Car reviews - Mazda - CX-3 - Akari AWD petrol
More upmarket interior is comfier and more practical than before, ride and refinement improvements not to detriment of nimble and agile dynamics
Room for improvement
Odd driving position, limited space for rear passengers, not that fuel-efficient
Updated Mazda CX-3 fends off younger competition with newfound refinement, maturity
24 Jun 2019
FASHION over function accurately describes many small SUVs as they often suffer numerous compromises when compared with similarly priced hatchbacks.
The best-seller, Mitsubishi’s ASX, is arguably one of the more practical options and is keenly priced at entry level but is old and feels it. A Hyundai Kona looks like a cramped, poor-value alternative to an i30 and a Subaru XV provides heaps of legroom but an inexplicably small boot considering how closely it is based on the suitcase-swallowing Impreza.
Mazda’s immensely popular CX-3 certainly puts style before spaciousness and the latest update is no different. But this mid-life facelift has wrought meaningful improvements to ride, refinement and quietness that almost achieve big car levels of maturity to go with the classier cabin and higher levels of on-board tech.
Price and equipment
We tested the CX-3 Akari with a petrol engine and all-wheel drive, priced at $37,500 plus on-road costs. The only ways to spend more on a CX-3 is to specify the $500 LE upgrade (petrol only) that applies some posher interior finishes and spanglier alloy wheels or go for the diesel engine ($2400 extra).
The 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with rotary controller provides access to the sat-nav and vision from the new surround-view cameras, plus control of the six-speaker audio system with Bluetooth and USB connectivity, DAB+ digital radio and available smartphone mirroring via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
A colour head-up display projects a digital speedo onto the windscreen alongside information from the navigation, cruise control and road sign recognition systems.
Leather upholstery – including for the gear selector and steering wheel – and suede-like door and dashboard trim mark the Akari out as a premium variant along with luxuries like heated power-adjustable front seats, automatic climate control, adaptive cruise control, automatic wipers, keyless entry with push-button start, and heated auto-folding exterior mirrors.
Using space liberated by the adoption of an electronic park brake is a new centre armrest with storage bin and fold-away cup holders. Externally there are 18-inch alloy wheels and a rear spoiler.
Autonomous emergency braking works both in forward and reverse gears, supplemented by lane departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, driver attention monitoring, hill-start assist, front and rear parking sensors, and a multitude of electronic stability and traction aids including Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control.
We weren’t expecting this. The latest CX-3 interior feels pretty fancy, especially in high-spec Akari trim.
There’s plush suede-like trim on the door cards and dash, much like the decidedly upmarket Mazda6, and plenty of convincing brushed metal-style finishes. Contrast-stitched leatherette covers the instrument binnacle and edges of the centre console, closely matching the supple leather that is lavished on the seats, steering wheel and gear selector.
It’s not hard to find the hard plastics that betray the CX-3’s light-car origins, but your fingers and eyes are drawn to the squidgy, soft, shiny and tactile stuff. It’s simple and effective way of lifting the cabin’s ambience from spartan and built-to-a-budget to something a bit special.
Another surprise to those familiar with earlier CX-3s is the silence and refinement. This little Mazda has transcended urban buzzbox status and matured into something altogether more cosseting. Road noise on coarse-chip country roads, for example, is better suppressed in this car than a Lexus IS luxury sedan. We’re not exaggerating.
The engine is much quieter as well, and far fewer vibrations make their way into the cabin (unless you’re thrashing it).
If we’re being picky, it’s a shame the climate control knobs don’t match the satisfying ratchet-like action of other models in the range. It’s a bit of a letdown because Mazda is otherwise so good at consistency of control weights and switchgear tactility.
Another bugbear of ours is the driving position. It’s not uncommon in compact crossovers that we find a mismatch between seat and dashboard height, with the CX-3 being one of the worst offenders. Put it this way, even with the driver’s seat adjusted to its lowest setting, we were still peering down at the head-up display like we would the regular instruments in most other cars, yet we were too low to properly see over the bonnet.
Finally, the addition of a central armrest and storage compartment is very welcome. But the flimsy new cup-holders are about as robust as a politician’s promise and likely to result in lap full of latte. Rear passengers get a pair of much better cup-holders in their fold-down central armrest.
It’s better news for fans of hydrating rather than hot drinks. All four door bins will easily accommodate a big bottle, the front pair extending surprisingly far back into the door cavity and providing generous amount of storage space.
The glovebox is also of decent size, as is a deep shelf in front of the gear selector that provides easy access to USB, 12V and auxiliary audio sockets. A sunglasses holder is supplied in the ceiling and the front passenger seat has a map pocket.
Mazda was never going for any ‘best boot space’ awards, but its 350 litres (1260L with the rear seats folded) are arranged in a uniform and easily accessible way, with a handy two-tier setup that provides a large underfloor compartment above the space-saver spare wheel or additional depth with the false floor in the lower position.
Legroom in the outer rear seats is sufficient for children old enough to no longer need booster seats but have not yet reached adult height. Our sunroof-equipped Akari variant struggled for rear headroom, too, which is particularly noticeable in the humped middle seat that also suffers from a lack of foot room due to a prominent transmission tunnel. That said, we expect the CX-3 would happily accommodate four adults provided their average height doesn’t exceed 175cm.
Engine and transmission
Powering our CX-3 is the 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine chosen by the vast majority of buyers.
It develops 110kW of power at 6000rpm and 195Nm of torque at 2800rpm, respective rises of 1kW and 3Nm. As our test car has all-wheel drive (not a popular option), it comes standard with a six-speed automatic transmission, but front-drive versions can be specified with a six-speed manual that costs $2000 less. There’s also an auto-only 1.8-litre turbo-diesel option that hardly anyone buys.
