First drive: 2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo cranks up the fun and the price

February 9, 2021

Adding more power is something I’m going to be in favor of in 90% of cases and the 2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo is the rule, rather than the exception. Prior to the Turbo, the smaller engine in Mazda’s tweener SUV (it’s somewhere between a subcompact and compact SUV) lacked oomph at key junctures.

The CX-30 Turbo resolves those frustrations by jamming a 2.5-liter turbo-4 under the hood. It transforms the CX-30 from a great handling, but slow thing, into a rather quick thing that still has great handling. On the right road, it’s good for a grin or three and the added power also provided more confidence on highway merges and driving around town as well. The added power solves one problem but adds a larger one in the shape of a bag of cash.

Pricing starts at $31,075 (including a $1,175 destination charge) for the CX-30 Turbo, but my CX-30 Turbo with Premium Plus Package and a few small options came out to $35,970. The CX-30 ostensibly competes with other “large” subcompact SUVs like the Kia Seltos and Chevrolet Trailblazer, but its significant price tag bumps it up to luxury subcompacts like the Lexus UX200 and BMW X2. 

2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo

2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo

2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo

2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo

2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo

2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo

Perhaps the best compliment I can sling in the CX-30 Turbo’s direction is that it really doesn’t drive like an SUV at all. Even with the added ride height over the 2021 Mazda 3, which also uses this engine to good effect, its composure and balance remind me more of a hatchback than a utility vehicle. The steering is extremely precise, the ride toes the line between sport and comfort, and the transmission does a good job of holding gears in Sport mode (though my preferred method is still to use the paddle shifters).

The CX-30 Turbo doesn’t have an adaptive suspension, but its all-wheel drive system works in concert with a torque vectoring control system to give the CX-30 excellent balance. You can hammer on the gas early, let the vehicle do the advanced calculations, and you come out of corners screaming forward. 

Helping the CX-30 Turbo is the fact that none of its competition comes close to being as fun to drive. The other “large” subcompact SUVs cannot match the Turbo’s power or its handling; those other vehicles, like the Trailblazer and its disappointing turbo-3, compromise for the sake of efficiency or cost savings, giving the CX-30 a distinct advantage here. But I am not sure that shoppers in this segment have those two characteristics top of mind.

2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo

2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo

2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo

2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo

2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo

2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo

Mazda has to do something about its infotainment system. I understand their philosophy of not having a touchscreen in the car, to keep the rotary controller closer to the driver so you’re not leaning forward to use the screen while your eyes should be on the road. If that’s the case, the system should not be so infuriating to use. Simple tasks like changing a satellite radio station always seem to take two or three more button clicks and sub-menus than is necessary. Thankfully Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard.

My test vehicle included Mazda’s new traffic jam assist feature, which handles the steering and gas/braking under 40 mph. Outside of that speed range, there is no lane centering so on a flowing freeway the CX-30 Turbo bounced around the lane quite a bit. One feature that the CX-30 includes which I like: blind spot indicators in the head-up display, a very helpful feature because of that giant blind spot over your right shoulder. The 360-degree camera also powers a front camera mode to see obstacles immediately in front of the vehicle when off-roading or encountering parking blocks.

The CX-30 is a hair too small to fit four adults (let alone five) comfortably. I’m 5’11 and sitting behind my preferred driving position left my knees firmly planted in the seatback. Cargo room is only 20.2 cubic feet, which is right about the same as you get in a Mazda3 hatchback but the load floor is surprisingly high—high enough to work as a standing table for a parking lot takeout dinner. That being said, the CX-30 is still larger than Mazda’s other small SUV offering, the CX-3. The CX-3 is down to a single trim level and should be on its way to the car junkyard in the sky soon.

Though it’s plenty of fun, the CX-30 Turbo still feels like it sits in an awkward space, especially with that price tag. A family should size up to a compact SUV that doesn’t have the same sort of size limitations and someone looking for a fun car can do better for those dollars (a Hyundai Veloster N or Volkswagen GTI would offer more thrills). Mazda may fashion itself to be more of a premium carmaker these days, but to be considered alongside those vehicles, which it comes closer to on power, it has to get out of its own way with improved technology offerings and quieter cabins. The in-between is a tough space to live (or die) in.

The 2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo is on sale now.

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