Mazda CX-3 2.0L review 2

Standing out from the crowd in the marketplace is truly a challenge of the tallest order. And it gets even tougher when the mass majority has accepted something as the norm, the no-brainer choice, the go-to product. This means you’ll need to convince the masses that your product can match or deliver something different from what competitors are currently offering.

This is especially true for the crossover market here in Malaysia. No second guesses as to who’s the king of that hill. The Honda HR-V has been dominating the sales charts since it made its debut way back in February 2015. Since that time, it has fended itself from various forms of competition that have been looking to draw buyers away from its practical allure.

Here’s another, and it has been touted as the main rival to the HR-V. Based on the comments posted on our site, we know that there are many who have been eagerly awaiting its arrival here. This is it then, the Mazda CX-3, which comes all the way from Mazda’s Hiroshima plant (CBU Japan), and which made its launch debut here back in December 2015.

Currently, the sole 2.0L variant offered to Malaysians retails for RM131,218 (on-the-road without insurance), a whooping RM13,285 more than the RM117,933 (OTR without insurance) HR-V 1.8L V, though there are murmurs that the model could be locally-assembled (CKD) in the future, just like the HR-V, which should make its price more competitive.

So, it’s late to the party (from overseas), and comes with a price tag that exceeds its closest rival. Certainly doesn’t sound like a promising start, does it? Even so, does the Mazda CX-3 bring something to the table to make it a stand out from the crowd?

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If you’re talking looks, then yes. Certainly not one to shy away from the camera, or a pair of eyeballs, the CX-3 is quite the looker, especially in this Soul Red Metallic paintjob. If Mazda’s trademark colour isn’t to your liking, you get to choose from four other colours as well – Crystal White Pearl, Jet Black, Meteor Grey and Deep Crystal Blue. As is the case with current Mazda models, Kodo is word of the day when it comes to the CX-3’s design.

At the front, the wide five-point grille receives a chrome frame surround, which extends to the pair of signature headlights. The headlights themselves are slimmer than those found on the 2, and are of the LED variety, as opposed to the halogen reflectors of the 2. They come with an automatic on/off function, adaptive front lighting system that “lights up” a corner while you take it, auto-levelling and LED daytime running lights. Just below the main headlights, you’ll find the LED fog lamp and signal indicators, and below that, a lower matte black trim piece that extends down the sides of the car.

The Kodo influence on the CX-3 is also seen on the strong defining body line that traces its way from the front of the hood to above the wheel arches, over the side mirrors (with indicators), and down the sides of the car. This sporty and active outlook is further accompanied by matte black wheel arch trim pieces originating at the front , surrounding the large 18-inch five twin-spoke alloy wheels (fitted with 215/50R18 Toyo Proxes R40 tyres). They are joined by a matte black trim piece with silver accents located near the door sills to the link the front and rear.

That’s not all. When viewed from the side, you’ll spot the CX-3’s “floating roof” design, with a blacked out C-pillar to create the illusion, a nice touch. You’ll also spot comparatively smaller side windows that lend a low-profile look to the crossover. In terms of dimensions, the car measures 4,275 mm long, 1,765 mm wide, 1,535 mm tall, with a wheelbase of 2,570 mm. By comparison, the HR-V measures 4,294 mm long, 1,772 mm wide, 1,605 mm tall, with a wheelbase of 2,610 mm. That makes the CX-3 a much smaller car when compared.

Moving on to the shapely rear, more LEDs are located within the tail lights, themselves slimmer than those on the 2. The small rear hatch hosts a release button for easy access to the boot, and the reverse camera. The earlier mentioned matte black plastic trim piece tnow comes full circle here, containing the rear fog lamp/reflector and two chromed exhaust tips.

The CX-3 certainly is quite striking, and to my eyes, looks better when compared to the HR-V . It also features enough visual distinctions on the outside to not be called a jumped up Mazda 2. The interior though, speaks a different tone. Step inside, and you’ll think you’ve just entered a 2. This is unlike the HR-V, which gets a more bespoke interioreven with its origins traced to the Honda Jazz hatchback.

The layout in the CX-3 is nigh identical to the 2, from the position of the buttons to the air-con vents, steering wheel, instrument cluster, heads-up display, faux carbon-fibre bits and even the seats. At this point, you may feel a little short changed given the amount you have paid. However, that realisation will come to pass once you start looking a little deeper, and you’ll soon get a grasp of where the premium you’ve paid has gone into.

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In the driver’s seat, you’ll realise that your body is coming into contact with leather-suede combo upholstery instead of the leather-fabric ones from the 2. The same is said for the other passengers (front, rear) in the car as well. Additionally, small applications of suede are found on the doors as well, along with a gunmetal trim piece near the door handle, akin to that on the Mazda 6.

