a glance, but Mazda knows its recipe for success pretty well and has stuck to it for the small SUV’s most recent update.
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The problem Mazda has, and not just limited to the updated 2018 CX-3, is its democratisation of technology – if you could really call that a problem.

As new safety and tech highlights become available, the Japanese company will roll them out across the range at the earliest opportunity instead of waiting for a traditional mid-life refresh.

That means instead of a big, impactful revamp, the CX-3 has been treated to a more sedate rework. You might notice the new grille insert across the range, and new LED tail-lights or new alloy wheels on high-grade cars, but those are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them changes.

Nevertheless, Mazda has done what it so often does, and finessed some of the finer details to the nth degree. The CX-3’s 2.0-litre SkyActiv petrol engine, for instance, now boasts one extra kilowatt and three more Newton metres for 110kW and 195Nm outputs.

There’s more, though, with reduced mechanical friction, changes to thermal management, reduced knock from a new piston profile, new fuel injectors, and a range of other minute changes that buyers are unlikely to ever notice. Those differences, Mazda claims, increase torque across the rev range and reduce particulate emissions.

Mazda has gone further still for the turbo-diesel CX-3, a car that will account for just one per cent of sales in Australia, increasing engine size from 1.5 litres to 1.8 litres, which increases power from 77kW to 85kW while torque remains at 270Nm.

An even bigger range of detail changes to the new engine, like rapid multi-stage fuel injection, new injectors, a stepped egg-profile combustion chamber, coolant control changes, and sound-smoothing damper pins in the pistons to quell noise, work to reduce fuel consumption, emissions, and harshness.

For all of this, though, Mazda didn’t have a diesel on hand to check out, so we’ll find out more about how the new engine works in the real world at a later date.

More info on the pricing and specs for the updated CX-3 can be found here, but the most important detail to know is Mazda’s adoption of MZD Connect infotainment with a 7.0-inch touchscreen across the range, even in the base model.

The addition of an interior screen also allows for the fitment of a reverse camera to all models, but doesn’t mark the start of Mazda’s rollout of Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, which will begin later this year and will be made available as a retrofit upgrade to existing MZD-equipped vehicles.

Base-model pricing for the CX-3 Neo Sport manual rises by $1300 compared with the outgoing Neo, and starts at $23,990 drive-away or $2000 more for a six-speed auto. At the high end, Akari pricing starts at $33,990 drive-away for a manual with front-wheel drive and climbs to $37,490 drive-away with an auto and all-wheel drive or $40,490 drive-away with the diesel/auto/AWD combo.

Although it doesn’t launch with the rest of the range, an even higher-grade Akari LE is also scheduled for the near future, but the full inclusions of that model are yet to be announced.

Mazda has also reworked the interior of all variants with a new centre console that (finally) includes an integrated centre armrest. Switch positioning for the MZD Connect system’s rotary controller becomes easier to access too.

All models come with an electric park brake, but Mazda’s attempt to create more versatile storage in the centre console sees cupholders replaced with square bins and spring-loaded cup restraints that aren’t strong enough to securely hold a bottle in place.

Of the four available model grades, the entry-level Neo Sport with black cloth trim and urethane-covered steering wheel and gearknob feels the most basic, but Mazda’s design sophistication at least ensures there are no cheap and nasty elements.

Move through the range and the Maxx Sport gains details like 16-inch alloy wheels, leather steering wheel, auto lights and wipers, and climate control.

Further up the range, the sTouring adds Maztex fake leather highlights to the interior, 18-inch alloy wheels, new-design LED tail-lights, LED headlights and LED fog lights, and head-up display.

The range-topping Akari adds leather trim, a powered driver’s seat, heated front seats, a powered sunroof, radar cruise control with Stop & Go function (on auto models), 360-degree camera, and adaptive headlights.

The Akari also offers a choice of black or white leather trim, and adds in suede-look detailing on the dash, however the previous red bits and pieces like knee padding and armrests are now gone for a cleaner, more sophisticated look. No matter which grade you select, the dash and doors feature hard plastics instead of more upmarket soft-touch finishes.

In much the same way Mazda has finely fettled its engines, the CX-3’s on-road behaviour has been given a polish too. The fine minutiae of changes includes reduced noise, vibration and harshness from the engines, thicker door panels, thicker rear door glass, thicker headlining material, plus tiny tweaks to the suspension and steering.

