Owner Review

2015 Mazda CX-5 Maxx Review

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Buying a new car these days is akin to going to buy lunch in a food court with fifty outlets. You’d better have an idea of what you need or you’ll end buying something you don’t like the flavour of, or something that looks better than it tastes.

Just because there are fifty outlets and the food court is full, don’t make the mistake of thinking that all the food is good value, tastes good and that it’s all fresh.

When the CX-3 came out, I knew it might be the car I had been waiting for. It stood out from the crowd but it was familiar, both in it looks and its running gear. The non-turbo engine, the ‘old fashioned’ auto transmission and the $19990 starting price were all speaking my language and calling my name. After taking one for a short test drive, I knew for sure. The CX-3’s combination of size, style, price and above all, quality, was in the sweet spot of what I was looking for.

I chose the Maxx in petrol, auto, and front wheel drive out of the extensive range through process of elimination. At the bottom of the range, the Neo is lacking too much gear. The sTouring and Akari, both above the Maxx in the range, deliver more gear than I need and are also higher than my budget is comfortable with.

I wasn’t shopping for a car that is premium or flawless. I wanted something high-quality, at a fair price. Something that felt like it was engineered to last and had some style that might keep me engaged.

When I first sat in the new CX-3 I genuinely was reminded of the last BMW I drove, which was a rented 116i, a couple of years ago. It was a nice car. The CX-3 feels premium but oddly minimalistic to sit in. The absence of a myriad of buttons on the dashboard sets the interior part from many, except the Mazda 2, from which it’s lifted.

It has high quality fit and finish and feels miles nicer than I expected. Once I experienced the rock solid action of the gear shifter, this impression was reinforced.

Even the doors feel nice to open and close, delivering the required ‘thud’ on closing. On top of what should be bullet proof reliability, the CX-3 feels like a high quality vehicle, not just an appliance with wheels, which, in my experience, is what most Japanese cars feel like. (In this price range anyhow)

Despite what others will have you believe, the new Mazda CX-3 is not an SUV. A Sports Utility Vehicle (IMHO) is a vehicle with some off road credentials which can swallow an average sized family, and all of their sports gear.

That does not describe a CX-3. A CX-3 is a Mazda 2 with a bigger engine, a wider track, bigger wheels and tyres, and a bigger body. A Mazda 2 on steroids, if you will.

In fact, nothing in its class should really be classed as an SUV (at least by my definition), rather as ‘SUV-styled hatchbacks’. The Subaru XV is probably the only thing that comes close to being an SUV in reality, in this class. With its full time 4x4 and superior ground clearance, it has the Mazda trumped at every turn, off-road. The Subaru also delivers a higher driving position that the CX-3 simply does not. You’ll need a small family and not too much gear though.

The CX-3 delivers a driving position no higher than any other car really. Even little cars with unusually high driver’s seat, like a Fiat 500 can match the driver’s height. It comes more down to how high you have your seat adjusted and how tall you are.

Even a Rav4 towers over the CX-3. Put it this way, the CX-3 only has 15mm more ground clearance than a Mazda 2. The body styling adds a few more centimetres I would imagine, maybe, just. Keep in mind though, this is part of what makes the CX-3 steer so much better than its rivals; a nice low centre of gravity.

When Mazda released the CX-5 a few years back I remember being taken with its smart styling. The reviews were glowing and it seemed Mazda had engineered a little ripper in the CX-5. It was the latest in a string of successful models, proving to the world once again that ‘Made and engineered in Japan’ actually stands for something and that Mazda was right up there with the best of them.

Described as a midsized SUV I thought the CX-5 might be for me. I went to inspect one at the dealership and was shocked at how big it was. The CX-5 is a proper family vehicle, no two ways about it. It’s way bigger than what I need, and interestingly, much bigger up close than it seemed on the road in traffic. “If only they built a smaller version” I lamented.

The problem with SUV ownership is that they can cost more to own than some alternative choices (think station wagons) thanks to increased fuel usage due to higher weights, higher servicing costs and higher insurance costs.

The upside to the CX-3 and some its competitors is that they don’t come with these added costs of ownership. My CX-3 requires servicing every 12 months or 10,000km (should be 15,000km to win my adoration) with fixed serving costs of around $300, give or take twenty bucks.

It drinks regular unleaded, or E10, at the rate of 7.0 litres/100km (that’s what my economy monitor is showing after having covered 2500km without resetting), is comprehensively insured for $412 (Allianz) and is running on 16” Dunlops which should only cost about $130-$150 per tyre to replace every 3 years or so (according to a quick price check online).

