Properly compact SUVs: Are they the faddish selfie-sticks and man-buns of the car world, or the future of the small car?
Leader of the pack for design and dynamics is the in-demand Mazda CX-3, launched to widespread acclaim (and a Wheels comparo victory) earlier this year, so we’re fortunate to snaffle one for a few months to find out what it’s like to live with.
Choice is another area where the Japanese-built, Mazda 2-based, crossover shines, pummelling the competition by offering the option of petrol or diesel, front- or all-wheel drive, and manual or auto. We absolutely applaud Mazda for that.
No new Mazda has ever let me down, but a loose starter motor wire stopped the CX-3. Seems a rogue stick was the likely culprit.
Given that going AWD brings the preferred De Dion rear axle set-up (rather than the torsion beam arrangement of front-drivers) and that the $30,990 sTouring version (as supplied) is aimed at buyers seeking a bit of sporty spice for their snowfields sojourns, is it unreasonable to see the all-wheel-drive CX-3 as a pint-sized all-rounder for the masses?
To find out, AFH-711 was thrown in the deep end, first as one of a slew of cars in COTY contention, and then as the chase vehicle for an upcoming sports car comparo. Before handing the car over to its ultimate keeper, David Hassall, the task of driving on the shoot fell to me. All 2000-plus kilometres of it – from Melbourne to Omeo, then Corryong via Falls Creek, up to Australia’s highest town (Cabramurra in the Snowy Mountains) and back to Melbourne via Canberra. This certainly put the sTouring’s ‘Sport Touring’ claims to the test.
Initially, things looked stellar for the Mazda. The aggressive proportions, arguably the company’s best-resolved dashboard (virtually a straight lift from the 2, but with added glam), sumptuously supportive seats (despite the lack of lumbar adjustment), the perfect driving position, and lush leather facings for key touch points (namely the lovely steering wheel and gear knob). And everything is just so beautifully made.
However, that’s where the refinement sheen is its most lustrous.
The moment you push the start button, you’re accosted by noise. Whether warming up or under any moderate level of acceleration, the 109kW/192Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol unit is vociferous – too much so by mainstream standards, let alone premium ones. Part of the problem is that the SkyActiv-G’s power delivery feels flat until the tacho is swinging well past 4000rpm; it’s only then that the CX-3’s performance really comes on strong.
That said, the engine itself is pretty smooth while the six-speed auto’s shifts are ultra-slick, and the pleasingly sorted manual-mode shifter does make the most of the 2.0’s peaky character.
Keeping up with sports cars over deserted mountain roads is a recipe for ruining fuel economy, but the CX-3 shone; it refused to drink more than 10L/100km, and I had it as low as 7.2L/100km. Brilliant. And nor did the chase faze the steering (wonderfully involving), handling (remarkably poised and planted for a compact SUV) or brakes (surefooted four-wheel discs). It is in the chassis that the CX-3 feels most premium.
The busy ride quality is reminiscent of most big-wheeled German luxury SUVs with stiff suspension, and it’s accompanied by coarse-chip droning. I’d trade some of that high-speed cornering grip for the cheaper Maxx AWD equivalent’s comfier 215/60R16 tyres.
Ultimately, the long schlep along the smooth Hume Freeway took the edge off the ride and engine roar, highlighting the quality and depth of the likeable CX-3’s engineering. Warts and all, this is the most driver-focused compact SUV around today.
We hope a mostly urbane existence as a day-to-day commuter might alleviate some of that loudness and hardness. Over to you, Hass.
OUR CX-3 is the mid-range sTouring AWD petrol auto, which retails for $30,990 (plus $200 for our ‘Soul Red’ paint and $134 for floor mats). Included in the standard spec is a (class-first) head-up display, Mazda’s far more desirable sports instrumentation (prioritising the tacho as the sole analogue dial), automatic LED headlights, leather-like vinyl (dubbed Maztex), keyless entry and start, rain-sensing wipers and 18-inch alloy wheels wearing Toyo Proxes 215/50R18 rubber. Also present are satellite navigation (which proved utterly undependable), a rear camera with parking sensors and a BMW iDrive-style central controller for the sizeable stand-alone central screen.
Hass steps up to the plate and finds a willing partner.
First dates are exciting. Venturing into the unknown with an air of expectation tempered by the fear of being disappointed, though still coloured by an over-riding feeling of anticipation.
But even more exciting is the first sleepover. You’ve done all the ritual dances, felt each other out, worked out you want more, and suddenly it’s time to take the next big step. It’s delicious.
