Mazda goes Juke hunting with its Skyactiv-generation baby SUV, but the rapidly expanding segment has other rivals to keep in mind now too

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This is the age of the compact crossover, and the latest one is the Mazda CX-3. With an appetite among Europe’s car buyers well established, the class’s ranks are filling up fast – and yet the wait for a truly outstanding example goes on. What can Mazda offer?

Manufacturer enthusiasm and customer demand ought to have delivered a standout prospect by now. Instead, while the 36-month procession of bandwagon-jumpers we’ve witnessed has been characterised occasionally by moderate talent, alternative appeal or value for money (see Nissan Juke, Renault Captur and Dacia Duster), we’ve as often experienced blandness and dynamic disappointment.

The time is right for something more compact, cleverly packaged, affordable, usable, good looking and fun to drive to come to the fore

The cars that have earned our admiration thus far – chiefly the Dacia Duster and the Skoda Yeti – may soon be ruled too large to qualify for a segment increasingly populated by jacked-up superminis.

The time is right for something more compact, cleverly packaged, affordable, usable, good looking and fun to drive to come to the fore – something from the mould that, historically, the best small cars have managed to spring.

Step forward, then, the Mazda CX-3, nominally baby brother to the larger Mazda CX-5 but more meaningfully taller, heavier, higher-riding sibling of the impressive Mazda 2.

The firm’s downsized crossover has arrived at the ideal time; not only is the closely related supermini very good and new but there’s also likely to be a lot of customer goodwill and footfall flowing Mazda’s way following the launch of the much-anticipated new Mazda MX-5 roadster.

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The brand’s now-mature Kodo design language ties all its recent offerings together rather neatly, and the fruits of its Skyactiv engineering philosophy continue to land – not least in the CX-3’s engine line-up, which includes two 2.0-litre petrol units and the 104bhp 1.5-litre diesel on test.

A new all-wheel drive system has also been introduced, but the CX-3 – like most of its rivals – will mostly ship in front-drive format and a mid-level SE-L or SE-L Nav spec, the latter as tested here.

Mazda CX-3 design & styling

The CX-3’s design is coherent and smart. Its shape seems to have sprouted upwards from that of the related 2 supermini like a well-watered rose bush, and yet the car, which shares the 2’s 2570mm wheelbase, doesn’t spread out to cover much more ground.

The 40mm difference in ride height, however, produces a more substantial presence and offers Mazda’s designers a larger canvas onto which they can apply the intricate creases and surfaces of the Kodo theme.

Mazda insists that the CX-3’s underbody, with a 29% ultra-high-tensile steel content, has the same torsional rigidity as that of a Mazda 3 hatch.

The suspension – MacPherson struts and a rear twist beam – is largely carried over from the 2, albeit in overhauled form. Having created higher roll centres for each axle, the engineers fitted firmer bushes and retuned the spring/damper settings to suit.

The steering, too, has been adapted, with a beefed-up electric power assistance motor and a 7% slower ratio than the 2 to better suit its size and higher centre of gravity.

Our test car was a front-driver, but all-wheel-drive variants retain the torsion beam rear suspension, adapting it to make room for the rear differential. The rear diff itself is smaller than the one used in larger four-wheel-drive Mazdas and helps to make the CX-3’s adaptive, torque-splitting drivetrain 20% lighter than that of the CX-5.

In petrol format, the AWD system is mated exclusively to the 148bhp 2.0-litre engine. This is available only with Mazda’s six-speed manual gearbox, while the lower-powered 118bhp front-drive version can also be had with a conventional auto ’box.

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Nevertheless, the 1.5-litre Skyactiv-D of our test car is at least as interesting, since it has been mildly fettled for use in the crossover.

Peak torque, available from 1600rpm, has been increased from 184lb ft to 199lb ft via a revised turbocharger to improve the heavier crossover’s in-gear response. The four-cylinder unit retains an uncharacteristically low 14.8:1 compression ratio.

This makes for a cooler and more diffuse kind of combustion than the diesel norm and is the chief reason why the CX-3 emits just 105g/km of CO2.

The oil-burner can also be had in conjunction with the AWD system, although CO2 leap to 123g/km for the manual version and 136g/km for the range-topping auto.


Mazda CX-3 dashboard
The front seats are good and the driving position is sound

Since they’re sufficiently fresh to be in the same road test notepad, we’ll start by comparing how much more cabin space the CX-3 provides than the Mazda 2. If you imagine that it won’t be much, given that they share the same platform and wheelbase, then you’re only partly right.

