Mazda’s popular CX-3 small-SUV range continues to sell in mainstream numbers, but with a somewhat premium premise. To find out just how aspirational the compact soft-roader is, we put the range-topping Akari model to the test.
Image is everything, fashion is fleeting, and style is timeless. As Anna Wintour-esque as buzzphrases like those might sound, they’re true.
At least they’re as true of consumer goods as they are high-end couture. There will always be exceptions, but in most cases if you were given the choice between something stylish and aspirational or something more frumpy, you’d hardly pick the latter.
Apply that to the on-trend world of small SUVs, and the Mazda CX-3 is an obvious applicant as a high-style choice. Its design may not be brand new, but it’s appealing – raked, with a bold wheel-at-each-corner stance and a sleek chopped roof.
The styling does nothing to aid practicality, but it certainly helps make the CX-3 range more desirable in the eyes of private buyers, who spend less time obsessing over boot space and running costs than they do over sartorial directions and being seen in all the right places.
For its 2019 model-year update, Mazda has carefully left the CX-3’s styling alone for the most part, making a few small tweaks to details like the grille, wheels and tail-lights. Major elements haven’t been altered, and when parked alongside something like the utilitarian Mitsubishi ASX, it's hard to argue with the stylistic decisions made by Mazda’s design teams.
As the flagship of the CX-3 range, the Akari variant starts from $32,790 before on-road costs with a six-speed manual transmission and front-wheel drive. Add an auto, as most buyers will, and the price becomes $34,790, while all-wheel drive on top (as tested here) pushes the sticker up to $36,790.
Under the bonnet is a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine good for 110kW at 6000rpm and 195Nm at 2800rpm – moderately improved compared to last year’s model that was down by 1kW and 3Nm respectively in comparison.
As Mazda so often does, the new engine has been given a makeover to improve emissions, consumption and refinement in ways so incremental that your average punter would be hard-pressed to pick them, even in back-to-back testing.
That gives the CX-3 a more punchy feel than its lower-riding sibling, although without the extra zing of a small turbo engine, Mazda’s city SUV never feels as gutsy as turbocharged competitors like the Skoda Karoq or Hyundai Kona.
There are no changes of note to Mazda’s six-speed torque converter automatic. Perhaps proof that Mazda’s reliance on existing tech was the right call after all: smooth shifting and able to harness the available power effectively, with none of the quirks of a dual-clutch or CVT auto.
Continued work on improving on-road refinement sees a little less engine and wind noise permeating the cabin, but the CX-3 is still no cone of silence. Pick the right (or should that be wrong) asphalt surface, or work the engine high into its rev range, and there’s still some disruption to cabin ambience, but the improvement is welcomed nonetheless.
Rear-seat passengers might notice road roar the most, if you’re carrying any, with the rear wheel wells allowing the white noise of highway running to pass into the cabin.
While it may ride a fraction higher than a Mazda 2 or Mazda 3 (with 160mm of ground clearance compared to 152mm for a Mazda 2), the CX-3 shows hints of dynamic flair not typically associated with small SUVs. Make no mistake, it’s not a sports car in disguise, but nimble steering and secure roadholding make the CX-3 a rather enjoyable drive free of inaccuracy or vagueness.
In all-wheel-drive guise, the car isn’t exactly powerful enough to need the extra traction to tame it, and for the majority of urban dwellers, adding the weight (and extra cost) of AWD seems unnecessary. Those in snowy or wet areas, or with a regular schedule of gravel road travel, may see a benefit, but honestly the majority of buyers could stick to the front-wheel-drive variant without missing out on anything.
There’s just not enough extra ride height, nor any off-road modes for the all-wheel-drive system, to even pretend to be an all-roads vehicle.
Mazda doesn’t play pretend when it comes to safety, though, with a long list of standard inclusions: from front and rear park sensors to radar cruise control, plus blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, forward and reverse autonomous emergency braking, lane-departure warning, driver-fatigue detection and six airbags.
One of the newer additions arriving as part of the 2019 update is a 360-degree camera; however, low-res cameras, a tiny display area, and blind spots at each corner make the system almost useless. Throw in low light or glary conditions and the camera system becomes almost entirely useless.
Mazda’s passenger car range is covered by a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, and servicing under Mazda’s capped-price plan adds up to $1639 over five years (at 12-month/10,000km intervals), with additional costs for brake fluid and cabin filters being $65 and $86 respectively every two years or 40,000km (whichever comes first).
Fuel consumption is claimed at 6.7L/100km, but on test (skewed towards mostly urban driving, given the CX-3’s target market) 8.2L/100km as a final result is a fair bit higher, though by no means excessive.
Inside the interior, Mazda has tweaked the layout of the centre console by equipping the CX-3 with an electric park brake that takes up less space than the mechanical brake it replaces.
To complement the change, a proper full-length console tray and integrated armrest make their way into the CX-3 for the first time. The armrest is a welcome addition, but the fiddly configurable cupholders in the console don’t add any real value and aren’t particularly useful at holding a cup or bottle, defeating the purpose.
The CX-3 Akari’s somewhat interesting interior of earlier versions has also been toned down slightly. Gone are the crimson highlights on the console and armrests, along with the part suede-look seat inserts.
There’s now more leather covering the seats than before, but the colour scheme becomes more uniform. Instrumentation keeps a sporty central tacho and digital speedo flanked with LCD displays on each side for supplementary info, rather than the more modern colour TFT screens available on some rivals.
Hard plastics are the material of choice for most of the dash and doors, and while that’s not so bad on base-model versions, the Akari – at over $35K – definitely shouldn’t look as budget-conscious as it does. Small sections of Alcantara alone aren’t enough to give the top-spec CX-3 a prestige look.
In the centre of the dash, a 7.0-inch colour touchscreen covers AM/FM/DAB+ radio, embedded satellite navigation, Bluetooth, and native internet radio controls for Stitcher and Aha! (via a compatible paired phone).
At this stage, the CX-3 still lacks standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto from factory, though it can be added as an accessory for $495. Don’t let your Mazda dealer bully you on this point – insist on its inclusion at no cost as part of your negotiations if you’re looking at buying.
Overall external dimensions are on the small side, which has an impact on interior space. Front-seat occupants won’t feel hemmed in, but it will be obvious you’re in a compact model.
At the rear, there’s enough space to ferry adults on short trips, but there’s a clear shortage of rear leg room, and the impression of spaciousness in other dimensions is reduced owing to a high window line that limits outward visibility for shorter rear-seat occupants.
If the CX-3 were pitched as a versatile and highly practical SUV that would be an issue, but since the goal here is form over function, it’s unlikely the tight rear seat space and trim 264L boot will be detrimental to target buyers.
Does that make the idea of a style-driven low-riding SUV a bad one? Not at all. As an evolution of an automotive niche, the CX-3 earns its place. Besides, no-one complains about the idea of coupes when obviously more practical wagons exist.
To Mazda’s credit, the CX-3 is more than just this season’s wardrobe-essential in automotive form. It ticks boxes for safety, drives with dynamic aplomb, and though it may not be huge on the inside, the classy interior presentation lends the Akari a premium ambience.
Both its style and substance have been carefully evolved, with no drastic changes compared to the outgoing CX-3. That’s unlikely to put Mazda’s smallest SUV on the back foot, however, given its previous success.
Though its lack of rugged SUV capabilities may not appeal to hardened adventure seekers, the CX-3’s on-trend all-road aesthetic, raised stance and city-centric capability set make it the ideal accessory for style-seeking influencers everywhere.