The end product is a smoother, quieter, more comfortable drive. Unfortunately, on 18-inch-wheel-equipped cars there’s still noticeable tyre noise at higher speeds, particularly from the rear, but wind and engine noise are both more subdued than before. The difference is very slight, but it’s there.

In line with Mazda’s recent range-wide announcement, the CX-3 will carry a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, and servicing is under a capped-price program for five years too. Roadside assist isn’t a part of Mazda’s after-sales package, but can be added from $99 per year.

While the CX-3 offers one of the broadest ranges of powertrain choices in the small SUV class, with manual and auto petrol front-wheel drive, auto petrol all-wheel drive, and auto diesel in front- or all-wheel drive depending on specification, not everything was available to drive at launch, with manuals and diesels off the agenda. We’ll cover those at a later date.

That’s okay, though, because petrol-engined cars with automatic transmissions and two-wheel drive will account, by far, for the largest slice of CX-3 sales.

From behind the wheel of the Neo Sport, which comes with a choice of six-speed manual or six-speed auto but no all-paw or diesel option, there’s plenty to like.

With 110kW and 195Nm, the engine is a close match to similar 2.0-litre petrol engines in rivals like the Hyundai Kona and Mitsubishi ASX, while smaller 1.8-litre engines in the Holden Trax and Honda HR-V are just a touch down on power and torque.

On the road, the CX-3 drives more like a regular hatch and less like a high-riding SUV. That's partly because it’s not very high at all, but also thanks to eager quick steering and faithful handling, which manages to be both grippy and secure if you’re an assertive driver, yet forgiving over bumpy second-rate surfaces for all-round comfort.

Without stacks of torque in reserve, the little engine does need big encouragement for overtaking, and even with noise and vibration measures in place, at the top of the rev range the CX-3 still likes to let you know it’s working hard.

For the most part, though, the smooth-shifting six-speed auto blends into the background. It’s smooth and inoffensive around town, particularly adept at low-speed work, but quick-witted enough on the highway to accommodate changes in elevation.

Jumping into the Akari with all-wheel drive, the expectation of a heavier-feeling vehicle was quickly corrected (the AWD Akarai weighs 62kg more than the 2WD Neo Sport), but in dry-weather running and on sealed roads, the benefit of four-wheel traction in a car like this is hard to see.

Buyers in rural areas with gravel roads or grassy fields to contend with might appreciate the added traction, but with the CX-3 making no claims to proper off-road ability (so, what exactly qualifies an SUV again?), the front-drive versions should suffice in most instances.

Even riding on bigger wheels with lower-profile tyres, the CX-3 Akari still balances its comfort and handling well. There might be just a hint more noise, and the ride can be a touch sharper on badly fractured road surfaces, but certainly not in any way that’s likely to upset occupants.

With interior accommodation unchanged, front seat travellers will be the happiest in comfy front seats and a good range of adjustability. A lack of width might be the only real issue for some.

The driver’s perch strikes a nice balance for feeling like a low-slung sporty drive, while still giving a high-set clear view of the road ahead. Given the CX-3’s shallow window, though, the addition of a rear camera to all grades is welcomed, but the hard-to-discern details of the Akari’s 360-degree camera mean it fails the practical test.

Rear seat occupants still won’t have all the room in the world to stretch out, with limited leg room in particular, but for short hops it will do the job just fine. Similarly, the CX-3’s 264-litre boot is a result of its form over function styling, but covers general shopping or weekend-away luggage just fine.

That’s all fine, though. The CX-3 isn’t designed to be a family hauler or a rock-crawling go-anywhere tough guy. It exists as a stylish alternative to regular hatchbacks and behaves much like one, with a few extra ‘active’ flourishes to keep it on trend.

Unabashedly urban and with a more premium feel than most of its mainstream competitors, the CX-3 seems likely to hold its position as Australia’s second-most-popular small SUV (behind the fleet favourite Mitsubishi ASX).

It may not feature a laundry list of updates for its mid-life update, but adds enough subtle yet worthwhile features to warrant keeping it on your shopping list.

Continuous but gradual improvements to refinement are also welcomed, but in this instance a new four-bar grille, 18-inch wheels, and revised tail-lights on high-grade models say more about the CX-3’s strengths than any engineering changes do.

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