Next, the steering wheel (with paddle shifters) has gained a few additional buttons to control the car’s cruise control function. Other functions gained here are automatic wipers and lights. Meanwhile, the seven-inch coloured MZD Connect touchscreen infotainment unit is unchanged from the 2, along with the same single-zone, three-dial automatic air-con system.

Tracing your way down the centre console, which houses the Commander Dial linked to the MZD system, you’ll spot knee bolsters that are made of soft-touch materials wrapped with red leather instead of black ones found in the 2, The same trim piece can be found on the door handles, along with gunmetal door handles from the larger facelifted Mazda 6.

Look above and you’ll find a place to stow your sunglasses, and if you’d like to invite some sunlight in, the controls for the sunroof too. The sunroof comes with a one-touch open function, but not the other way round, strangely. It is also something that can’t be found on the Honda HR-V, unless you buy one in Thailand.

Under the hood, you’ll find a 2.0 litre SkyActiv-G petrol engine that outputs 154 hp at 6,000 rpm and 204 Nm of torque at 2,800 rpm. Direct injection and Mazda’s i-Stop engine idling stop system are all present here to encourage efficiency. By comparison, the HR-V’s smaller capacity 1.8 litre SOHC i-VTEC engine, churns out 142 hp and 172 Nm.

The SkyActiv-G engine is mated to a SkyActiv-Drive six-speed automatic gearbox, sending drive exclusively to the front wheels. Through the drive selector located near the gear selector, the gearbox can engage its Sports mode that holds the gear for a longer period. Alternatively, you can assume control with the manual mode, cycling between gear using the selector or paddle shifters.

On the safety side of things, the CX-3’s suite doesn’t leave you wanting, and is pretty comprehensive. Here, you get DSC electronic stability control, traction control and ABS with EBD and BA all standard. The crossover also gets the same number of airbags as the 1.8L HR-V V, six (dual frontal, side and curtain), along with hill launch assist and emergency stop signal are also part of the package. No i-ActivSense suite (Smart City Brake System, Rear View Monitoring, Lane Departure Warning etc.) here, as it may have pushed the price point even higher.

Now that you’ve gotten up to speed with the specifications of the Mazda CX-3, it’s now time to answer a few questions. Number one, what’s it like to drive? Number two, what’s it like to live with? And the most important question of all, how does it compare to its rivals, chief among which is the Honda HR-V?

Well, Mazda has been hard at work promoting its new campaign, “Be a Driver.” Naturally, the CX-3’s main purpose is to cater to the driver and provide him or her with a good time behind the wheel. This driver-focused approach is very apparent when you sit in the car, with most of the controls placed close by and within easy reach. While this bodes well to lend a “cockpit” feel, it certainly feels like a snug fit.

However, there is a lot more headroom here when compared to the 2 (trust me, I own one), so it does feel a little bit roomier from a vertical standpoint. This is due to the increased height of 1,535 mm against the 2’s 1,495 mm (sedan)/1,470 mm (hatchback). As for human cargo, there is adequate headroom at the back for regular-sized adults, although some might be left wanting for legroom, should you have a long-legged driver and passenger up front.

The packaging of the CX-3’s interior also doesn’t allow for many everyday items like your SmartTag, access card and keys to be stored in one centralised area due to the limited stowage space because there simply isn’t a large central stowage space that you can just chuck items in, unlike that big hole in the HR-V’s centre console.

As a result, you may need to cleverly organise your items in whatever stowage area is available that makes it easy to reach for them if required. One such spot can be found just ahead of the gear shifter. However, should you plug in a USB stick for your songs while using the 12 V/120 W power point to charge up your phone, that space is diminished. Alternatively, you could reassign the cupholders in the centre console for storage duties, with your bottled drinks now being placed at holders located at the door instead. There is also a small slot just beyond the cupholders, although it is quite a reach to get items from there.

At the back, the CX-3’s boot space is rated at 350 litres, which is significantly less than the 437 litres on the HR-V. However, that figure jumps to 1,260 litres when the 60:40 rear split-folding seats are folded flat, exceeding the HR-V’s 1,032 litres. Although it boasts a larger volume, even with its smaller dimensions, the CX-3 still loses out the practicality contest against the HR-V thanks to its rival’s Magic Seats and various configurations.

Where the Magic Seats can be folded down or up easily, the CX-3’s seats will only fold down, so if you’re thinking of transporting potted plants in it, make sure they’re short ones. On the plus side, the boot lip is positioned nicely to allow for bulky items to enter and exit the car without excessive straining required. Also, the boot is lined with nifty coil mats that are easy to keep clean, a nice touch.

So, practicality isn’t the CX-3’s strongest suit. However, it makes up for it with impressive driving dynamics. Although the 2.0 litre SkyActiv-G engine is nearly as powerful as the one found in the larger CX-5, it propels less heft, with a kerb weight of just 1,211 kg. Off the line starts may be a little sluggish but once it get going though, the crossover is certainly pretty brisk. Power delivery is smooth and the engine does deliver a pretty exciting exhaust note as well if you really floor it.

