Mazda CX-3 3

The story of the B-segment crossover market over the past five years has been fascinating, to say the least. Manufacturers have long presaged the arrival of small, pseudo-rugged hatchbacks, as marketers combine the popular supermini and crossover to create what they think is the the perfect product. This culminated with the launch of the first one, the Nissan Juke, in 2010 – critics balked at the extroverted styling, but buyers loved it, and sales far outstripped Nissan’s cautious estimates.

Since then, plenty of rivals have emerged to capitalise on its success, particularly in Europe, where demand has skyrocketed in a relatively short time. Over in Malaysia, however, the situation was rather different. Here, the Juke was never sold, and while a couple of its competitors – the Peugeot 2008 and the Ford EcoSport – did make it to our shores, both failed to make a significant impact in the marketplace.

If this review’s introduction sounds familiar, you’re not imagining things – it was more or less what I had written about the Honda HR-V I drove early this year. With its impressive practicality and decent driving manners, that car held promise, and we predicted that it would be a runaway success the moment it set foot on our shores. And it was, amassing an astonishing 18,027 bookings and selling 7,374 units as of July this year (just five months after going on sale), with the waiting list stretching half a year at one point.

Today, carmakers are scrambling to take it on; some from above (like the cheaper Mazda CX-5 GL and Kia Sportage 2WD) and some from the same class (like Europe’s bestseller, the Renault Captur). But none have held quite so much potential to topple the HR-V as the new Mazda CX-3 – Hiroshima’s latest looks fantastic, and has a spec list that its biggest rival can’t possibly compete. But when push comes to shove, will it actually be able to grab the Honda by the horns? We try it out in Melbourne to see if it has what it takes.

Mazda CX-3 4

Looking at it superficially, the CX-3 has it in the bag as far as we’re concerned. As usual, the design references Mazda’s well-received Kodo styling language, but it takes a slightly different tack this time around. The lines are just a little bit more angular, particular around the trapezoidal headlights; it’s a bit of a departure from the organic curves of its siblings.

These lights help give the car a sharp gaze, emphasised by optional LED projector units lined with LED daytime running lights – those that derided the Malaysian-market Mazda 2‘s halogen reflectors and yellow DRLs will be pleased to know that our CX-3s are specced with the higher-end units. They flank the signature five-point grille, and sit above deep diagonal gashes in the bumper that house the indicators and LED fog lights – if Mazda was aiming to give the car a shot of visual drama, it’s certainly succeeded.

In typical Kodo fashion, a sharp line runs from the headlights, moves up over the wheel arches and then swoops downwards along the flanks, giving the CX-3 the same muscular look that defines the rest of Mazda’s later offerings. The edgy aesthetic has been enhanced by wheels measuring up to a sizeable 18 inches in diameter – we’re getting the largest ones seen here, in a five-spoke dual-tone design.

Moving along, the trendy blacked-out D-pillars creates the impression of a “floating roof,” neatly differentiating it visually from the bigger CX-5. The whole thing is bookended by slim almond-shaped tail lights (also LEDs for our market), a low-mounted number plate recess and rugged-looking black plastic mouldings all around.

Internationally, the CX-3 is available in a variety of colours, including the Dynamic Blue Mica that you see in these pictures as well as a new Ceramic Metallic, with the latter having a bright sheen supposedly inspired by porcelain; sadly these colours will not be available in Malaysia. Instead, our truncated palette consists of Mazda’s signature Soul Red, Deep Crystal Blue Pearl, Meteor Grey Mica and Jet Black Mica.

Mazda 2 owners will feel completely at home inside – the entire dashboard and centre console has been carried over, so it retains the same cockpit-inspired design. This means the small three-spoke steering wheel is flanked by twin circular vents, while the passenger area is a more minimalist affair with a slim horizontal vent running across and sparse switchgear.

Some people may not like such similarity with what is usually regarded as a lesser model (particularly with the HR-V’s bespoke design compared to the City and Jazz), but seeing as how much posher the Mazda 2 feels compared to the rest of its peers – especially with the supple leather-covered dashboard and the use of generally more premium trim and materials all around – we don’t see much of a problem with it.

It does appear, however, that the designers have spent a bit more time to make the CX-3’s cabin just a little bit more special. There are some lovely new touches like the gloss red highlights around the circular air vents and some deep red leather trim on the arm rests – apparently the stylists looked at over 100 different samples before settling with the right one – and Bermaz confirms that they’ll be included in our cars.

Mazda CX-3 14

The standout white leather upholstery – with plush Alcantara centre panels and red piping – on some models, however, won’t be making it to our market. The conservative tastes of local buyers (who will find lighter upholsteries more difficult to clean out and remain looking new) have forced Bermaz to stick to safer black leather instead. Still, it’s no big loss, as the CX-3 is still a wonderful place to be in.

One thing the car has inherited from the 2 that isn’t that great is the lack of space inside. It feels a little claustrophobic thanks to the steeply-rising beltline, and although there’s a bit more rear legroom than its cramped sibling (despite the unchanged wheelbase), it’s still not what you’d call commodious in here – particularly with the low-slung roofline cutting into headroom a fair bit. The shortage in room inside is made all the more conspicuous next to the spacious HR-V, which feels like a ballroom in comparison.