The CX-3’s higher hip point grants front passengers 20mm more leg room as a maximum and 30mm more to a rear-seat passenger. Front head room is boosted by a similar margin.

Carbonfibre-effect cabin trim can be really attractive done well, but I'm not sure it belongs anywhere on a crossover

It doesn’t look like much – and it doesn’t make the CX-3 noteworthy for spaciousness among its peers. The Skoda Yeti and Vauxhall Mokka offer considerably more room and will make an adult sitting in the rear considerably more comfortable.

Boot space is a better strong suit for the CX-3, however, and may well matter more to compact crossover buyers than having room for a larger adult in the second row. The load bay is 100mm longer than the 2’s and also beats a Mokka’s on both under-shelf and overall loading height. A false floor – included as standard – contributes to the latter advantage.

The CX-3’s fascia benefits from the same ritzy touches that higher-end versions of the 2 impressed us with, such as the stippled chrome climate control knobs and leather-look insert just below vent level.

Mazda’s 7.0in colour touchscreen multimedia system (standard across the range) is another impressive highlight. But there are low points, too, such as hard, shiny plastics where rivals use tactile slush mouldings and small, hard-to-read monochrome digital instruments occupying spaces large enough for clearer analogue dials.

The front seats are comfortable and the driving position is decent, thanks mostly to a widely adjustable steering column. Big cupholders and door pockets and a good-size glovebox offer all the oddment storage you’re likely to need.

And so, besides a bit more passenger space and some more tactile plastics in places, all the CX-3’s cabin otherwise lacks is some lightness or colour. As it normally does, Mazda has concluded that darker is better for the car’s internal appointments.

Like most of the Mazda range, there are four trim levels to choose from - SE, SE-Nav, SE-L Nav and Sport Nav. Opting to deck your new CX-3 in the entry-level SE trim doesn't necessarily mean you get a poverty spec, with cruise control, air conditioning, DAB radio, Bluetooth connectivity, hill-hold assist and 16in alloy wheels all included as standard. Upgrading to SE Nav means the obvious inclusion of sat nav and also three-years of European map updates included too. 

The mid-range SE-L Nav models get climate control, auto wipers and lights, lane departure warning and Mazda's city braking systems included in the package, while the range-topping Sport Nav are shod in 18in alloy wheels and get adaptive LED headlights, keyless entry, Bose sound system, heated front seats, head-up display and a reversing camera all as standard.


Mazda CX-3 side profile
CX-3's diesel engine is flexible and endows the CX-5 with slightly quicker acceleration than the class norm

Mazda’s relatively low-compression, big-boosting 1.5-litre turbodiesel engine gives the CX-3 some predictable mechanical character traits – and some less predictable ones. The motor starts and stops without much clatter or shake, but you wouldn’t call it quiet at idle or at low revs.

Under load at higher speeds, there is perhaps some advantage for the car on mechanical refinement – but it’s a marginal gain.

A 0-60mph time of 10.3sec is creditable and gives the car a lead of about a second on most of the class

Throttle response is, as you might expect, a bit softer than the modern turbodiesel norm.

Long gearing exacerbates the problem, but even so it’s a condition that only really affects the CX-3 when trying to pull low revs in the higher gears – and then only for a second or so.

When it’s knuckling down, the car performs strongly. A 0-60mph time of 10.3sec is creditable and gives the car a lead of about a second on most of the class.

The powerplant is nicely flexible, too, making the CX-3 more than half a second faster from 30-70mph in fourth gear than the Peugeot 2008 e-HDi 115 we tested in 2013. Although the Mazda’s peak power is made at 4000rpm, the engine is willing to rev beyond 5000rpm on the tacho and doesn’t get too breathless when asked to do it.

The car’s pedal weights are substantial but well matched and its manual gearchange has a deliberate, positive, taut-feeling shift quality. It doesn’t always like to be rushed through the gate, but it always lets you know when you’ve engaged the cog you’re aiming for.

Grip levels for the CX-3 diesel fall a little bit victim to Mazda’s decision to equip it with a different set of tyres than the petrol models. The former, fitted with Dunlop Enasave tyres, required almost 50 metres to stop from 70mph – and from a 1.2-tonne car in warm, dry conditions, we’d expect better.

Our petrol CX-3 long-term test car, also on 16in rims, comes on Bridgestone Turanza rubber – and, as you’re about to read, it grips and stops notably harder.


Mazda CX-3 cornering
The Mazda suffers from a restless ride and the diesel model is short on grip

Having done a fine job on the handling of both the Mazda 2 and Mazda 3 hatches, which share the same platform as our test subject, Mazda gave us high hopes for the dynamic abilities of the CX-3.