It’s the same with long-term test cars. You’ve given each other the once-over, checked out all the controls, worked out which buttons to push and when, realised that you must get to know this car better, and that means something more intimate than your regular commute.
That’s how it was after taking over the deep red Mazda CX-3 from Byron last month. We did the daily grind and I’d gone as far as I could to understand this dusky newcomer. It was time for the automotive equivalent of a night together.
One evening while it was still light we headed for the hills and beyond, out towards the Bunyip State Park, where I knew the roads would be quiet. Up hills and down again, sweeping through endless turns, dealing with the occasional switchback and racing back up to speed again.
Simple eye-socket vents work a treat, directing air more effectively than more common sliding vents.
To be honest, our first ‘date’ a few weeks earlier had not been too encouraging. I’d immediately been struck by road noise and engine harshness under load, common characteristics in cars from weight-obsessed Mazda. Subsequent drives – as so often is the case – lessened these issues because noise intrusion simply isn’t as noticeable when you fill the cabin with music.
Despite the extra weight of AWD, the 2.0-litre CX-3’s performance is sparkling, especially compared with the conceptually similar Renault Captur that preceded it in my garage. I never felt wanting for more.
I was also delighted with the auto’s gear-selection regime – it really was close to perfect, without the need to use Sport mode – the ESC barely intervened and there was no problem with left-foot braking (a major issue with most other makes these days). You want to trail-brake while gunning the throttle on exit? No problem. Clearly, Mazda’s software engineers know a thing or two about driving.
With the car’s sure-footed grip, breaking into mild understeer when you’ve overdone it slightly, those sweeping turns melded into one another like jelly, making brisk progress a breeze.
With very comfy seats, a compliant suspension with good bump control, effective ventilation system and sensible controls, it was like spending a night in a five-star hotel. Even though this is destined to be a relatively short relationship, this was a first sleepover to remember.
You can’t stop the music
After enduring a series of cars bereft of CD players – a trend I’m yet to embrace – I was thrilled to find one in the CX-3 because I have dozens of unplayed discs and the car is my place for quality listening time. I was therefore distraught when, after getting to play just one disc, the unit simply refused to read another. In classic computer style, though, a simple ‘reboot’ did the trick and we were grooving again on the return trip. Phew!
Declaration of support for the auto-loving public.
One topic that seems to separate me from my colleagues is the subject of manual gearboxes. While my fellow scribes wax lyrical about self-shifters and bemoan any new model that arrives without one, I’m a huge fan of modern automatics and actually prefer them by and large.
Don’t get me wrong; give me a race circuit or the opportunity for a quick fang on a challenging road and I’m all for a manual, but for regular driving on our increasingly clogged and overly regulated roads, I just don’t see the point of working a clutch and gearbox when an electronically controlled auto does it so well. They’re simply more efficient.
Recently I was lucky enough to spend a night with the editor’s Mazda MX-5 and, while the commute home did little to reveal its COTY-winning delights, an hour cruising (and cutting loose for a while) around the largely deserted and twisty mountain roads where I live showed what a joy such a pure sports car can be. And part of that joy was certainly snicking through the gears, reminding myself of the challenge and satisfaction that comes from a bit of heel-and-toe and double-declutching, even if it’s hardly necessary these days.
Nevertheless, I’m happy enough to be back in my CX-3 for the daily grind, appreciative of the clever electronics that seem to know exactly what gear it needs for any given situation. There’s rarely a moment I question its choices, and on those occasions a quick prod of the throttle is generally enough to rouse the little SUV from its slumber and quickly snap down a cog or two.
I remain constantly in awe of the computer logic that takes so much information – your driving style, throttle inputs, braking, lateral body movement, inclines and declines – and selects the gear you would have if it was a manual. How can you argue with that?
What’s more, it frees my left foot to use on the brake, so I can balance the brake and throttle, making progress smooth and jerk-free (though Ponch and co are probably calling me exactly that right now). Some cars don’t like you using the brake and throttle at the same time and will almost shut down to ponder it, but the Mazda doesn’t mind at all.
About the only thing I don’t appreciate with the Mazda’s six-speed auto is the Sport function, which I find too aggressive. It holds the gears too long, so the willing engine revs its head off while you wait for it to just calm down. It’s probably ideal for a fang in the mountains, but who wants to do that in a little SUV?