The equivalent Hyundai Kona comes with a punchy 1.6-litre turbo-petrol engine that has plenty of go and arguably sets a segment benchmark, but we didn’t feel held back by the little Mazda’s drivetrain.
Improvements to refinement make this latest CX-3 noticeably quieter and smoother to drive around town than before, but extend it on hills or under hard acceleration and things still get a bit buzzy. Considering the size of this car, it’s forgivable.
Mazda produces one of the best six-speed torque-converter automatics and our CX-3 was no exception, with quick and slick shifts and a calibration that barely puts a foot wrong in everyday driving.
In Sport mode, throttle response is noticeably sharper – it’s already pretty good in normal mode – and it holds onto each gear a bit longer. We found little reason to intervene on faster bends, while threading the Mazda through a number of sharper corners was more effective and pleasurable when using the logical and responsive manual tip-shift.
Insulation, body strength and equipment increases have made the facelifted CX-3 heavier, but the engine tweaks that resulted in those mild output increases have also enabled the official combined fuel consumption figure to remain at 6.7 litres per 100km. That said, our test revealed that real-world consumption is likely to be high eights or low nines, and we averaged 11.1L/100km around town. Not great for such a small vehicle.
Ride and handling
The CX-3 instantly feels nippy and engaging from behind the wheel. Even if you care little for driving, we’d argue that the eager, peppy demeanour Mazda engineers into its products makes every journey feel that bit more pleasurable.
Direct, almost go-kart-like steering and a consistency of this feeling across all control weights and actions provide a lovely point-and-squirt experience for the cut and thrust of urban driving while serving up satisfaction on a twisty hinterland road.
Without compromising this driver enjoyment, Mazda has made a number of revisions to the CX-3’s suspension set-up, steering and tyres in a quest for more comfort. And we’re glad to report that it has worked a treat.
Suburban potholes, concrete motorways and patchwork country lanes are not a problem for this car. In fact, the CX-3 feels incredibly settled and controlled, surface imperfections being dispatched with greater maturity and sophistication than some much larger cars.
Occupants are made aware of the most poorly maintained roads, but not uncomfortably so. Likewise, passengers are not unduly thrown around by direction changes, brisk acceleration or sharp braking. It’s deeply impressive stuff.
Being an all-wheel-drive example, our CX-3 was fitted with a more sophisticated De Dion rear axle instead of the torsion beam used in front-drive versions. Our experience of this set-up was of an impressively planted, stable feel on rippled and bumpy corner surfaces. Technically, a torsion beam would not perform as well in this type of environment.
During our test, Cyclone Oma was churning up the Queensland coast and the high winds it created had peppered our dynamic route of twisty country lanes with large chunks of tree litter. This enabled our CX-3’s agility to shine as we made numerous corrections, swerves and mid-corner line changes to avoid big twigs and dropped branches.
Although the Mazda’s brakes were a bit wooden and uninspiring around town, out here at higher speeds they proved effective and feelsome.
The cyclone hadn’t brought any rain, so the traction benefits of AWD were fairly moot as the new softer compound 18-inch Toyo tyres provided a great deal of grip, not to mention a large and entertaining breakaway window in which to get this nimble little car moving about.
Mazda’s reputation for building drivers’ cars certainly exists for good reason.
Safety and servicing
In 2015, ANCAP handed down a five-star rating for the CX-3, with an overall score of 36.44 out of 37. It got 15.44 out of 16 in the frontal offset test, a full 16 points in the side impact test and a perfect two out of two in the pole test. Whiplash protection and pedestrian protection were both judged ‘good’.
Mazda provides a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty but unlike a number of other brands, doesn’t include roadside assistance and charges from $99 per year for this cover.
Service intervals on the CX-3 Akari AWD petrol are every 12 months or 10,000km, alternating between $305 and $362. This does not include brake fluid (every 24 months or 40,000km at $65) or cabin air filter (every 40,000km at $86). Prices are correct at time of writing.
It’s easy to see why the Mazda CX-3 sells so well, and now there are even more reasons to want one. We were quickly won over, and even though it didn’t exactly fit well into family life, the appeal to singles, couples and empty-nesters is clear.
Put it this way; during our week with this Mazda, we regularly asked ourselves why – apart from badge snobbery – anyone would buy something like an Audi Q2 rather than a high-spec CX-3.
Hyundai Kona Highlander 1.6 T-GDi AWD (from $39,000 plus on-road costs)
It speaks volumes about Hyundai’s ambition that it can slap an almost $40K sticker on its small SUV. Mazda is arguably more of a value champion than its South Korean rival these days. With a cracking drivetrain, fun and funky demeanour, and amazing attention to detail inside and out, the Kona Highlander ably justifies its premium positioning.
Toyota C-HR Koba AWD (from $35,290 plus on-road costs)
Apart from the obvious styling departure inside and out, the C-HR is a very different Toyota that gets us excited about the Japanese giant’s future because it is so different in so many good ways. If you can get over the looks, we highly recommend you take a test drive.
Subaru XV 2.0i-S (from $35,240 plus on-road costs)
An excellent value-packed effort from Subaru with great on-board tech, a quality interior, heaps of space and some pleasing ride and dynamic qualities. Shame about the inexplicably small boot.
Honda HR-V VTi-LX (from $34,590 plus on-road costs)
Sensible, but still looks striking and remains good value. The HR-V offers clever practicality along with a perky driveline, nippy handling and a polished interior. The touchscreen is embarrassing, though.
Suzuki Vitara S Turbo 4WD (from $33,990 plus on-road costs)
Recently updated, the charismatic Vitara remains fun to drive, and the turbo-petrol driveline is a pleasure. Safety tech is a welcome addition on higher-spec grades, but the cabin is still low-rent.
Model release date: 1 August 2018
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