In my experience, cars don’t get too much cheaper to run than that, unless you can get something which delivers better mileage. If you can, it’s likely to cost a lot more, or be a lot smaller.

But I didn’t choose the CX-3 Maxx to save money. To do that, I could have bought a CX-3 Neo, which would have been a terrible idea. I would have saved a couple of grand but missed out on Reversing camera, 7” screen and infotainment system, leather trimmings and alloy wheels, 2 extra speakers, and more. Don’t do it. If money was the main factor, I guess a Mazda 2 would have been the choice and I would have saved 10k.

Alternatively, if you have an extra $4600 burning a hole in your pocket, you could upgrade to the sTouring which delivers a bunch of LED lights, a gimmicky dash board complete with Star Wars style flippy thingy on the dash, behind the steering wheel with digital read out. Add 18” wheels and tyres, climate control, proximity key, nicer seat fabric and suede door inserts. I didn’t really feel the need for any of those things, notwithstanding the fact that it would take the price up to 33k or so, which was getting out of my comfort range, budget wise.

A 1.5 turbo diesel engine is a $2600 option. There are a couple reasons I didn’t get a diesel. Firstly, the diesel appears to need regular highway miles or there can be exhaust problems. I didn’t like the sound of that. Secondly, the idea of a turbo, to me, spells an expensive problem outside of warranty. Last but not least, the petrol engine is a bit livelier than the diesel and is much more willing than any of the figures would have you believe. It can be very swift when pushed even if I’m not a huge fan of the tune it plays.

Drop another $2000 on, *AWD if you feel the need. (*This is not full time AWD like a Subaru, but an ‘on demand’ system that operates the vehicle as FWD until it senses slippage, then is capable of directing some of the drive and perhaps some extra traction to the rear wheels, eventually, if you’re not bogged yet). I plan never to take my car off road so the extra cost to purchase and then extra costs to own the AWD model didn’t make any sense for this driver.

The $28k Drive away price I paid for my CX-3 seems fair considering the competition, SUV or not. (Corolla or Golf for example) Stepping up to a sTouring or an Akari in diesel AWD, will have you knocking on the door of a 40k drive away price. That’s all well and good if you have the spare money and are fixated on owning a CX-3. But, you can get a very nice CX-5 for that, not to mention a host of other Japanese and European options at this price point. In some ways this highlights how good the CX-3 is.

To understand the approach they have taken to producing this car, you need to understand what SkyActiv Technology is. It appears to be a fancy way of saying “make everything as efficient as possible”. Having efficiency as the No.1 priority, is a double edged sword. Everything becomes a compromise. For example, I could complain about engine noise. The engine is usually quiet but a bit droney and whirrey under medium amounts of throttle.

Under heavy throttle, it gets fairly raucous and delivers fairly large amounts of noise and vibration to the cabin. It never sounds thrashy though. We might ask ourselves “Why don’t they add more sound proofing and vibration absorbing material?..... The touchscreen sticking out of the dash…Why doesn’t it fold away?”. Why aren’t the seats electric, why isn’t the park brake electric. The list can go on. All these things save weight and saving weight saves fuel. This is the long and short of it.

Apart from saving weight, I would wager that the reason Mazda allows the engine to be heard so readily in the cabin is to make the driver aware of how hard the engine is working. If you hear the engine working hard, you might be more likely to lift your foot off sooner and therefore use less petrol. Just a thought... Still, the transfers more noise and vibration especially under hard acceleration than most competitors, and certainly miles more than that little 116i I hired once.

It’s not all for nothing though. The CX-3 weighs 100-200kg less than most of its rivals and drinks less fuel than them. It feels light when being thrown around too.

Even though it’s based on the Madza 2, there is no way of being able to tell (from the outside) at least. The increase in engine size from the 1.5 in the Mazda 2 to the 2.0 in the CX-3 delivers a very different experience as far as driver engagement goes. The engine is not only very willing but is mated to the best auto transmission I have experienced in a car in this price range. The changes are not as fast as some I have used but they are precise and never grabby or rough. Under gentle throttle, they are near indistinguishable.

It will change through to top gear by the time you’re at 60km/h to be sure never to guzzle more fuel than needed. Under heavy throttle the transmission delivers creamy transitions which are a probably bit slow compared to a dual clutch set up but are delightfully ironed out by the conventional auto tranny. It never feels like its hunting for the right gear and 6 ratios feels like plenty.

