Here we have Australia’s second-favourite compact SUV. In its most popular trim grade – Maxx Sport. And in its most popular drive format – front-wheel drive.
The odd element out is the engine. Our 2019 Mazda CX-3 Maxx Sport is powered by a turbo-diesel engine that Mazda Australia expects to account for just one per cent of overall model sales (down from the three per cent quoted when the baby Mazda SUV debuted in 2015).
Manufacturers have dropped many a variant with bigger figures.
A late 2018 update for the CX-3 gives us reason to find out whether the other 99 per cent of buyers are making the wrong choice opting for the 2.0-litre petrol. (Or whether the Mazda’s rivals are wrong not to offer a diesel.)
The 1.8-litre diesel, an enlarged and enhanced version of the 1.5-litre oil-burner originally released with the CX-3, isn’t available with the entry-level Neo Sport, making its first port of call the Maxx Sport (which replaces the Maxx).
Pricing kicks off at $28,090, giving the diesel a $2400 premium over the Maxx Sport petrol that otherwise shares equipment. Value has already improved from pricing announced in late 2018, after Mazda used the introduction of a new range-topping Akari LE model in January to slash all CX-3 prices. The Maxx Sport diesel previously cost $29,990.
Features include 16-inch alloy wheels (over the Neo’s steel wheels), auto headlights, rain-sensing wipers, leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear lever, climate control, navigation, blind spot and rear cross-traffic monitoring, and a rear seat armrest.
These add to the Neo Sport’s rear sensors, keyless start, autonomous emergency braking and 7.0-inch infotainment display.
The next diesel variant is a big stretch: the $34,190 sTouring that adds all-wheel drive in addition to other extras, including 18-inch wheels, front parking sensors, keyless entry, traffic-sign recognition and a head-up display. (The HUD is particularly useful considering the Neo and Maxx Sport don’t feature a digital speedo.)
If the diesel’s upped capacity is a minor update, changes are also subtle inside the CX-3. The biggest is the deletion of the handbrake lever. With the introduction of a tiny electronic park brake button, it’s allowed Mazda to reconfigure the centre console.
It looks tidier and smarter with the repositioning of the MZD controller, volume dial and driving mode switch, while there’s a practical improvement with the introduction of an armrest and more clever storage section.
Lift up the armrest and the adaptable console storage can be set up three ways: as a trio of divided (rubber lined) sections that are useful if you want to store a larger bottle along with other items; as dedicated cupholders, by pressing buttons that flick out spring-loaded coffee cup supports; or pull out the rearmost divider to create a bigger storage space to complement the front section that’s ideal for a smartphone (phones can alternatively be stashed in an area at the bottom of the centre stack).
The MZD infotainment system dial loses the mini palm rest, though we didn’t find it noticeably less comfortable to use. It’s the only way of interacting with the CX-3’s 7.0-inch display on the move as the touchscreen function is frozen in the name of safety. The hand controller is a perfectly intuitive way of selecting functions, though the MZD system remains slow to pair phones and limited in scope compared to the best infotainment interfaces around.
The screen size, however, doesn’t feel as small in the compact CX-3 as it does in the mid-sized CX-5. A future model update may well introduce the all-new Mazda Connect that has just debuted in the latest-generation Mazda 3 and features an 8.8-inch display.
In the meantime, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto can be retrofitted to the CX-3’s MZD system for a bit under five-hundred bucks ($494.98).
Otherwise, the cabin remains one that is presented well enough from a design perspective, with the redesigned centre console providing a rare point of visual difference to the Mazda 2 city car (at least for now) on which the CX-3 is based.
The relationship with the Mazda 2 is still obvious through the extensive application of hard plastics throughout the cabin.
Then there’s that rear seat that is no more accommodating for adults than the Mazda 2, with the CX-3’s extra 215mm of vehicle length going into the overhangs rather than the wheelbase.
Credit due, though, for the bench’s springy cushioning that provides exceptional comfort as partial compensation for the cramped knee space. Over the Neo, the Maxx Sport adds a centre armrest that incorporates newly designed twin cupholders with auto-adjusting grip flaps.
Headroom isn’t as generous as you might expect for an SUV-style vehicle, though, and neither is boot space. A 264L boot capacity is a fairly trivial 14L more than you get in the Mazda 2’s luggage compartment. For some context, the rival Honda HR-V provides a 437L boot.
A double floor at least provides some flexibility – and extra security, even if more in the psychological sense, with the ability to hide valuable items under the upper floor. There’s also a boot light, four tiedowns and a shelf. Under the lowest floor there’s a space-saver spare.
