- Elegant, stylish exterior
- Modern, attractive interior
- Ample features, great optional extras
- Predictive all-wheel drive system
- Impressive performance and handling for the segment
- No manual transmission option
- Rear seat is very compact
- Styling may not age well
- Monochrome gauges look cheap
The 2016 Mazda CX-3 is stylish, well-equipped, and one of the most fun-to-drive vehicles in its segment.
U.S. car buyers have never before bought as many SUVs and crossover utility vehicles as they're taking home today. Now a growing segment of even smaller entries is offering new options, including the Mazda CX-3. It's the smallest crossover sold by the sporty Japanese brand, slotting neatly below the CX-5 compact SUV.
The 2016 CX-3 looks racy, handles well, and offers a compelling alternative to the Chevrolet Trax, Honda HR-V, and Jeep Renegade that have surged onto the market over the last year.
Through an alternate lens, you can view the new CX-3 as the capacious hatchback that the Mazda 3 doesn't offer. While we love Mazda's compact cars, they're hardly capable of holding four adults. The CX-3 remedies that problem, and adds optional all-wheel drive to boot. Given continuing cheap gas prices and the rising fuel efficiency of SUVs of all sizes, we suspect the CX-3 will do very well. Its sales may be closer to those of the Fiat 500X or the Mini Countryman than Honda's high-volume HR-V, but it's reasonably priced and much more capable for the usual tasks of hauling people and a whole lot of stuff. And it's fun to drive—which can't be said of the Honda or the Chevy.
The CX-3 shines on first impression. The exterior design is one of the most impressive, cohesive renderings of the company's Kodo design theme yet. Only the latest MX-5 Miata wears the sinewy curves and taut lines better. 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.
Inside, it’s more of the same. Like all of Mazda’s recent vehicles, the interior of the CX-3 is remarkably upscale in appearance. Sure, there are still plenty of hard plastics in the cabin, but there are also premium elements like wrapped dashboard pieces, highlight piping on the seats, contrast stitching, and controls and buttons with a solid and substantial feel. Overall, the interior look and quality look far pricier than a base price around $21,000 might lead you to expect.
Looks are one thing, but utility vehicles are primarily about capability, performance, and comfort. The 2016 CX-3 doesn’t shirk this burden. We found it one of the most enjoyable cars to drive among all the new small crossover utilities. Mazda's electric power steering is well-weighted, and steering geometry tweaks like extra caster improve its straight-line stability without compromising maneuverability. And the CX-3 is highly maneuverable; its 34.8-foot turning circle is low for a front-drive (or all-wheel-drive) vehicle.
Comfort isn't affected by the sporty driving capability, in large part. In fact, the 2016 CX-3 is surprisingly quiet and comfortable even on poor road surfaces, soaking up most bumps without upsetting the occupants—although wheel choice matters. After spending several hundred miles in the CX-3, we can confidently say it’s a very comfortable place to be, even for extended periods. The seats are supportive but supple, and road noise is very low, especially with the base Sport trim’s standard 16-inch alloy wheels and taller tires. The 18-inch wheels and lower-profile tires on the Touring and Grand Touring models improve steering feel a tick, but at the cost of a bit more road noise, especially over rough surfaces, and they also bring a bit more stiffness to the overall ride. Still, it’s not intrusive in either case.
The CX-3 comes with a single powetrain—a 146-horsepower 2.0-liter inline-4 with a 6-speed automatic transmission—and a choice of standard front-wheel drive or optional all-wheel drive. Both engine and transmission are products of Mazda's SkyActiv engineering, meaning that every component of an otherwise standard powertrain is optimized for fuel economy. The cars are then designed around the engine and its large exhaust-header system, which is why the engine compartment is longer than in other vehicles. But as with other Mazda models, SkyActiv pays off not only in higher ratings, but in real-world figures that meet and often beat the EPA numbers.
Neither the NHTSA nor the IIHS has provided crash-test data for the 2016 CX-3.
In terms of features, there’s a high level of standard equipment, especially considering the price, and a satisfying range of upgrades are available, including some higher-tech safety items. The base six-speed manual, front-wheel-drive model starts around $20,000, as do base models of its competitors. A fully optioned CX-3 can easily get you to $30,000 however.
