2018 Mazda CX-3 Review

Crossovers and subcompacts are rarely praised for having enjoyable driving dynamics and gorgeous styling, but Mazda bucks that trend thoroughly with the 2018 Mazda CX-3.

A small crossover that’s built to compete with the likes of the Honda HR-V, Toyota CH-R, Chevy Trax and Nissan Juke, the Mazda delivers the best aspects of each of those cars all while maintaining its own identity and style.

Speaking of style, the CX-3 leaves a very good impression with its design. The competition ranges from the extreme styling of the Toyota and Nissan and the conservative styling of the Chevy and Honda, but the Mazda is neither extreme or conservative — it manages to be eye-catching without being gaudy. Mixing that sheetmetal with the premium metallic red paint finish is a winning combination, leaving this basic Sport trim level model looking like something more expensive and high end.

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It helps that our tester features 17-inch wheels as well, which looks great with Mazda’s design language and makes the car look big despite its diminutive size. Buyers can even opt for 18-inchers on this vehicle, which will really increase the sporty appeal. Besides the car’s styling enhancements, no changes have been made to the overall package, platform or dimensions for this model year. That means at 168.2 inches (4,274 mm) long, 69.5 inches wide, 60.7 inches tall, and under 2,800 lbs in weight, the CX-3 definitely qualifies as a subcompact crossover in today’s market.

ALSO SEE: 2018 Toyota C-HR vs 2017 Honda HR-V Comparison

Its small size is a double-edged sword — it’s easy to park and place this car in tight places, but its small size means interior space is tight. Up front, the driver and passenger will feel OK with the available space, but rear seat passengers will find things frustratingly snug. The cargo bay is also light on space with just 12.4 cubic feet of storage, a figure that’s about 10 cubic feet less than what’s found in the Honda HR-V and about 7 cubes less than what you get in the Toyota CH-R. Kick out the back seat complainers and fold the 60/40 split rear seats down, and the car offers 44.5 cubic feet of volume, measured up to the ceiling of the vehicle. Now the crossover one-ups its Toyota rival, but still falls behind the Honda offering.

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At least the quality and features inside the vehicle is above and beyond what is expected in this class and at this price tag. The cloth seats are well bolstered and supportive, bringing to mind Mazda’s sporty MX-5. While there isn’t a lot of soft, squishy materials found throughout the cabin, the harder plastics are resistant to scuffs and some look interesting with a carbon fiber-like, textured design.

Standard equipment on this base level model includes air conditioning, power windows and locks, cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity, and a push-button start. There’s also a rearview camera and a seven-inch touchscreen that can also be controlled with a rotary knob. Our tester included a dealer installed navigation system, which worked as well as any I’ve used. There was one more port-installed accessory, an armrest that also included a handy smartphone holder.

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Our Canadian-spec model arrived with one significant difference from U.S. models: the transmission. While base models in both countries come with front-wheel drive, Canucks get a six-speed manual shifter, while Americans will get a six-speed automatic. Canadian buyers can upgrade to the auto and opt for an all-wheel-drive CX-3 that includes that transmission, but after testing this manual model, I’d wonder why anyone would get the automatic when the stick is so good. Gates are well defined and the clutch is well weighted. The gearing on the manual is also superb, making this small car feel peppy and fun to drive. I can’t emphasize this enough: This CX-3 was so much fun to wring out and have fun with in every driving situation.

If there’s one disadvantage to the manual, it’s slightly less fuel efficient, so at least the automatic saddled American buyers can be happy knowing they’re saving some money on gas. Overall, the car didn’t exactly surprise or disappoint in terms of fuel economy. It was on par with what a compact car should deliver.

Under the hood, there’s a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 146 horsepower and 146 lb-ft of torque. Due to the fantastic gearing, the car never felt underpowered or slow. In comparison to its naturally aspirated, non-turbo rivals, the CX-3 feels much better equipped in the powertrain department.

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Handling is also a huge advantage for the CX-3. The 2018 model year vehicles come with Mazda’s new G-Vectoring Control, which will reduce engine torque to put more weight on the front-wheels and improve the handling feel and confidence of the vehicle. Truthfully, the car never feels like it’s cutting power, but the responsiveness and handling capabilities felt class leading. Anyone who puts driving enjoyment at the top of their priority list when searching for a new subcompact crossover should be strongly considering the new CX-3. The high marks in handling, however, lead to a slightly stiffer and noisier ride than expected.

While the model tested was the $21,050 Sport model (the $21,890 GX in Canada), higher trim level models come with much more premium features and technology. Stepping into the $23,135 Touring model (or the GS in Canada, which costs $24,590), buyers will be greeted with niceties like leatherette upholstery, blind spot monitoring, automatic climate control, heated seats, automatic headlights and rain-sensing windshield wipers. The top trim level Grand Touring costs $26,105 (GT in Canada that will swing in at $29,890) will add things like a head-up display, paddle shifters, navigation and can even be optioned up to include things like radar cruise control, lane departure warning, and an automatic emergency braking. All-wheel drive can be added to any of these models for an additional $1,250 ($2,000 for Canadian buyers). The spiffy metallic paint costs an extra $200.

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The Verdict: 2018 Mazda CX-3 Review

At the end of the day, the 2018 Mazda CX-3 emerges as one of my favorite picks in this class due to its styling, driving performance and pricing. It suffers a bit in terms of practicality, but if that was a huge priority, buyers may be better off finding a compact crossover instead.

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