During my three weeks with the new Mazda CX-3, I kept thinking that it reminded me of something else. The penny dropped so slowly, however, that, defying gravity, it seemed for long periods to be suspended in descent.
My first thought was that, despite being called a crossover, this stylish, purposeful compact car was more like a sports estate car of the past – a Lancia HPE, a Honda Accord Aerodeck, a Reliant Scimitar or a Volvo E1800 – than a blockish, sturdy SUV like a Yeti or a Qashqai. The CX-3 has been compared with Nissan’s Juke but, while they might both measure about the same in track and wheelbase, that comparison says nothing about the CX-3’s higher performance orientation and its focus on driving engagement.
The CX-3 makes its intentions clear with its kicked-up waist line, rising over the rear wheel arches. From the Lister-Jaguars of the 1950s, through the TVR Griffith 500 to the present Jaguar F-Type, that mounting line in bodywork has always been a classic sign of higher intent, of a lifting out of the ordinary. It also raises the spirits of the onlooker, with the anticipation of more lively performance.[the_grid name=”Mazda-CX-3-review”]
In the Mazda CX-3, the line that rises backwards from the B pillar also crosses with a crease that dives down through the panels and is emphasised by reinforced wheel arches and a running strip at the base of the doors. It also meets a sharply declining roofline. The combined effect is of tension and muscularity as well as sporting purpose.
Even so, the CX-3 is not only the most engaging crossover to drive that has yet appeared: it’s actually more like another class of car.These qualities come together in the driving experience. With fast-twitch settings in its suspension, the CX-3’s ride is alert to the point of being unnerving over uneven surfaces. Turn-in is similarly taut in the steering, though an edge of feedback is absent. Gearchange in the six-speed manual version I borrowed is snicky. Heeling and toeing is possible, if awkward. I like to set the steering wheel at the farthest extent of its reach and the highest point of its rake; but this position in the CX-3 completely blocked my view of the heads-up display for speed – an uncharacteristic oversight for Mazda engineers. Even so, the CX-3 is not only the most engaging crossover to drive that has yet appeared: it’s actually more like another class of car.
The comparison with sporting estate cars or earlier eras only applies to a limited extent. All of the cars that came to my mind were, of course, three door coupes whereas the CX-3 has five doors. They all contained little or no space in the rear seats whereas I was able to take my family of four + granny for a 100-mile round-trip family visit over the Christmas holidays, which meant my wife was in the rear seats with our children. It may not have been as spacious as a Skoda Superb but my wife managed to go to sleep on the way home without waking up to find her limbs paralysed with pins and needles.
Like those sporting estate, the CX-3 has restricted rear three-quarter visibility and limited space for luggage. The load space under the rear hatch is high-lipped and shallow but, even so, you could cram two full size suitcases in there. It is also true that, like some of those old lovelies, the CX-3 has family similarities with an out-and-out sports car.
The penny finally entered the last stages of its drop when I realised that the interior of the CX-3 reminded me in many ways of the new (and wonderful) MX-5 two-seater. The instrument display differs but the secondary controls and the steering-wheel are largely the same. At £21035, my two-litre 120 bhp SatNav CX-3 was near the top of the range (which goes from £17595 – £23395) so its half leather/half suede upholstery had red contrast stitching that was like the MX-5 and I’ve got a feeling the door releases are the same.
When I asked Mazda, they replied that “Everything we now build has the feel of a sports car”but agreed that “the steering position for a corner would be the same in a CX-3 and an MX-5. The gearbox has also been engineered to feel the same as an MX-5.”
That did it. Penny in place. If it’s possible to buy a five-seater compact crossover that drives like an MX-5 – which was not only my sports car of the year in 2015 but bloody nearly my outright car of the year – that’s more than good enough for me.
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