2020 Mazda CX-30 Review: A Great Car Makes a Great Crossover

There's no shame in copy-pasting when the source material is this good.

mazda cx 30
Mazda

Pangs of concern overwhelmed our thoughts on the 2020 Mazda CX-30 before its launch. The automaker's damn-near perfect fourth-generation Mazda3 compact and its soulful take on the traditional economy car is somewhere under those crossover panels, raised suspension, and service to the "athletic and outdoorsy" demographic—admittedly, not a promising remix of the recipe.

So for now we'll skip the existential questions to tackle the one that matters above all: Is it any good? Despite being a first and foremost a shrewd business tactic—Mazda's 2019 numbers are down, while crossovers and SUVs account for nearly half of new car sales—the answer is yes. It's very, very good. Our worries were unfounded. A full day behind the wheel, schlepping from dusty Palm Springs, California down to brush against the Pacific Ocean outside San Diego, proved that Mazda hadn't screwed up the fabulous platform on which the CX-30 is based. It just made the Mazda3 a little taller, and that's all right with us.

The 2020 Mazda CX-30, By the Numbers

  • Base Price: $21,900
  • Powertrain: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder | 6-speed automatic| front or all-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 186 horsepower @ 6,000 rpm
  • Torque: 186 pound-feet of torque @ 4,000 rpm
  • 0-60 MPH: 8.6-seconds
  • Seating Capacity: 5
  • Curb Weight: 3,23-3,408 pounds
  • Quick Take: The Mazda CX-30 drives like a taller Mazda3—that notion either intrigues or dismays you.
Mazda

Hatchback Guts

Mazda’s engineers tossed a Mazda3 hatchback in the material replicator and hit Ctrl+C, copying its chassis, 2.5-liter four-cylinder, six-speed automatic transmission, brakes, most of its suspension, and its all-wheel-drive system before tweaking the proportions to create a slightly larger body. That might sound like a knock on Mazda for being uncreative here, but it's not—the folks in Fuchu got it right the first time with the lively little car. The less everyone screws with the already excellent raw materials, the better. Mazda's accountants probably didn't need any convincing there.

A quick note for those who've remembered that the Mazda CX-3 exists. Despite sharing a number with the Mazda3, the CX-3 is actually built on a modified version of the Mazda2 subcompact platform, so it's not related to the new Mazda3 in any way. We can't say why the automaker used that name when it went on sale in 2015, while five years later the crossover that should actually be called the CX-3 is stuck with the slightly confusing CX-30 appellation.

The 2.5-liter naturally aspirated engine makes a modest 186 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque. That plastic body cladding is backed up by an Off-Road Traction Assist driving mode, which uses the brakes to mimic a limited slip differential on both axles when one wheel loses traction, also making its way to the 2020 CX-5 and CX-9. The body-swap also means ground clearance goes from 5.5-inches in the Mazda3 to 7.9-inches in the CX-30.

Stop, steer, and go bits aside, Mazda leaned on the just-launched fourth-generation Mazda3 for the CX-30’s interior, too. The minimalist dashboard and tidy center console are ported over nearly wholesale, with just a few tweaks to accommodate the CX-30's more slightly more spacious dimensions—94.1 cubic feet of passenger volume compared to the Mazda3’s 92.7 cubic feet. The swollen proportions mean a bit more blank space on that normally-sleek dash, but the design is still as lithe as ever. No fat guy in a little coat here.

Mazda

A Crossover with Soul

The result of all this copy-pasting, stretching, and enhancing is one of the most immediately competitive compact crossovers on the market. You can't read a Mazda press release without seeing the phrase "Jinba Ittai" somewhere, the horse-and-rider spiritual link the company wants to evoke in its cars. Easy enough to see when you're talking about something like the MX-5 Miata, but that's a tall order for a crossover, an inherently compromised form when it comes to driving dynamics. Mazda took a strong step toward fun-to-drive crossovers with its CX-5, but because of the already dynamically astute Mazda3 foundation, the CX-30 is the best the company’s delivered. 

Through the national forest lands lying between desert and the ocean, that harmony between driver and machine is immediately apparent in the directness and weighted quality of the 2020 Mazda CX-30’s electric steering. Though electric units were once mocked for hesitant behavior and clunky directional changes, the CX-30’s steering is more akin to the MX-5—point and go. 