Final ratings are 29 mpg city, 35 highway, 31 combined for the front-wheel-drive model, and 27/32/29 mpg for the all-wheel-drive version. Both of those results put the CX-3 at or near the top of its burgeoning class. The CX-3’s light weight plays an important role in acquiring these gas mileage figures with a conventional gasoline four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission.
2016 Mazda CX-3
The Mazda CX-3 looks racier than some sports cars despite its small crossover shape; it's a stunner on the road.
What is Kodo? That's not a terribly easy question to answer unless you're looking at the 2016 Mazda CX-3. Then it's simple: just look.
Kodo is a design theme, and on the CX-3, it translates into flowing, sinewy forms and complex curves that envelop surfaces, arch and join, flare and recede. The overall effect is a sporty, athletic look, and one of lightness and elegance that is not common to the crossover segment, especially the sub-compact arena. The CX-3 is a very appealing vehicle.
Inside the CX-3, the modern Mazda look and feel is present throughout—if you didn't know you were in a CX-3, you might think you were in a Mazda 3. The dash is tasteful, with soft-touch wrapped elements for a more premium look and feel. The center stack is simple, and the HVAC controls look sturdy and purposeful. The steering wheel is modern and simple despite the wheel-mounted buttons, and instrument panel and dash look good.
The only off-note to our eyes comes from the gauges within the instrument cluster. While they're clear and informative, the monochrome displays look old and utilitarian. The quality and crispness of the head-up display was also disappointing; while it's remarkable to have such an option on a small crossover in the first place, we wish it looked slightly better.
On the whole, the CX-3's cabin is a very good-looking place to be, with a decidedly modern feel.
2016 Mazda CX-3
Quick and peppy, with Mazda's well-known handling and grace, the CX-3 is fun-to-drive in a way almost no other crossovers are.
Head for the twisty roads and the 2016 Mazda CX-3 delivers "Zoom Zoom" as it should. Like all Mazdas, the littlest crossover utility vehicle puts a distinct premium on the driver’s experience, communicating the position and attitude of each of the four corners, inspiring confidence, and enabling some impressively sporty driving.
The new 2.0-liter Skyactiv-G inline-4 is a welcome companion, whatever sort of driving you’re doing. On the highway, the engine hums along barely audibly at around 2,300 rpm when you're driving 70 mph. Around town you may hear a little growl if accelerating to merge with traffic, but for the most part, the engine is smooth, quiet, and unobtrusive in normal driving.
Step on the gas a little harder, especially in Sport mode, and the engine speaks up. It’s not a race-bred roar or even an especially pleasing sound, but it does sound willing and able to rev to its 6,500-rpm limiter. And despite its relatively modest 146-horsepower rating and 146 pound-feet of torque, it accelerates quite briskly, whether you allow the 6-speed automatic transmission handle the shifts or paddle-shift the gears yourself. (We were disappointed to note that the paddle shifters that are standard on the Grand Touring model aren't available, even as an option, on the base Sport or mid-level Touring trims. While you can shift those models using the alternate gate on the gear lever, we missed paddles for spirited driving—and we'd suggest that Mazda consider making them optional.)
Part of that peppy feeling, despite the relatively low power output, comes from the light curb weight: The CX-3 weighs just 2,809 pounds in front-drive form, and 2,952 pounds in all-wheel-drive guise. Worth noting, too, is that while the front-drive model feels a touch nimbler—likely owing to its lighter curb weight—the all-wheel-drive model is just as fun to hustle quickly.
The all-wheel-drive CX-3 also comes with an impressive computer-controlled system that not only compensates for lost traction on the front wheels, but predicts the need for more torque at the rear wheels. It does this through a network of sensors and data including ambient temperature, steering effort, steering angle, vehicle acceleration, and more. More impressively, it does all of this even when the vehicle is at a standstill—predicting the need for all-wheel drive before the driver even puts a foot on the gas. It's impressive both in theory and in practice, and borders on the application of artificial intelligence.
2016 Mazda CX-3
Comfort & Quality
Materials, space, and seating all belie the 2016 Mazda CX-3's budget price and subcompact footprint.
The 2016 Mazda CX-3 offers decent cabin space, despite its compact (or even sub-compact) exterior dimensions. Front-row seating in the CX-3 is spacious even for two large adult males, with ample leg, head, and shoulder room.