Back to that diesel…
A variety of tweaks in conjunction with that 0.3-litre capacity increase have resulted in the engine’s peak power lifting from 77kW to 85kW produced at the same 4000rpm. Maximum torque stays at 270Nm, but is delivered over a fractionally wider rev band – still arriving at 1600rpm, but extending to 2600rpm rather than 2500rpm.
With an improved combustion process, fuel consumption for front-wheel-drive versions drops from 4.8 litres per 100km to 4.7L/100km, with the AWD diesel unchanged at 5.1L/100km.
So, ‘subtle change’ is again the theme.
There’s certainly no change to the engine’s laggy nature upon initial acceleration, which necessitates caution if you’re looking to merge quickly into a busy road or trying to turn quickly across traffic when a seemingly sufficient gap materialises.
This engine is at its best, with improved response, once the CX-3 is motoring along at 60km/h and above. There’s stronger mid-range performance than you get from the 2.0-litre petrol and the diesel clatter still evident at lower revs starts to dissipate as speed increases.
On freeways and country roads, in fact, wind and tyre noise are more noticeable.
It doesn’t encourage the driver to use revs quite like the petrol, yet it’s a relatively sporty diesel. One that not only has a redline of 5000rpm, which is high for a compression-ignition engine, but also one that doesn’t run out of breath – or make an unbearable racket – venturing there.
There’s even a case here for paddle-shift levers.
The six-speed auto responsible for transferring engine power to the CX-3’s front wheels offers a tipshift mode, missing out on the Sport mode offered with petrol variants (which it doesn’t really need).
Left to its own devices, the auto is another finely calibrated transmission from Mazda. Subtle downshifts accompany gradual deceleration and upshifts are executed swiftly and smoothly.
The diesel’s relatively lively nature suits the CX-3’s enjoyable handling, which isn’t harmed to a great extent by the extra weight over the nose compared with petrol variants – and still feels more like a hatchback than an SUV despite sitting 29mm higher off the ground than the Mazda 2.
A minor dynamic blemish is the steering’s on-centre accuracy, which isn’t quite up to Mazda’s usual standard. The steering is more precise and satisfying in all-wheel-drive variants.
There’s also a firm ride despite the Maxx Sport sitting on the smallest wheels offered in the CX-3 range – and wheels that are wrapped in chubby, 60-profile tyres that in theory should provide an extra layer of cushioning.
While the suspension can become fidgety on the most uneven of roads, and occasionally clumsy over prominent bumps, the CX-3 diesel is far from uncomfortable, offering a decent degree of pliancy. A Toyota C-HR is just more effective at balancing ride comfort and handling.
Longer journeys on freeways and country roads aren’t overly taxing, and are helped by an impressively precise cruise-control system, which maintains selected speeds on country roads and freeways even when significant gradients are encountered.
Touring is where the CX-3 diesel shines – while longer trips in general are beneficial for ensuring the diesel engine’s soot filter properly regenerates through sufficiently warmed exhaust gases. Successive short runs, such as popping down to the shops or the local school run, result in diesel particulate filters getting clogged.
That may well answer the question of whether to buy a petrol or diesel CX-3 for some buyers, and indeed Mazda says diesel CX-3 buyers typically have longer commuting distances.
They also value the diesel’s better fuel economy, though the vehicle’s higher cost isn’t going to be recovered any time soon with an official fuel consumption advantage of just 1.6 litres per 100km.
Our testing of various CX-3s suggests that gap may increase in real-world driving. Whereas front-drive petrol models have typically been around 8.0L/100km according to trip computers compared with an official 6.3L/100km, our diesel indicated an average 5.4L/100km versus its official 4.7L/100km.
It’s also worth bearing in mind the diesel’s limited popularity if you’re looking to resell a few years down the track.
Whether we can recommend the Mazda CX-3 as an overall package, irrespective of engine, depends on your needs. While the Mazda CX-3’s latest incremental updates are welcome, it remains a vehicle that is more high-riding hatchback than genuine compact SUV.
Small families will struggle with those tight rear seats and undersized boot, and are better off considering the significantly more practical Honda HR-V if the budget can’t stretch beyond a small SUV.
For mainly solo drivers or couples, however, the CX-3 has the ability to lure with its mix of stylish exterior design, competitive equipment levels, fun-to-drive philosophy, and a strong choice of engines.
Or some buyers might like to wait for the slightly larger CX-30 that will be released in 2020.