The transmission conceals a Jeckle and Hyde personality via a Sports Switch which is inconveniently located neither on the gear stick nor the dash. Although it is illuminated at night, I have noticed that every time I go to use it, I either fumble to find it, or have to look down to find it. Once located, and used, the switch has a dramatic effect on how the transmission operates.

5th and 6th gears are dead to Sport Mode.

Upshifts with throttle blips under breaking become its new trick to show you. Like it’s saying “look, this is how race car drivers do it, Zoom-Zoom!”. It’s quite a bit of fun actually, especially for a car that is not pretending to be a sports car.

The CX-3’s athleticism caught me somewhat by surprise. It has a sporting flavour to drive in a straight line and if you can find it a nice twisty mountain road, it steers and changes direction nothing like any SUV, which proves, again, that it’s not.

Driven at 80%, it’s thoroughly engaging, confident, fully planted and well balanced. It delivers gentle body rotation when lifting off, or using a dab of braking mid corner at speed which I found both fun and useful. When pushed it will understeer into corners and upon exit, will spin the inside tyre. Body roll is present, but only just. The turn in is very flat at sensible speeds.

The limits have to be tested for quite a ways for either the traction control or the ESP to interrupt which is good and also they don’t ruin the driving experience when they do cut in.

The steering is well weighted (could be a bit heavy for some) and smooth with a nice feeling on centre. The leather on the steering wheel is very fine grade and I have found it a bit slippery to use when carpark manoeuvring. The steering wheel is otherwise a good size and has high quality buttons and finishes.
I’m not sure we need so many buttons on the steering wheel for the cruise control operation though. It seems a bit cluttered. Better than an extra stalk off the column though.

Mazda has chosen a torsion beam lay out for the rear suspension of the CX-3. I expected this set up would show up as being a weak point when driving the car with a ‘Zoom-Zoom attitude’ but I can honestly say it hasn’t. The only time I can feel it, is when jumping harsh speed bumps at my local shopping centre. If I don’t go slowly the rear can seem drop off them fairly harshly.

The rear end set up does allow for some fun tricks with the handbrake though! When stationary, it can make the car “crouch” when in Drive and alternatively, when in Reverse, it can make the back on the car lift. Not by just a bit either, I reckon 70-80mm. Kids think it’s great. “Make the back go up again!” my mate’s kids pleaded as I reversed out of their driveway.

Oh, and that handbrake. I have a love hate relationship with the traditional handbrake/parkbrake. A button would be much more convenient and aesthetically pleasing, and easier. However the reliability and simplicity of the traditional set up appeals to me for many reasons. Not the least of which being that you can still actually do a ‘handbrakey’ if you need to.

The suspension over the front is very good. I can feel a bit floaty and soft at highways speeds though. If it was a sports car, that might be an issue cor cutting edge handling, but for this little hatchback, it has the effect of making it feel like a much bigger car to cruise up the highway in.

The doors have ‘three stage’ hinges rather than two, which I find useful and another indication that every square inch of this car has been engineered with the end users in mind. They open very wide too and close with a reassuring thud which is absent in some cars these days.

Even though Mazda quote a consumption figure of 6.7l/100km for the combined cycle, the 7.0 my CX-3 is achieving is commendably close. Plus, I hardly drive like I’m trying to conserve fuel. Indeed, choosing manual mode and smacking through the gears with my foot firmly against the fire wall (up to the speed limit) has become one of my favourite things. This way, I get a very swift departure while making sure the engine never revs any harder than it needs to. It gets peak torque at under 3000rpm so there is no real need to ever rev it past about 4500rpm in my opinion.

i-Stop….I thought it was a bit gimmicky at first but after racking up 2500km, the program is showing that i-Stop has turned off the engine for a total of 1 hour and 35 minutes so far. I wouldn’t have thought that I spent that much time sitting idle, and wasting fuel. But, there you have it. This surely contributes to the impressive fuel consumption my CX-3 is achieving. My main problem with i-Stop is that the air conditioning compressor stops when i-Stop engages because the compressor runs off the engine.

I live in a tropical climate, so the air conditioning is on most of the time and you feel it when the compressor turns off. For those of you unaware, i-Stop turns the vehicle off when stationary, sometimes. i-Stop can be turned off with a button on the dash, but it needs to be turned off every time you get in, if you never want it on.

It’s much more highly nuanced than anyone gives it credit for. It seems to know when NOT to turn it off too, such as when parking, which is intriguing. It all happens without you even knowing 99% of the time, which is a good thing. I won’t go into the nuances other than to say it has never activated at a time which was inconvenient or annoying or unsafe.