Four by four for four
Went out to dinner with friends and of course I drove. They were disappointed I didn’t still have the Hyundai Genesis I’d been driving the previous week, but that was nothing compared with the disappointment they felt squeezed into the back seat of the CX-3. For the return trip my tall mate moved into the front, but the girls said they still had to angle sideways to fit their legs in. Not what you’d expect of a high-riding SUV, even one as small as this. Perhaps they should just take it like a man and spread ‘em!
We farewell our long-term Mazda CX-3 with a long burn to Phillip Island
The time arrived for our CX-3 long-termer to leave the Wheels Garage and I realised I hadn’t given her a decent trip away from town, which is no way to treat a guest. So I arranged a long-weekend escape to finally give the poor girl a decent canter.
Phillip Island in autumn can be a lottery, so we covered all the bases – thongs, shorts, hats, overcoats and umbrellas. But the weather was perfectly benign, with just the lightest of showers – enough to make me appreciate the automatic wipers but well short of what would be required for this car’s on-demand all-wheel drive to really prove its worth.
Now I’m not saying we’re the lightest of packers, but all the crap for a long weekend away didn’t take long to fill the CX-3’s boot and a fair portion of the back seat. Having also lived with a Renault Captur for six months last year, I already had serious questions the whole baby SUV genre.
Surely the biggest benefit of an SUV is extra space, but I doubt you would get any more stuff into a CX-3 than you would a Mazda 3, which is not much bigger. And for the price of this car, you could get a sporty SP25 that would deliver better performance, greater comfort and comparable economy. SUVs offer a higher seating position for better vision, but in these baby SUVs you still struggle to see past the bigger SUVs and dual-cabs you inevitably find yourself behind, so what’s the point? And if you want to carry stuff, what’s wrong with a conventional wagon?
First time living with head-up display and I’m a convert; it proved useful and not at all distracting.
Still, people are voting with their feet and there’s no turning back on the SUV trend. Which Mazda has clearly accepted. It has produced arguably the best vehicle in its segment and is reaping the rewards with ever-increasing sales. Barely a year after being launched here, there seem to be CX-3s everywhere – usually in the same handsome Soul Red metallic paint you see here.
Make no mistake, this is a beautifully built car. It feels solid and there hasn’t been a single problem or even a squeak in almost six months and 5000km (on top of our gruelling COTY test week). The leather appointments in this sTouring spec are beautifully stitched and every internal surface has a quality feel.
On our long, final journey together, the seats proved to be perfectly supportive and comfortable for both driver and passenger, the auto climate control did its thing and the six-speaker sound system provided sweet sounds from the iPod. If only the sound system was a bit easier to operate in general; it took months to get used to the i-controller system and I’d still much prefer a series of dash buttons so that changing radio stations or frequency took just a single press.
The long trip also provided the benefit of a supple ride, though it’s a bit bouncy, especially at the front. On the other hand, the highway runs emphasised the fact that the electric steering is overly dead and heavy at cruising speeds (a criticism I would apply to most modern cars).
I remain impressed by the six-speed automatic, but not the harsh 2.0-litre petrol engine, and I’d have liked a wide-angle driver-side mirror to see better when merging and changing lanes.
I won’t miss the CX-3, but I also wouldn’t hesitate to recommend one to anyone who has decided they really need this type of vehicle. Personally, I would prefer a Mazda 3 (as my parents and daughter have done) or, if I had to have an SUV, the bigger CX-5 (as my son has done). Yes, we’re a bit of a Mazda family, and the CX-3’s overall feel reminded me why. There’s a good reason why the brand is so strong in Australia.
Just stop the idle chatter
One of my pet hates these days is idle-stop, not because I don’t appreciate improved economy but because I feel it’s an annoyance designed for a decimal-point benefit on a rolling road rather than in real-world driving. In the CX-3 you have to turn the darn thing off every time you drive it, which I do because I hate it. Still, I left it on for a couple of tanks of regular commuting to see what the benefit was – not exactly scientific, I know – and the result was actually a decimal point increase in consumption. I rest my case.
Pushing the envelope
Another pet hate shared by many motorists is how carmakers don’t allow the distance-to-empty readout to run down beyond about 50km. That’s annoying; some 30 years ago I had a Nissan Skyline (great car) with a locally made trip computer that took you to 0km to go, at which point the car stuttered. To Mazda’s credit, the CX-3 also hangs right in there, though my confidence evaporated as the range got down to only 3km – even though I knew it was still four litres short of the tank capacity. I guess they’re still playing safe.