The SkyActiv-Drive six-speed ‘box responds works well when left to its own devices for the daily city run, though it is a little sluggish in the lower gears, with more favour being placed in the higher, fuel-saving ratios. To overcome this, you can engage the car’s Sport mode, which makes the transmission hold onto a gear longer, and shifting down quicker at the slightest provocation of the accelerator pedal. However, it is certainly not something you’d use on the daily drive, as it is quite aggressive.

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Paddle shifters are also at your disposal, allowing for temporary override of gear selection in auto mode, or total override in manual mode. The car however, will step in if it feels that your control of the transmission isn’t in sync with you the vehicle’s speed. If for instance you’re cruising in sixth gear and suddenly decide to depress the accelerator completely, the car will downshift a few gears on its own without requiring your input. It does the same as you’re approaching a stop and forget to downshift.

Through the corners, the MacPherson struts (front) and torsion beam (rear) suspension setup on the CX-3 is very competent to keep the crossover planted through the bends. Turn-ins are sharp with minimal body roll, and even though the steering is electrically assisted, it isn’t devoid of feel. As you hit the raggedy edge though, the car does exhibit some mild understeer. However, I doubt you’d want to hit the limit all the time, nor do I think it is a necessity for a good time behind the wheel.

Simply put, you don’t have to go absurdly fast to enjoy the car. I suppose this is what Mazda’s “Be a driver” campaign is all about. In essence, it allows anyone to jump into a Mazda, and drive up to the best of their abilities, with the car ensuring that they have a good time and a smile on their face, regardless if they’re taking a corner at 60 km/h or more. It certainly is something that needs to be tried to be believed in all Mazda cars.

However, not everyone is going to go on a drive along Malaysia’s B-roads daily. More confined to city driving duties, the car has pretty good visibility, in spite of the small windows. Blind spots are easily within sight, and the side mirrors are certainly much larger than that on the 2 as well. As it the case with other cars, the CX-3 also needs to cope with the daily occurrences on Malaysian roads, where hitting a bumpy patch of road is nearly as common as traffic.

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While the suspension might be geared towards supplying driving fun, it does tend to feel a tad firm as a result. It isn’t bone-breaking uncomfortable though, as the CX-3 does stay pretty compliant to dampen effects of road irregularities, maybe slightly better than the HR-V, which shares the same suspension setup. I do get the feeling that maybe, with slightly smaller alloy wheels and thicker rubbers, it will help soften the ride further, although when they look that good…I think I can compromise.

On a day-to-day basis, the CX-3 does come equipped with some nice features that makes driving more convenient. The LED headlights provide excellent illumination and helps to light up a corner as you turn in, and there is a automatic function for the lights and wipers as well. The heads-up display fitted means you don’t have to peer down at the instrument cluster to see you current speed. Its functionality is also linked to the cruise control function, and if you have the RM1,270 option navigation SD card installed, will display turn-by-turn instructions as well.

There are some features that I would have liked to have seen on the CX-3. Unlike the HR-V, there isn’t an automatic brake hold function in the CX-3, so you’re going to have to do the “put in N, pull handbrake” routine at long stops at the traffic lights. Also, an auto-dimming rearview mirror would be helpful for night-time driving, especially when you have a car behind you that’s been illegally fitted with lights that are as bright as the sun itself.

For those concerned about how thirsty the CX-3 is, throughout my time with the car, I managed an average combined (city and highway) fuel economy rating of about seven litres per 100 km, according to the trip computer at the time. However, frequent highway travellers can find that number being reduced by a significant amount, if you’re careful with your accelerator.

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In summary, the Mazda CX-3 is a great crossover. It certainly pushes nearly all the right buttons – it’s a spritely and eager city car, with striking good looks and an interior that looks reserved for cars further up the price range, a capable powertrain and driving dynamics that embodies the “Be a driver” philosophy. However, its questionable practicality and a price tag that is beyond that of its rivals may put off buyers in the market for a crossover.

However, Mazda buyers have never been one to be put off by Bermaz’s pricing game (just look at the number of Mazda 2s on the roads now). Nor are they put off by the “lack of space”, according to some. For them, they value the other things (driving experience, looks, materials) beyond just practicality. And if that comes at a premium, so be it.

Then again, what about those who aren’t returning Mazda buyers, namely the newcomers? Well, it depends on your priorities. I will not say outright that the CX-3 is better than the HR-V or vice versa. Both crossovers have their strong points and each has a comprehensive kit list of their own, along with their fair share of shortcomings.

Personally, if you’re looking for an engaging drive with arresting looks (inside and out) that puts a smile on your face, the CX-3 is no doubt the car to pick. But if you want an affordable, practical, handsome-looking family hauler that gets you from A to B, the HR-V is the one to have.