There are two ways you can make a successful small crossover: you can simply do what the others are doing, perhaps improve a thing or two in the recipe, or you can take an entirely different approach and chart your own path. There’s no question which direction Mazda is taking with its CX-3. Like how they’ve weaved their magic in the compact car segment with the Mazda3 and the sub-compact car segment with the Mazda2, the CX-3 focuses on the brand’s two key strengths: great to drive and look good doing so.
Mazda doesn’t shy away from saying that the CX-3 is based off the Mazda2, and yet there’s more here than meets the eye. Understanding that raising the chassis would alter the center of gravity and consequently the driving dynamics, engineers have gifted the CX-3 with firmer bushings and re-tuned springs/dampers. Plus, to suit the crossover’s ability to travel long distances comfortably, the steering ratio’s been slowed by 7 percent. These changes go hand-in-hand with a platform with the same torsional rigidity as the larger Mazda3.
On top of that sits a body that’s appealing to the eye—incredibly taut and undeniably Mazda. Instead of going cutesy or oddball as others in this segment have, the CX-3 relies on the KODO design language, albeit improved and tweaked since the formula first appeared in the CX-5 back in 2012. Side-by-side next to its bigger brother, it’s sharper and more coherent. The trademark design cues: long hood, cab-rearward design, small overhangs, and tight rear proportions are all here. But because it’s dimensionally bigger than the Mazda2 hatchback, designers have a bigger canvas to apply the intricate creases and surfaces to make the CX-3 look even more handsome.
Stepping inside the CX-3 opens up to a cabin that doesn’t digress from Mazda’s tried and tested formula. The dashboard is low and flat with just the 7-inch infotainment screen in the middle breaking the expanse of the soft-touch upper panel. The well-organized instrument cluster, though easy-to-read, is starting to look dated with its monochromatic digital display. Apart from that small hiccup, the other ingredients in the CX-3’s ergonomics formula are spot on. The steering wheel offers great adjustment, the pedals are aligned perfectly to the driver’s feet, the seats are well supportive, and the controls are all clearly marked and easy to use. Even the exterior visibility is great—a surprise given the small looking greenhouse.
Imagining that the CX-3 and Mazda2 have the same interior space given the same platform and wheelbase is partly right. Thanks to higher hip points, the CX-3 gains more legroom (20-mm up front and 30-mm at the back) compared to its hatchback twin. These numbers don’t sound much—and they aren’t, but it does make sitting in the rear seat considerably more comfortable. It’s the same story for those looking for voluminous luggage space. It can carry a weekend’s worth of luggage, but it’s nowhere near the expected storage and versatility expected. Apart from that, large cup holders and door pockets, a decently sized center console and glove box all offer the oddment storage needed.
So while functionality isn’t the CX-3’s strong suit, it does present a more premium feeling interior. The materials used are well above for the segment with nicely grained plastics and textured metallic accents. The Alcantara/leather combination seats, and red soft-touch kneepads and door trims do a lot to impart a sporty vibe while breaking the monotony of the all-black interior.
Further digressing from the Mazda2 formula, the CX-3 doesn’t use the hatchback’s 1.5-liter unit, but instead opts for the tried-and-tested 2.0-liter Skyactiv-G 4-cylinder engine. Also found in the Mazda3 and CX-5, it curiously loses 9 horsepower and 8 Nm in this particular application. On the road though, this difference is negligible. Like its other Skyactiv-equipped siblings, the CX-3’s drivetrain works in unison to deliver a truly engaging driving experience. Getting it to go fast requires more coaxing from the throttle, but once the rev happy engine hits its sweet spot, it comes alive. The 6-speed automatic is responsive in both urban or highway settings, though paddle shifters would have been welcome when tackling hilly turns. In this particular multi-country, 1,400-kilometer drive, it does 13.69 km/L—pretty good considering the convoy’s breakneck pace.
There’s a lot more to love in the CX-3 apart from the drivetrain. Like the rest of its Skyactiv kin, this is one fun car to toss around. It starts with a steering that’s high in on-center feel, making it great for highway cruising and corner carving. It’s obedient too, rotating through curves without the need to saw the steering wheel. Into the corner, it responds with progression, transferring weight from side to side, fore and aft beautifully. There’s also minimal body roll. The ride is decisively on the firm side, but it’s still pretty good considering it’s riding on low profile 215/50R18 tires. All this comes as a big surprise given the CX-3 rides on a “cruder” torsion beam axle at its rear end. A small caveat with this crossover is the deceptively low ride height. With a ground clearance of 155 millimeters, it can scrape its belly even over poorly designed driveways.
Mazda Philippines has yet to announce the final specifications and time table for the CX-3’s launch, but this drive in the Thai-assembled unit serves only to heighten anticipation. The time is right for someone to come up with a small crossover that’s cleverly packaged, good looking, and fun-to-drive. As usual, Mazda has heeded that call with the CX-3. It sacrifices a bit in terms of functionality, but more than makes up for it with driver engagement. This is how Mazda makes its cars nowadays and it’s a formula that the driver in anyone and everyone will love.