Boosting the CX-30’s steering is Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control (a type of torque and brake vectoring) and the all-wheel-drive powertrain, which combine to trick you into believing the crossover is three inches shorter with a much lower center of gravity. Stiffer dampers allow for little heave as the CX-30 scampers from corner to corner on the sinewy mountain roads. 

There must be a downside, right? Usually it's comfort—while that firm composure sounds great in a sporty vehicle meant for track days, Angeles Crest Highway, the Nurburgring, or Fuji Speedway, those same characteristics compromise the hell out of daily driving. Not in the CX-30. Though Mazda’s engineers err on the sporty side, there always has to be balance.

The steering is direct, but not twitchy, while the suspension is rigid enough to keep the CX-30 level in a vigorous corner but dialed back enough to be comfortable on normal (i.e. crappy) roads. Likewise, the 2.5-liter engine generates just the right amount of horsepower for the car. It's neither under- nor overpowered, which sounds like a trite thing to say, but it's getting rarer in these maximalist times.

And the interior follows a similar path, intuitively laid out with everything canted slightly toward the driver up front. Both front seats are bolstered perfectly and suitable for a long road trip, while the back row and its 38.3 inches of headroom is really just for children and smaller teens. In a pinch, a full-grown adult will be ok for an hour or so before getting cramped. Sound deadening is what you’d expect from a compact crossover with some engine and wind noise intrusion, but not to the point where you're forced to speak above a normal volume. Balance and harmony—score another for Jinba Ittai. 

Where Mazda could better the CX-30 is in its optional 12-speaker Bose-sourced audio. Mazda must first be complimented for housing the speakers within the CX-30’s chassis instead of the doors, which reduces a system’s potential for tinny audio. A great start, but the fidelity just isn’t as punchy as it could be. Some minor tweaks to the system’s drivers and speakers could make every track sound like a studio master. It’s a great candidate for a mid-cycle improvement.

Mazda

The central 8.8-inch infotainment display is notable in that it's still not a touchscreen—in a space where every ergonomic factor has been considered, the screen is placed closer to the windshield and just out of convenient reach to signal its function. Instead of jabbing at it haphazardly, you'll use the rotary controller located just below the gearshift. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are both available as optional extras and, as now common, work flawlessly.

Our time behind the wheel was relegated to the top-tier CX-30 Premium i-Activ AWD model, but Mazda will offer the choice between front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, as well as three different packages, including Select, Preferred, and Premium. It should be noted that in addition to bringing standard features like real leather seats and a heads-up display, the Premium package also increases top speed from 124 mph to 126 mph. Seven exterior colors, including everyone’s favorite Soul Red Crystal Metallic ($595 extra), are available, as are three interior colors: Black, White, and Griege. 

Mazda’s i-Activsense safety suite comes standard and includes Driver Attention Alert, Radar Cruise Control (with stop and go capability), Lane Departure Warning with Lane-Keep Assist, Smart Brake Support, and High Beam Control. Opting for the Select Package adds Blind Spot Monitoring with Rear Cross-Traffic Alert, while the Premium Package sees the addition of adaptive headlights.

Mazda

Mazda3 or Mazda CX-30?

Mazda had one final stroke of genius: keeping the CX-30 cheap. Starting at just $21,900 for a base front-wheel drive model, the 2020 CX-30 starts at just $400 more than the Mazda3. Springing for the fully loaded Premium i-Activ AWD model we drove still keeps it under $30,000. Both represent affordable bargains for crossover buyers, with loads of value compared to the premium competition.

So where does that leave you, the consumer? Should you buy the Mazda3 or the new CX-30? The Mazda3—tossable, fuel-efficient, fun to drive—is easily one of our favorite compact cars. But everything that makes the Mazda3 great also rings true about the CX-30. This is an outcome we didn’t foresee, yet, here we are.

Your decision will likely come down to two questions. Does being higher off the ground feed into your perception of control? Also, do you need an extra 1.4 cubic feet of interior space? If the answer to either is "Yes," then the CX-30 is the right Mazda for you. If not, it's still a fine choice thanks to its stellar platform. You really can't go wrong here.