Mazda CX-3, King of the Mini-Utes

In a segment filled with milquetoast half-wits, the CX-3 rides tight and tall.

Mazda CX-3

Conspiracy theorists could have a field day with the evolution of the crossover SUV. For decades, most red-blooded Americans were positively hostile to Euro-style hatchbacks. Sure, we’ll trade in our large-caliber SUVs when you pry them from our cold, dead hands, or via a Cash for Clunkers scheme.

Instead, the revolution came through the literal back door of a liftgate. Changing tastes and fuel-economy rules forced SUVs to shrink, morph and mash in nearly stealth fashion. And suddenly, like miniature sleeper cells, they’re surfacing, and we’re awash in a wave of subcompact, hatch-like crossovers including the Mazda CX-3, Honda HR-V, Fiat 500X and Chevrolet Trax. Jeep’s cutie-pie version, the Renegade, is actually built in Italy; thank God so few World War II vets are left to wring their grizzled, patriotic hands.

For all these small fry, their practical shapes and fuel-sipping missions are suspiciously similar to the hatches of 30 years ago, aside from slightly taller bodies and the modern weapon of all-wheel drive.

Turns out, Americans actually wanted to join the hatchback brigades all along. Or did the downsizing message have to be washed through their brains?

Mazda CX-3

For people who loved hatchbacks from the get-go—including this fellow traveler, who once owned Volkswagen’s GTI and a Corrado VR6 —there’s been one issue: Most of the latest mini crossovers, including the Honda, Chevy and Fiat, have been sluggish, sleepy or uninspired, too much like traditional SUVs writ small.

Leave it to Mazda, on a righteous streak of winning models, to remind us that small cars should have spunk, whatever form they take. In the time it took me to steal from Ventura County to Malibu, the Mazda established itself as the style-and-sport benchmark in a class that’s growing and mutating like spores in a petri dish.

Turns out, Americans actually wanted to join the hatchback brigades all along.

This Mazda is more than just a quirky layout, though its Ant Man proportions are integral to its appeal. About 7.3 inches shorter than the class-topping Mazda 3 hatch and CX-5 crossover that share its platform, and nearly 6 inches longer than a Nissan Juke, the Mazda squeezed into a tight Zuma Beach spot with inches to spare.

Oddball crossovers like the thoroughly well designed Kia Soul and jolie laide Juke offer undeniable charm. But the Mazda is handsome even by model-agency standards, with an extruded hood, stretched wheelbase and a clever handoff between complex surfaces that make it appear longer than it is. Plastic body cladding darkens the wheel arches like black mascara, a blurry nod to the Mazda’s SUV forebears.

Mazda CX-3 Rear

Like other models that speak Mazda’s Kodo design language, the sine-wave curves along the CX-3’s body coalesce in pleasing, nearly Italian harmony. Ditto for the “floating roof” effect created by blacked-out rear roof pillars. Nissan has strived for similar effect on models such as the Maxima sedan and Pathfinder SUV, yet Nissan’s curves and flourishes come off as woozy and overwrought, showing again that the talent and taste of designers can make all the difference.

Interiors were once Mazda’s weak link, but no longer.

Even in the basic Sport model, there’s enough twinkle, texture and details to avoid rental-counter blahs, from aircraft-style vents to standard features including a seven-inch MazdaConnect screen. Mazda’s intuitive Commander knob, though, stranded on a thin peninsula between seats, is a bit awkward to reach.

As with some dwarfish cohorts, the CX-3’s cascading roof promotes style but steals space. Your XXL-wearing brother-in-law will complain bitterly about being stuck in back. Standing before the opened hatch elicits a reaction best summed up by an old Peggy Lee song: Is that all there is? With rear seats occupied, the CX-3 fits 12.4 cubic feet of gear, versus 20.2 for the Mazda 3, though the latter hatchback measures gear stacked to the roof, versus just to the tonneau cover in the CX-3.

Even purely apples-to-apples, the Mazda’s 44.5 cubic feet of seat-down cargo space is outdone by a pair of conventional hatches: 47.1 in the Mazda 3 and a sprawling 52.7 cubes for the Volkswagen Golf. Mazda’s smartly engineered i-Activ AWD might be an option, but buyers had best not kid themselves that this makes the car a stand-in for an SUV.

If size doesn’t matter, the CX-3 delivers on performance, despite just 146 horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque from the 2-liter four-cylinder engine. That meh-sounding output is countered by an especially svelte base curb weight of 2,809 pounds in front-wheel guise, or 2,952 with AWD.

The CX-3 will surge from zero to 60 mph in about 8 seconds flat, a few ticks behind a standard Mazda 3: hardly headline material, but decidedly quicker than its more pedestrian competition. Still, the Mazda 3’s optional 184 hp, 2.5-liter four would be equally welcome in this CX-5, likely dropping its 0-60 jaunt into the 7-second range. As ever, the 2-liter Skyactiv celebrates fuel savings but sounds like a honking New Year’s Eve noisemaker. The upside? Mazda expects the CX-5 to score a class-best fuel economy rating of 29 mpg city, 35 mpg highway. The Skittle-size Mazda 2 struggled to produce such numbers.

Mazda CX-3

Normally, a pitch like Mazda’s driving philosophy—Jinba Ittai, or “horse and rider as one”—would come off as pure marketing manure. But after jockeying so many Mazdas, including the ’93 RX-7 R1 that I still own, I know that Mazda’s tout still holds true.  

Thumbing its nose at the sleepy driving style of canyon roads north of Malibu, the Mazda squirted past unsuspecting Benzes and BMWs, its electric steering light but lovely. Switching the six-speed automatic transmission to Sport mode upped the ante, with the Skyactiv unit holding gears and even downshifting under hard braking.

Once again, in the strange world of crossover real estate, Mazda will charge more for a higher floor and clearer views. The CX-3 will start from $20,840, with AWD adding $1,250. That rises to $22,840 for a front-drive Touring version, $25,870 for the Grand Touring or $29,040 for an AWD Grand Touring with an optional suite of safety and convenience features.

The prices easily outstrip those of the Mazda 3, a hatchback that handles even better in addition to being a touch quicker and more spacious. The CX-3 lets you ride taller in the saddle, and can power all four wheels if you prefer.

Are those attributes worth more money? Hatchback lovers will say hell no, especially when that hatch is as great as the Mazda 3. But at this point, never underestimate the allure of a car that walks tall and rides small.

2016 MAZDA CX-3 GRAND TOURING AWD
PRICE (AS-TESTED): $29,040
POWERTAIN: 2-liter Skyactiv-G 4-cylinder; 146 hp, 146 lb-ft torque; AWD; 6-speed automatic
WEIGHT: 2,952 lbs
0-60 MPH: 8 sec
TOP SPEED: N/A
MPG: 27 city / 32 highway
ON SALE: Now