The gulf between the two is made all the more vast when you bring luggage space into the consideration. The CX-3 swallows 350 litres, extendable to 1,260 litres when you fold the 60:40-split rear seats flat. That’s actually not too bad, but it’s dwarfed by the 437 litre boot of the HR-V; funnily enough, however, it does trump the Honda’s seats-down 1,032 litres by a considerable 228 litres.

And while the CX-3 has a dual-level false floor which increases luggage space when lowered, it’s not enough to counter the Honda’s immensely practical Magic Seats, which tip up to provide more useable space behind the front seats for taller objects. The Mazda’s boot opening is an issue, too; although the load bay is plenty broad, the lip is a little high and makes loading items just that little bit harder than in the HR-V.

Part of the lack of space is due to the dimensions. At 4,275 mm long, 1,765 mm wide and 1,550 mm tall, the CX-3 is 19 mm shorter, 7 mm narrower and a whole 55 mm lower than the HR-V; its 2,570 mm wheelbase is also 40 mm shorter. Against the Mazda 2 on which it’s based, it’s 215 mm longer, 70 mm wider and 50 mm taller, with the same wheelbase.

Fully-imported from Japan, the CX-3 will only be available in a single variant at launch (slated for early December), a 2.0 litre petrol two-wheel drive model. Indicative pricing appears to have taken a decisive swing upwards since the previous RM120k estimate – the new ballpark is now quoted to be somewhere between the RM130k-RM135k range, which now puts it well beyond even the range-topping RM118,229 HR-V 1.8 V. It’s ironic that Mazda’s own RM125,766 base-spec CX-5 GL will undercut its smaller sibling by a fair margin.

To offset some of the sting, Bermaz has decided to deck out the CX-3 to near-full specification. Apart from the aforementioned LED lighting, 18-inch wheels and leather upholstery, our cars will also come with keyless entry, a head-up display, an MZD Connect infotainment system with seven-inch touchscreen and Commander Control knob, a reverse camera, automatic air-conditioning, paddle shifters and even a sunroof.

As for safety equipment, we’ll unfortunately miss out on the i-ActivSense suite of active safety features, including Smart City Brake Support (SCBS), Lane Departure Warning (LDW), blind spot monitoring, Rear Cross Traffic Alert (RCTA) and High Beam Control (HBC), presumably in a bid to prevent the already-ballooning pricing from escalating further. The good news, however, is that we’ll still get six airbags, Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) and Isofix child seat anchors, as expected at this price.

Under the bonnet resides a 2.0 litre SkyActiv-G high-compression, direct-injected petrol four-pot; outputs differ depending on the region, but the Australian-market model we drove produced 146 hp at 6,000 rpm and 192 Nm of torque at 2,800 rpm. That’s a tad bit down on the same mill in our Mazda 3 – in “high-output” tune it dishes out 162 hp at 6,000 rpm and 210 Nm at 4,000 rpm.

There’s no official fuel consumption figure for Malaysian-spec CX-3s just yet, but the Australians quote 6.1 litres per 100 km combined for a two-wheel drive 2.0 litre petrol model. Our cars won’t be fitted with i-ELOOP capacitor-based regenerative braking system, but they will feature i-stop automatic engine start-stop.

There’s also the option of the Mazda 2’s 1.5 litre “Clean Diesel” SkyActiv-D low-compression turbodiesel that develops 103 hp at 4,000 rpm and 270 Nm from 1,500 to 2,500 rpm, 20 Nm more than the same mill in the 2; combined fuel economy is rated at 5.1 litres per 100 km. Although Bermaz has not actually confirmed the local availability of the oil burner, the company has already said it will bring in diesel models to its lineup starting from next year, so it’s definitely still in the air.

As with all newer Mazda models sold in Malaysia, the CX-3 features a six-speed SkyActiv-Drive automatic gearbox as the sole transmission option – like the Mazda 2, it features a new drive selection switch to engage the more responsive Sport mode. Front-wheel drive is standard fare here as well, but there’s also an option of all-wheel drive in other markets; the latter adds an extra 80 kg.

Mazda CX-3 41

Beneath the handsome looks, the CX-3 is built on a SkyActiv-Body which, like on the Mazda 2, utilises straight frame structures, ring structures around the body, increased bonding efficiency and optimal thickness of high-tensile steel sheets to reduce weight while maintaining a high level of stiffness and crashworthiness.

While Bermaz has yet to quote an official weight figure, the Australian-market car weighs 1,226 kg with the same powertrain and in near-identical mid-table 2WD sTouring spec – that’s nominally lighter than the HR-V’s 1,249 kg, but bear in mind that the Mazda has a slightly larger engine.

Peer underneath and you’ll find a conventional MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension setup – the AWD model features a slightly different version of the latter, with the beam curving upwards to accommodate the added propshaft and rear differentials. Mazda has made a few tweaks under the skin compared to the 2, including mounting the torsion beam higher up to reduce rear impact shock.

