2020 Mazda CX-30 Review: Fun for the Small Family

For today’s families, the modern compact crossover is the 1990’s minivan.

Those things were everywhere. My childhood street had just two dozen houses on it, and over half those driveways had a minivan parked in ’em. From a wood-panelled Voyager, to that purple Grand Caravan, and an oddly appealing Mazda MPV, the minivan was as common as Pogs. Right until it became dangerously uncool—also, like Pogs.

In the decades since, the compact crossover has taken on family-hauling duties. Thank its increased practicality over compact and mid-size sedans, its easier ingress and egress, and the spread of all-wheel drive. And just like almost everything else from the ’90s, the “cute-utes” of old have grown. A modern RAV4 is nearly 18 inches longer than the original, for example.

So what if you want a ride for the family, but with a smaller footprint? Mazda thinks it has the answer in the sub-compact CX-30. It’s a slightly smaller crossover that still offers practicality, but with that typical Mazda fun-to-drive attitude and dash of premium you won’t find elsewhere in the segment.

Pretty but petite

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Mazda’s Soul Red is one of the best examples of the hue in the automotive world. Ferrari or Alfa Romeo’s signature shades? Too flat. Soul Red shows the CX-30 in its best possible light, and with a dearth of other available colors, it’s worth the extra cash.

The CX-30 is one of the least SUV-looking SUVs out there. It’s an attractive package, with smooth, crease-free surfacing on the sides and narrow lighting elements front and back. The hatch sits at a pretty aggressive angle, giving the CX-30 a sporty stance. Really, the styling hews closely to the look of the Mazda3 hatchback. For some, that will be the appeal.

There is an argument to be made for the darker gray paint options though. Picking one of them would lessen the visual impact of the chunky plastic cladding around the wheels. It’s an odd look: it implies some sort of butch off-roadiness that doesn’t come through in any other aspect of the CX-30 experience.

Those sporty looks do eat into storage space, however. Front seat accommodations are ample, but second-row passengers will feel the pinch. Mazda quotes 38.3 inches (973 mm) of headroom and 36.3 (921) for legs, which seems enough on paper. In practice it’s less promising. I fit fine, but anybody taller than my 5’10” is going to either find their hair brushing the roof, or their knees doing the same with the front seat backs. The squabs themselves are also a little low and flat, so under-thigh support suffers. While similar in official measurements, the similarly-sized Kia Seltos does feel bigger in the second row, as we found in our recent comparison between it and the CX-30.

SEE ALSO: 2021 Kia Seltos Turbo vs 2020 Mazda CX-30 Comparison

You’ll also find less storage space behind the second row than some competitors. The CX-30 will swallow 20.2 cubic feet of stuff (572 liters). That’s roughly on par with the Subaru Crosstrek, but less than either the Nissan Kicks or the Seltos. Turn the CX-30 into a two-seater and you’ve got 45.2 cubes to play with—again, less than most other cars in the class. See, not like a minivan!

Class-leading interior design—with a “but”

While it might not fit your two-week vacation load, the CX-30 at least makes you feel good when you’re sat inside it. There isn’t a sub-compact SUV out there that can match the quality of its interior. In fact, it styles on the next class up—though the new 2021 Nissan Rogue may have some words about that.

SEE ALSO: 2021 Nissan Rogue Review: First Drive

Our tester, the penultimate option on the trim walk, features a sharp blue and light gray interior (“greige” in Mazda-speak). It’s leatherette, but it does a convincing job. The wheel is genuine bovine, and the perfect shape and size for your writer’s tastes. The driver’s seat offers 10-way power adjustment, making it easy to get comfortable behind the wheel. What’s more, it has a memory function, which is tied to the side mirrors as well. It’s a nice touch typically seen in premium cars.

“Premium” is how I’d describe the general interior design too. The dash design is pleasantly minimalist, and the way the top layer wraps into the doors adds a touch of class. Every key touch point is soft to the touch too.

There’s just one potential problem: the infotainment screen. I’ve previously covered this in the comparison against the Seltos. You can’t fault Mazda’s decision to not use a touchscreen: the company states those sorts of systems draw driver attention away from the important task of driving. Mazda wanted a system that still had tactile feedback, and has went for an iDrive-style rotary knob in the center console. It works with the native system in the 8.8-inch display, which itself is sharp, if a little small. There’s a row of physical knobs and buttons for the (auto) climate control too, and one for audio to the right of the rotary knob. That’s all well and good.

It’s with smartphones and passengers that the CX-30’s infotainment starts to falter. Apple CarPlay is a system designed for touch, so you find yourself twisting and nudging the selector far too much to get the results you want. It ends up being more distracting. Unless your passenger has a Leftorium frequent shopper card, they’ll also find using the central controls cumbersome.

Still has the Zoom-Zoom gene

When you buy a Mazda, you expect a certain amount of Miata-style verve. The CX-30 won’t convince you it’s a two-door ‘vert, but it’s one of the more entertaining steers in its class. My tester features the larger 2.5-liter Skyactiv-G engine. It produces 186 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque, putting it right near the top of the class. Its six-speed automatic sends that power to an on-demand all-wheel drive setup. In most scenarios, the CX-30 operates in front-drive mode, but can shift torque rearwards when it detects slip at the front axle. If you find yourself off the beaten path, a prod of the Off-Road Traction Assist button to the left of the wheel allows for a more permanent flow of power to the rear.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata Review: Ooh-Ooh What a Feeling

On the road, the CX-30 steers tightly and accurately. The wheel responds quickly, and although it’s expectedly light, it builds confidence. A progressive brake pedal makes it easy to judge the right amount of stoppage. You hear that big four-cylinder on start-up, but on the move it quiets down nicely. In fact, the whole CX-30 ride, even on the highway, is surprisingly hushed, with more tire noise than anything. There’s just enough power underhood for the CX-30 to feel fun, and thanks to the lack of turbos, the pedal is nice and responsive.

Mazda bundles in most of its driver assists on this higher-trim CX-30. You’re looking at automated emergency braking, lane-keep assist, lane departure warning, front pedestrian detection, blind spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, and dynamic cruise control. All you’re missing is Smart Brake Support Rear and Rear Crossing, and traffic sign recognition.

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Verdict: 2020 Mazda CX-30 Review

There’s a lot to like with the Mazda CX-30. It looks good inside and out, it drives well, and it offers that high-rider practicality the market demands. It’s still a little tight inside though, and for all Mazda’s honest-to-goodness concern about driver distractions, the infotainment will annoy a bunch of folks.

It also isn’t a drag on your wallet, at least in this spec. Sure, our Canadian-spec GS with Luxury Package tester is roughly equivalent to the Preferred Package, which lists for $29,295 in all-wheel drive form, destination included. That’s a lot for a sub-compact crossover, especially as the Seltos or the 2021 Subaru Crosstrek offer slightly more features for a similar outlay. But it’s also the sweet spot of the range, and other than an in-built navigation system, I can’t think of anything I’d consider a must-have in the top trim.

Best of all, the CX-30 feels good behind the wheel. If you’re looking to get a family vehicle but want something that’s still fun to drive and a little smaller, it belongs on your short list.

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