I have heaped enough praise on this little car so far, now lets get to some more of the annoying bits.
The handbrake I mentioned seems huge, and is in the small centre console where there is no covered storage nor an ashtray or space to house my spare change. I thought everyone kept spare change in the ashtray?

The driver’s seat has no arm rest. I like armrests. The only thing I can suggest is that with an arm rest, accessing the controls in the centre console for the interactive screen would be difficult. This may be the reason it’s absent.

The warranty should be at least 5 years. Having a 3 year warranty when the completion has 5 to 7 is not good enough really. Especially when the car seems such high quality and Mazda have such a good reputation. Don’t they think their cars could do it?

People buy Mazdas because they are reliable, especially second hand. Apparently, everyone believes this except Mazda. Increasing their warranty to 7 years/unlimited km would increase sales and they would make more money. Unless Mazda supposes their cars are not as good as a new Kia. I think not. Come on Mazda, get with it.

The auto dimming of dash lights when headlights lights are switched on is annoying. I can probably adjust that somewhere in the settings via the fancy 7” screen but really, don’t most cars these adjust the dash lights to suit the amount of ambient light, regardless of whether the headlights are on or not? Being a black car, I prefer to drive with headlights on all the time. It makes the car more easily seen and therefore safer.
The Maxx misses out on the proximity key. This was the only thing I saw on the sTouring model that I felt like I had missed out on in the Maxx. It would be more convenient, but then again, some might argue that it’s another electrical thing to go wrong later….

There is no choice of wheels. Whichever model you choose, it will come with only 1 wheel option. I feel like they should make all wheels available, even as cost options. The wheels the Maxx comes with, while ok, are probably the weak spot its (very strong) fashion department.

The same goes for the seats. There is no choice. Each model gets its own seat. Leather should be an option. In upper models, you’re stuck with leather and can’t get cloth.

Colour choice. While I chose black and didn’t mind too much what colours were available, I think the range is too small. If you don’t want black, white, silver, red, brown or blue, then you’re out of luck.
I don’t mind the instrument cluster layout but the digital rev counter is next to useless. It’s too small to read properly. However it’s better than the tacky digital speedo that the sTouring and Akari models get. Those models get a huge tacko where the speedo is in the Maxx and Neo. Go figure.

The turning circle is listed as 10.6m. It feels much bigger than that. When pulling into parks and such it never turns as much as I expect. I have trouble doing 3 point turns in the CX-3 than I do in an ML Mercedes which quotes an 11.6m turning circle.

The boot lip is very high. If you have to lift things into the boot constantly, this might annoy you. Plus the opening is pretty small, as is the boot. In fact, if the size and features of the boot of a car rank really highly, this car will disappoint you. I only need it to accommodate for the life of a single person, so it’s fine for me. The boot only ever carries shopping. However, I did pick up someone from the airport and their luggage fit perfectly. The back seats fold down so you can get pretty big stuff in there if you have to. If compared to, say a Honda HRV, it’s very small. The CX-3 is not the Tardis, nor does it pretend to be. (If you need space, buy a CX-5. If you need even more space, there is the gargantuan CX-9, or a Landcruiser, or for that price, 3 CX-3s.)

In spite of appearing to have small windows, visibility out of the CX-3 is excellent. On the point of window size, I notice that I was billed $595 for “SUV window tint”. I feel like I have been taken for a ride there. I should have asked more questions about that. It’s probably the same price for a CX-9 window tint, which has twice as much glass. If you get one, you should ask….it should cost no more than other small cars should it?

The packaging for the CX-3 is good but the weak point inside is the Centre console. It has no covered storage and there is no ash tray. Where is my spare change supposed to go? The centre console needs to be remodelled to incorporate an armrest and a covered storage, perhaps all in one. At least it’s got two USB ports and a 9v lighter style electrical outlet.

When it’s all said and done, if the centre console set up is the worst of my worries, then there is not much to worry about.

Having previously driven a corolla for 12 years, I just thought all cars were like that. You know, reliable, easy to use. Then I bought a European car. An Italian one. Let’s just chalk that up as a ‘learning experience’. Thankfully that experience is not behind me.

Now that I am safely back in the hands of a company that engineers its cars to be high quality, not just look like it, I feel like my money has been well spent. If my CX-3 serves me as well as my Corolla did, I have many years of trouble fee motoring ahead of me. But this time around, I’m going to look good while doing it.

It’s like buying the freshest, healthiest sushi made to order but only paying half as much as a greasy pizza, made yesterday. It’s a no brainer isn’t it?

It’s a sensible choice which you can feel good about making.