The test route is fairly straightforward – starting in metropolitan Melbourne, we would head out on a short highway stretch, then turn off onto some country roads to the beautiful Yarra Valley. After that, the CX-3 would be put to its paces on tight, winding roads through the woods, and then it’s back on the highway into the city.

Mazda CX-3 8

In terms of outright pace, the CX-3 does not feel quite as quick off the line as the HR-V – whose CVT’s brisk step-off response borders on being jumpy – despite the extra six horses. No, the Mazda’s acceleration from a standstill is leisurely at best, but as you begin to stretch it out, you do find it has the legs over the Honda, which starts to feel strangled after the initial lurch.

A lot of that sluggishness comes from the automatic transmission, which favours higher ratios (for the interest of better fuel economy) and doesn’t seem to respond well to a mild flexing of the right foot. Only flooring the throttle elicits a kickdown from the gearbox, although at least then response is instantaneous.

Of course, you can use the manual mode to shift gears yourself – either using the sequential shifter (complete with race-style pull-to-upshift-push-to-downshift pattern) or the steering wheel-mounted gearshift paddles (unavailable on the test car) – and it’s here that the transmission sheds its eco-friendly façade and lets its sporting stripes shine through. Although there is a bit of delay when you ask for the next ratio, the shifts themselves are quick and buttery smooth, and the ‘box blips the throttle on downshifts.

Better yet, in spirited driving, leave the auto to its own devices and instead flick the drive selector switch downwards to select Sport mode. This seems to give the transmission a double shot of espresso – in this mode, it hangs onto gears up to the redline and downshifts for you as you hit the brakes. It’s super addictive, and takes the guesswork out of gear selection on unfamiliar roads.

Mazda CX-3 7

Our only issue is that Sport mode is quite a bit too aggressive in normal everyday driving, and we wish for a more useable sort of middle setting the gearbox defaults to on startup, quite like the Comfort setting on newer BMWs that sits between Sport and Eco Pro modes. At least we have no qualms about the engine itself – it’s a zingy, responsive mill, with strong mid-range punch and an energetic zeal as you reach the redline. Makes a rorty noise when do take it up there, too.

Speaking of noise, the engine does put out a slight diesel-like rattle at idle, but it softens down quite nicely at a cruise. There’s little wind noise at speed, too, but instead the CX-3 fills the eardrums with a great deal of roar from the 215/50-section Toyo Proxes R40 tyres, even on Australia’s marble smooth highways. A consequence of fitting such big wheels, perhaps.

Fortunately, the 18-inch hoops provide few other downsides, particularly in terms of ride. Yes, it’s firm, but it’s not what you’d call uncomfortable either – the premium-feeling damping takes a lot of shock out of some of the bumps we encountered on back roads. It’s certainly a lot more bearable than the HR-V on similarly large wheels, whose stiff, uncompromising ride was uncomfortably close to being undrivable.

Mazda CX-3 6

Attacking the heavily-wooded twisties leading out of Yarra Valley, the CX-3 acquitted itself with aplomb. There’s a real fluidity in the way it handles, thanks to the superb damping. Turn-in is sharp, and while there is a little bit of body roll, the chassis otherwise manages to keep body movements under control. It does skip over mid-corner bumps, however, perhaps exposing the unsophisticated torsion beam rear suspension.

Elsewhere, there’s plenty of grip, with the car washing neatly into gentle understeer at the limit. The electric power steering is quick, incisive and weighty, but an almost complete lack of feel – as is the case with most such systems nowadays – does put a damper on things somewhat. At least the four-wheel disc brakes are solid, with a firm, progressive feel through the pedal and impressive stability under hard stops.

To summarise, the Mazda CX-3 is a great little package – it’s a really fun car to hustle around in, and the handsome good looks and the upscale-feeling interior do make for a pretty compelling proposition. However, the less-than-ideal practicality and the prospect of steep pricing mean that, unfortunately, we’re not convinced the car will steal many buyers – most of which just want an affordable, practical, good-looking family hauler to go from A to B – from the HR-V just yet.

Mazda CX-3 5

Of course, past experience has shown that Mazda buyers traditionally haven’t shied away from Bermaz’s typically upmarket pricing (although the CKD Mazda 3’s big drop in price has certainly brought a welcome influx of buyers). Neither were they bothered by the cramped cabins of recent offerings – the 2,3 and 6 have all been criticised for their lack of space, and yet there’s still a ready and willing market for them.

Those who will buy the CX-3, we suspect, won’t be doing it based on practical reasons or any sort of value proposition over its rivals. They will do it because the previously quirky styling of the HR-V will look unbelievably dull next to this; they’ll do it because of the notion of driving enjoyment Mazda will sell to them, which, in our experience, is backed up by real substance. The high kit count will also help, of course.

In the end, the CX-3 is a greatly-talented machine which should provide stiff competition to the Honda HR-V, despite the decidedly premium pricing. Mark down the period around early December – we’re braced for a strong two-way fight ahead.