Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2018 Mazda CX-3

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After beefing up to meet the bigger sport-ute craze, automakers are going small again. Downsized SUVs are the hot ticket in Canada these days, and Mazda chimes in with its subcompact CX-3. Introduced for 2016, it undergoes some tweaks for 2018. In addition to changes in the option packages, including a new available power driver’s seat with memory and heated steering wheel, all trims now come with automatic emergency braking, should you fail to see an obstacle and then ignore the warnings about it.

It’s an agile little thing with sharp, responsive handling.

The company says it’s improved the ride comfort and noise levels for this year, although the suspension’s still pretty firm and loud. It also adds Mazda’s proprietary G-Vectoring Control – something you’ll probably never notice but appreciate anyway, and more on that later, of course.

The 2018 Mazda CX-3 comes in GX, GS, and GT, all with a 2.0L four-cylinder engine that makes 146 horsepower and a corresponding 146 lb-ft of torque. In another new-for-2018 change, all trims come in front- or all-wheel drive, unlike last year when the top-line GT was all-wheel only. A six-speed manual transmission is available only in the base GX in front-wheel drive, where it’s mostly to provide the lowest possible price for ads. Everything else gets a six-speed automatic.

The CX-3’s starting sticker of $19,995 marks a drop of $700 from last year. The mid-range GS is unchanged, at $22,695 in FWD and $24,695 in AWD. The new front-wheel GT model starts at $27,995. Adding some new extra features boosts the all-wheel GT to $30,995, a jump of $500 from last year. The final step is an optional Technology Package, adding such features as adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, automatic high-beam headlights and satellite radio for $1,000, bringing my top-line tester to $30,995 before freight and taxes.

Despite its name, the CX-3 isn’t based on the Mazda3. Rather, it shares its platform with the Mazda2, a model no longer sold in Canada (at least not by Mazda – you can get a version sold as the Toyota Yaris Sedan; and for those still keeping track, the Mazda3 shares with the CX-5). The CX-3 is smaller than such competitors as the Toyota CH-R and Honda HR-V, and could also be cross-shopped against hatchbacks like the Honda Fit or Kia Rondo.

The handsome CX-3 looks more car than sport-ute, with its longer-nose-shorter-tail styling, nicely sculpted side profile, and sharp-looking front end with just enough chrome and creases. There are a couple of issues to consider, depending on what you need it to do. The body cladding and taller suspension suggest the off-road ability that many people want, even if they never use it, but if you do, the front apron is too low for really rough spots. The liftgate opening is narrow and the liftover is high, too.

The interior is scrumptious-looking in the top-line GT, which includes leather and fake-suede upholstery with stitching on the seats, dash, door, and centre console panels. A chrome dash strip cleverly incorporates the centre vent, and the steering wheel looks sporty and feels good in the hands. I’m always keen on simple, easy-to-use controls and for the most part the CX-3 delivers, with large dials for the climate system, and hard buttons for the heated seats and steering wheel, standard on the GS and GT but missing on the base GX. Small-item storage could be better, limited mostly to a small centre cubby and door pockets.

The instrument cluster is a bit of an odd duck, consisting of a large analogue tachometer and a small digital speedometer. The infotainment system uses a tablet-style touchscreen atop the dash. It can also be adjusted through a button-and-dial controller in the centre console that’s clunky to use, especially since the small volume button is tucked out of the way behind it. The two lower trims are “navigation-ready” and require an extra-charge SD card from the dealer to add the map, which is included on the GT trim.

Above the dash is Mazda’s version of a head-up display, a piece of plastic that lifts up when you start the engine, and folds down when you shut it off, and displays driving information. Most head-ups broadcast on the windshield; you have to refocus on this one since it’s only halfway there, but it’s easier than looking down at a gauge. Along with the speed, it includes an additional blind-spot display. If you have the Technology Package, the system recognizes traffic signs and pops a stop sign in the head-up as you get close to the intersection, along with speed limit signs. I only wish for a toggle to adjust the display’s height, rather than having to go into the infotainment system.

Those lovely two-tone seats are supportive and stayed that way over a three-hour drive. The rear seats are sculpted for comfort, but this is a small vehicle, and legroom back there is restricted accordingly. Cargo space is tighter than in its larger competitors, but there’s a false floor to adjust the height or to hide valuables under it.

So after all that, what’s the drive? It’s no powerhouse, and the engine gets noisy under hard throttle, but it’s an agile little thing with sharp, responsive handling. That G-Vectoring Control mentioned earlier, new for this year on the CX-3, is a software program that momentarily reduces engine torque when you turn the steering wheel. It’s enough to throw a bit of weight on the front tires for better grip, making the turn tighter and smoother. It’s so quick and subtle that you won’t notice the engine cutting back, but you will appreciate the CX-3’s delightful handling.

The six-speed automatic is a welcome change from a CVT, and while it shifts crisply when left to its own devices, it takes its time swapping cogs with the paddle shifters. In a week of driving, including a day where all of us put it through its paces for our compact SUV comparison, it returned 8.9 L/100 km against a published rate of 8.2.

The CX-3 is a niche within a niche: smaller than its competition, it won’t be enough for those who need to transport people and a lot of goods all at once. If you can handle the size, it’s a comfortable and well-finished little machine, and while its engine and ride could be smoother, you won’t find much in this segment that’s close to how it handles. Before you go bigger, test drive small as well.

Engine Displacement 2.0L
Engine Cylinders I4
Peak Horsepower 146 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Peak Torque 146 lb-ft @ 2,800 rpm
Fuel Economy 8.8/7.5/8.2 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space 408 L/1,484 L seat down
Model Tested 2018 Mazda CX-3 GT
Base Price $27,995
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,895
Price as Tested $32,990
Optional Equipment
$3,000 – All-wheel drive $2,000; Technology Package (radar cruise control, smart brake support, forward obstruction warning, lane departure warning, high-beam control, traffic sign recognition, and satellite radio) $1,000