It would be an overstatement to record that those hopes were dashed, but they were certainly well battered. It’s equally true that while compact crossover buyers as a breed may not place agile, engaging handling high on a list of must-haves for their prospective school-run transport, those choosing a Mazda would perhaps be more likely to.

The CX-3 is without the tautness of body control and weighty consistency of steering response that normally characterises Mazda’s offerings

Those buyers, however, will find a car that only just about passes muster here and is without the tautness of body control and weighty consistency of steering response that normally characterises Mazda’s offerings.

The caveat is that by ‘here’, we mean in the CX-3 diesel specifically. It is worth noting that the 2.0-litre petrol equivalent, which we also had the opportunity to drive in parallel with our test subject, is a much better-handling, better-riding and generally better-resolved car.

It’s quite unusual to find such a disparity between differently engined derivatives of the same model in 2015 – and to the best of our knowledge, Mazda has been no more guilty of such dynamic inconsistency over the years than anyone. But from a car maker with what is otherwise such an impressive dynamic CV, it’s worrying to say the least.

In outright terms, the CX-3 has a moderate but consistent hold on the road and goes broadly where it’s pointed, but its chief disappointments are the changeability of its steering weight and the stodgy restlessness of its primary ride.

The car’s cornering balance isn’t brilliant, either, but those Dunlop tyres don’t really grip hard enough to give the car’s lateral body control much of a stern test in any case.

Instead, it’s over bumps and crests that the car betrays itself. After a disturbance, the body pogos over its front wheels – gently enough, to be fair, but in a drawn-out fashion.

Sharpen the profile of the bumps you’re crossing and the CX-3’s suspension turns quite crude in its action, thumping away underneath the car noisily. Put simply, this car is plainly underdamped.

Meanwhile, where we’re used to fairly incisive and fluent steering from Mazda, we get a system in the CX-3 that lacks the usual feedback levels and varies unhelpfully in weight as you feed off lock.


Mazda CX-3
Mazda CX-3 shares much with its Mazda 2 baby brother

The CX-3 is available in four grades, from SE to Sport Nav, but any way you cut it, this is an expensive car.

An entry-level 2.0-litre petrol model starts at £17,595 and comes with 16in alloys, air-con, electric windows, DAB, cruise control and a 7.0in infotainment screen.

The £600 fee for sat-nav is at the politer end of daylight robbery, and not choosing it will mean you're disadvantaged at resale time

However, that doesn’t plaster over the fact that the cheapest Renault Captur is under £15k and a Nissan Juke under £16k. Even the Skoda Yeti, an altogether larger car, is available for around £500 less in similar petrol form. Our diesel SE-L Nav costs £20,995, but a similarly equipped Yeti SE works out marginally cheaper, while a range-topping Captur costs £200 less.

Our experts suggest that the CX-3’s residual values will be competitive but not outstanding, so unless Mazda subsidises them, PCP deals on the car aren’t likely to make it much more affordable to private buyers.

The CX-3 oil-burner’s fuel economy looks admirable but not exemplary on paper, at a claimed 70.6mpg combined. Our True MPG testers recorded a more impressive 58.6mpg average for the car in real-world testing.

That’s better than the like-for-like return we produced from the equivalent diesel-powered Juke, Yeti, Captur and Peugeot 2008.


3.5 star Mazda CX-3
A concerning dip in form from Mazda: pacey but pricey and lacking poise

Among the profusion of supermini-sized pseudo-SUVs vying for your money, launching one that isn’t either very good, very desirable, very practical, very different or very cheap is becoming a bad idea.

That, in a nutshell, is what Mazda has done with the CX-3. Now is the time to launch a car such as this, without a shadow of doubt, but no longer will any car do.

Mazda could have really gone after the Nissan Juke with the CX-3. It's an opportunity missed, if you ask me

Every rival in our top five has a more powerful selling point than the CX-3, be it value, space, design appeal, usefulness, unlikely dynamism or, in some cases, a mix of several of the above.

The hook we were expecting from Mazda has failed to materialise. Broadly speaking, the CX-3 handles as well as plenty of rivals, from a Citroën C4 Cactus to a Mini Countryman.

But, in diesel form at least, it’s well below par for what ought to be one of the class’s more polished dynamic efforts. Strong performance and economy goes some way to compensate, but not far enough for us.

For others, the car’s undistinguished practicality and ambitious price may be the real letdowns.


Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Mazda CX-3 First drives