Compact SUVs seem to be all the rage and many manufacturers are getting in on the act by taking a small hatch, jacking it up and giving it all wheel drive. Mazda's tilt at cracking the recipe comes in the form of the CX-3, a high-riding compact SUV based on the featherweight Mazda 2 hatchback. Gizmag spent a week with the CX-3 to find out what all the fuss is about.
Let's start from the very beginning: the CX-3 is not a full-blooded SUV. It might look chunky, it might have all-wheel drive, but under the skin it's a Mazda 2 hatchback. They share the same wheelbase, and the CX-3 has just an extra 3 mm of ground clearance compared to its city-car cousin.
Its all-wheel drive system is part time, with the car defaulting to front-drive whenever it can to save fuel, and there's not exactly a heap of space in the back for carrying children or things bigger than, say, a suitcase.
These aren't shortcomings limited to the CX-3, however. They're endemic of the breed. No compact SUV makes a heap of sense because a hatchback will do the job better around town and a proper off-roader will destroy it when you leave the tarmac. What these cars are about is style, about sitting high and looking "lifestyley" and "rugged".
And no compact SUV does that better than the Mazda.
From the outside, the car looks fantastic. For an ostensibly boring car, a 1.5-liter diesel SUV, the CX-3 draws a fair bit of attention thanks to its funky wheels and sharp front styling. Three or four times during our week with the car people came up to us and asked what it was, or complemented the way it looks.
We can't imagine many Chevy Trax or Ford EcoBoost owners have ever been told their car looks fantastic, which gives the Mazda a feather in its cap before a wheel has turned.
Once you're on the move, the CX-3 has the goods to back up its sharp styling. Our car was powered by a 1.5-liter SkyActiv diesel motor producing 77 kW (103 hp) and 270 Nm of torque. As you might expect, it's not exactly a firecracker of an engine – start it up and you're greeted by a distinctly-diesel chug, chug, chug.
Once you get moving the engine reasonably smooth and punchy. There's a little bit of turbo lag when you put your foot down, but it gives you enough grunt to keep up with traffic.
It's also extremely efficient, with a claimed fuel usage of just 4.8 l/100 km (59 mpg). In a week of stop-start driving in grinding traffic, we managed only 7.0 l/100km (40 mpg) – still impressive considering diesel engines do their best work on the open road.
The little engine is no doubt helped by Mazda's excellent six-speed automatic gearbox. When you're mooching around town it stays out of the way, shuffling quickly up to the tallest gear possible to save fuel. But when you want to get a move on it will hold onto gears nicely, and kicks down quickly if you need to get out of trouble.
Flicking the gearlever across to manual mode doesn't ruin things either – downshifts are sharp and the car doesn't try to force its will upon you. If you want to run all the way to the redline – and that's not necessarily something you should be keen on doing – the electronic brain in the Mazda will let you.
The driver-friendly attitude extends to the steering and ride. It's light at low speeds, but on the move the CX-3's steering has a nice weight about it, making the car feel rock solid on the road. Throw the little Mazda around and it sits flat in the bends, and there's plenty of grip from its 18-inch wheels. You can even play around with it: lifting off mid-corner brings the back round nicely, and it clings on gamely before submitting to understeer.
It's actually good fun, and the fact Mazda has engineered some fun into the chassis is to be applauded.
Unfortunately, the car's neat handling is largely irrelevant to most buyers. Most of the people looking for a CX-3 are going to be more worried about the interior and standard equipment.
Step inside the little Mazda, and the design will be instantly familiar to anyone who has seen inside the new 2 hatchback – and that's no bad thing. In range-topping Akari spec, the cabin is kitted out in leather and suede, which was finished in beige, red, grey and black in our car.
There are also a couple of practicality issues inside. My 9-year-old cousins, used to being ferried around in a Volvo XC90, got into the back seats and immediately complained that they could barely see out because the "windows are very high." On a 31-degree day the lack of rear air vents also drew their ire.
Me? I was too busy trying to find somewhere to keep my wallet, because there's no center storage bin or armrest.
The same can be said for the heads-up display. Some people will love feeling like a fighter-pilot, but from 6-foot-6 seating position there was no way of setting it up that didn't leave me looking awkwardly down for the little green text whenever I tried to use it.
Mazda's infotainment system, on the other hand, is absolutely fantastic. As well as being a touchscreen, MZD Connect uses an iDrive-style rotary controller and some shortcut buttons down next to the handbrake to navigate. The Bluetooth streaming system is quick and easy to use, and my phone contacts transferred without a problem every time the car started.
So, where does that leave the CX-3? It's a good little car, with a fun chassis and gearbox. It's also a real stunner, with a fantastic design inside and out.
Unfortunately, it's very much on the expensive side. In the US the CX-3 starts at $21,210, but the Akari Diesel spec we tested in Australia goes for AUD$37,990 in local showrooms, a big jump from the $15,000 Mazda 2 it's based on.
In a lower spec, with a fun little petrol engine though? You could just be on to a real winner, because it's an attractive, economical, fun to drive SUV that stands out from the crowd.