Subcompact SUV Comparison: 2016 Mazda CX-3

By Matt Degen on April 9, 2016 9:02 AM

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Sportiness upstages utility.

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Starting MSRP: $20,840

Above Average: Handling, design, technology, fuel efficiency

Below Average: Rear-seat space and cargo room

Consensus: More of a fun-to-drive hatch with available all-wheel drive than a spacious SUV

700 Miles in 117 Words

Mazdas are often the athletes in their segment, whether it's the Mazda3 and Mazda6 among sedans or the CX-3's own bigger brother, the CX-5 SUV. It's little wonder the CX-3 embraced that role among subcompact crossover SUVs. The CX-3 isn't the most powerful, but it has an uncanny way of wringing out its 146-horsepower engine and 6-speed automatic transmission. The latter is eager to downshift, even when not in Sport mode. As the most agile crossover in our group, the CX-3 was the most rewarding to toss around, and among the most fuel-efficient to boot. All comes up roses until you sit in the Mazda's rear seat or load its cargo bay. Both are short on space.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Like its fellow players in this comparison test, the 2016 Mazda CX-3 has a distinct personality shaped by its own strengths and weaknesses. Here's how it rates across a variety of measures:

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Highway Driving  The 2016 CX-3 handles well for such a small vehicle with a relatively short wheelbase. When barreling through the desolate desert that separates Arizona and Southern California, Mazda's smallest SUV felt planted when the speed limit reached 75 mph and we reached higher. At those speeds wind and road noise became apparent, but mercifully the CX-3 wasn't jittery or nervous.

On another highway blast one of our editors was won over by the CX-3's available adaptive cruise control, which automatically paces the vehicle ahead at a driver-selectable distance. Other driving aids, such as the optional lane-departure warning system (LDWS), didn't work as well. That system proved too touchy, sending alerts often and loudly. Thankfully the LDWS can be switched off with the press of a button.

City Driving  With its tidy size and easy-parking ways, the CX-3 thrives as a hip city dweller. This is the CX-3's natural habitat, and it roams well in the confines of the urban jungle. A standard rearview camera is a plus when backing out of or into tight spaces. Even more helpful is the blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert that is standard on Touring and Grand Touring models. The cross-traffic alert is a real boon when backing out of busy parking lots, where the system audibly alerts you to vehicles about to cross in back of yours. Also of note is the CX-3's automatic emergency brake system, which can automatically stop the car to prevent a collision with another vehicle. The system, part of the i-Activesense Package, is optional on Grand Touring models.

Sporty Driving  True to Mazda form, the CX-3 was the most fun to drive among our group. Its willing engine, eager transmission and excellent chassis make this a small SUV that doesn't just tolerate spirited driving, but relishes it. There's a Sport mode that quickens shifts and holds revs longer, but it's hardly needed. The CX-3's normal driving mode is zestier than the sport mode in some rivals. For drivers aiming to channel their inner racer, paddle shifters are standard on Grand Touring models, allowing you to manually tick up or down gears while keeping your hands on the steering wheel.

Interior Appeal  Space restraints aside (see below), we found much to like about the CX-3's cabin. Our top-line Grand Touring model featured leather-trimmed seats with an aesthetically appealing 2-tone color combo. But the driver's seat is not as plush or well-padded as that of the Jeep Renegade or Buick Enclave. Controls for audio and climate functions are easy to see and use, and the rotary dial and surrounding buttons just below the gear selector work well to control navigation and audio functions on the standard 7-inch color touchscreen display.

One misfire is the armrest between the two front seats that is standard on mid-level Touring and top-line Grand Touring models. While we appreciated having a place to rest an arm during long drives, its position directly above the cupholders interferes with beverages. To grab a drink, you'll have to raise the armrest, and taller drink containers or cups with straw risk getting crushed when the armrest is lowered.

Infotainment  Mazda's infotainment system is among the best for mainstream vehicles. The CX-3's standard 7-inch display controlled by the aforementioned rotary dial and direct-access buttons would not look out of place in a luxury vehicle. It can also be operated by touch, if you're used to that sort of thing. Pairing with an iPhone was quick and painless, and phone conversations worked well through the system.

Rear Seat  The CX-3 was our least favorite for rear-seat roominess (or in this case, lack thereof). With only 35 inches of legroom, the Mazda is a challenging place to sit for adults. Compared to our favorite rear-seat sitter in this group, the Honda HR-V, the CX-3 has over 4 inches less legroom and shoulder room, and less headroom as well. Those smaller numbers translate to a more confined space. 

Inside and Out: 2016 Mazda CX-3 Grand Touring

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