2017 Mazda CX-3Enlarge Photo
We're in the midst of a small-SUV explosion. Big-name automakers are slotting new utility vehicles at the entry position in their lineups, blending hatchback bodies with tall-wagon rooflines and SUV-style all-wheel drive.
Two of the most interesting new offerings are from automakers with a reputation for lean, sporty driving. Which one comes out a better blend of all those attributes—the new Honda HR-V, or the new Mazda CX-3?
The numbers give us a winner: the CX-3 outpoints the HR-V by a fraction of a point. It boils down to safety and features, of which we give the CX-3 a slight nod over the HR-V thanks to more standard equipment and a bigger range of customization. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
Each is a smaller sibling to popular compact crossover SUVs, the HR-V to the CR-V and the CX-3 below the CX-5. They're very different vehicles, though, each with its own focus. The Honda is perfectly suited to city and suburban use by couples or young families, with optional all-wheel drive giving secure traction on muddy fields and unplowed roads. The Mazda is the sports car of the pair, a much lower vehicle with less room inside for people and cargo but a far more rewarding driving experience.
Both small SUVs have exaggerated styling that works to disguise the "tall hatchback on wheels" shape of most utility vehicles. The Honda is rakish but higher, using the brand's latest styling language to give the HR-V more pizzazz—a thick chrome top bar in the grille, swept-back front light units, and strongly etched side accent lines. At the rear, though, it's a shrunken carbon copy of the latest Acura MDX.
The Mazda shines on first impression. From any angle, the CX-3 is an attractive vehicle, offering an elegant, up-market feel with a clear intention for sporty behavior on its sleeve. It's simply an impressive, cohesive exterior.
Inside, the HR-V's cabin has better finishes and materials than the related Honda Fit hatchback. The clean surfaces have a few foibles, like the slim air vents cut into the passenger-side dash. Like all of Mazda’s recent vehicles, the interior of the CX-3 is remarkably upscale in appearance. Plenty of hard plastics remain, but premium elements like wrapped dashboard pieces, highlight piping on the seats, contrast stitching give a pricier impression than its sticker might indicate.
Under the hood, the Honda has a 141-horsepower 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine, paired to either a continuously variable transmission (CVT) or a 6-speed manual. All-wheel drive is an option, but only with the CVT. The most fuel-efficient model of the HR-V (front-wheel drive and CVT) delivers a combined 31-mpg EPA rating, matching the Mazda and at or near the top of the burgeoning class of mini-SUVs.
The CX-3 too has only one engine—a 146-hp 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine with a 6-speed automatic transmission—and a choice of standard front-wheel drive or optional all-wheel drive. Its fuel economy ratings are 31 mpg combined for the front-wheel-drive model, and 29 mpg combined for the AWD version. We've found Mazda's engineering to pay off not only in higher ratings, but in real-world figures that often beat the EPA numbers.
The HR-V has adequate power, but it's not notably quick—although it's enough for safe highway merges. It handles well enough, although the high seating positions makes body roll more obvious. The CX-3 is more lively, and clearly the driver's car of the pair, especially in front-drive form. Unlike the Honda, it's not jacked up to provide a truck's ground clearance; it's low to the road and its cornering is correspondingly flatter. Buyers of either vehicle will largely opt for the automatic, but we enjoyed the manual-gearbox Mazda a bit more.