The rear seat is more compact, of course, though it’s still suitable for medium-height adults and, of course, children and teenagers. There's a third seat belt, but it's a two-person seat regardless, especially because it subtly tips both outboard occupants toward the center of the seat. It's nowhere near as huge in back as the (far less fun-to-drive) Honda HR-V—but it's a step up on the rear seat of the Mazda 3, which will make any adults who try to ride back there quite unhappy after more than 10 minutes. Think of the CX-3 as a more usable Mazda 3 hatchback with optional all-wheel drive, perhaps.
That said, Mazda isn’t aiming this car at the young-family market—that’s where the CX-5 comes in, it says. The CX-3 is intended for young couples or empty-nesters who want enough space for occasional passengers, some cargo, or a dog or two. That said, the CX-3 will likely be pressed into young family service anyway, and we expect it to perform admirably.
In the cargo area, you're again dealing with the compromises of a crossover with such a small exterior footprint, but the load floor is flat and the rear seats fold down. Despite the angle of the tailgate, cargo volume is a tolerable 12.4 cubic feet with the rear seat up and 44.5 cubic feet with the seat back folded down (which is how we expect many CX-3s to spend much of their time). For comparison, that's about equal to what you'll find in a typical compact hatchback with a lower roofline—and far from the most capacious in the CX-3's segment.
2016 Mazda CX-3
The 2016 Mazda CX-3 gets good scores from federal testers, albeit with an important note.
Complete results on the 2016 Mazda CX-3 aren't yet in, but federal regulators have an important note.
In NHTSA testing, officials gave the car a five-star overall rating, but noted that side-impact testing revealed that the left rear door struck the torso of a female dummy resulting in an increased chance for a spinal injury.
The feds gave the CX-3 a four-star rating in rollover testing. IIHS testing hasn't yet been completed.
The CX-3 comes standard with six airbags (front, front-passenger side, and side curtains), stability control, and the rest of the electronic traction control systems that are now mandatory for 2016 models.
The i-ActivSense package of electronic safety systems is offered as a $1,960 option, but only on the top-of-the-line Grand Touring model. It includes adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, automatic emergency braking, smart headlights, rain-sensing wipers, and auto on/off headlights.
2016 Mazda CX-3
Packed with features in standard form, the CX-3 is a great value proposition—and continues to be even when you pile on the upgrades.
The 2016 Mazda CX-3 comes in three trim levels, all equipped with the same 2.0-liter inline-4 and 6-speed automatic transmission. All-wheel drive is a $1,250 option on any model. The CX-3 Sport base model is priced just below $21,000 when a mandatory $880 delivery fee is included.
All models get standard Mazda Connect infotainment with a 7.0-inch touchscreen and backup camera, Bluetooth streaming audio and phone connectivity, air conditioning, cruise control, power windows and locks, tilt/telescoping steering wheel with wheel-mounted controls, and keyless ignition.
Step up to the CX-3 Touring model and you’ll add blind-spot monitoring, rear traffic alert, six-speaker audio system, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, heated side mirrors, side-mirror turn lamps, a center arm rest, and bright interior accents.
Opt for the top-of-the-line Grand Touring model and you get all of the Touring’s features, plus LED headlights with adaptive lighting, LED fog lights, LED taillights, a HUD display, leather seats with suede inserts, heated front seats, Bose audio with seven speakers, satellite radio, navigation, automatic climate control, and paddle shifters.
Options include a $1,420 Tech Package on the Touring model, which bundles the premium Bose audio system, the panoramic moonroof, both satellite and HD radio, and—oddly—the tonneau cover that covers up the cargo area, which we'd expect to be standard on a mid-level model. The $1,960 i-ActivSense package of electronic safety systems on the Grand Touring model includes adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, adaptive headlights, automatic emergency braking, and rain-sensing wipers.
2016 Mazda CX-3
The 2016 Mazda CX-3 sits near the top of the small-crossover class for fuel efficiency.
The EPA rates the 2016 Mazda CX-3 at 29 mpg city, 35 highway, 31 combined for the front-wheel-drive model, and 27/32/29 mpg for the all-wheel-drive version.
Both of those results put the CX-3 at or near the top of its burgeoning class. And during our own drives of the CX-3, mixing city and highway driving with some sporting canyon roads, we observed readouts of 30 to 32 mpg with the all-wheel-drive model and 31 to 34 mpg with the front-drive model.