What is it?
The hottest contender in the market’s hottest segment. That’s small SUVs and the car is Mazda’s CX-3.
The classy Japanese brand has just given its baby SUV a significant upgrade and it’s sure to make life more difficult for the 20 or so brands that offer their wares as competition.
The rise and rise of the small SUV section of the market has been spectacular in recent years.
Consider these figures.
Last year, to the end of July, Australian dealers found homes for 64,991 small SUVs.
For the same period this year, that figure has risen to 82,156 – a jump of 26.4 per cent.
In fact, sales of small, under $40,000 SUVs have more than doubled in the past five years.
No wonder every man and his dog wants a piece of the action.
For the month of July, the CX-3 topped the sales charts with 1233 units, followed by Nissan’s Qashqai with 1205 and the Mitsubishi ASX on 1154.
For 2018, Mazda has blessed the new CX-3 with upgraded technology, more standard safety equipment, more-powerful engines plus exterior and interior styling tweaks.
Both the manual gearbox and torque-converted automatic are six-speeders.
In all there are four grades – Neo Sport, Maxx Sport, sTouring and Akari.
At the national media launch we focused on the petrol, front-wheel-drive Maxx Sport — destined to be the biggest seller.
New across-the-range features include a reversing camera and electric parking brake.
The popular four-cylinder naturally aspirated petrol engine has been tweaked to provide improved fuel consumption and throttle response.
It now boasts 111kW of power at 6000 revs (up from 110kW) and 195Nm of torque at 2800 revs (up from 192Nm).
Mazda claims a combined fuel consumption figure of 6.6L/100km for the FWD manual (6.3L with automatic) and 6.7L for the AWD automatic.
Over the excellent and varied drive program of well over 200km, my co-driver and I saw 7.8L/100km.
Gone is the old 1.5-litre turbo-diesel, replaced by an all-new 1.8-litre unit, with power up from 77kW to 85kW (at 4000 revs). Peak torque remains unchanged at 270Nm between 1600 and 2600 revs.
Buy yourself a front-wheel-drive diesel and you’re looking at a miserly 4.7L/100km consumption figure — the six-speed auto takes this to 5.1L.
The upgrade sees subtle exterior changes such as a new grille and new gloss-black fog-light bezels and side pillars.
There are equally subtle interior changes to the dash area.
The amount of hard plastic in the CX-3’s cabin however continues to diminish the overall classiness of the otherwise excellent interior.
In terms of its not insubstantial standard inventory, Maxx Sport buyers can look forward to goodies such as Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, Internet radio integration for Stitcher and Aha, advanced keyless push-button start, automatic headlights and climate-control air.
Also on the menu is a leather wrapped steering wheel and gear-shift knob, satellite navigation, electric parking brake with auto hold, Mazda’s MZD Connect 7.0-inch full-colour touchscreen, rear parking sensors, a reversing camera and rain-sensing wipers.
One of the CX-3’s great buyer attractions has always been its safety credentials and they have been enhanced with each upgrade.
The new model is blessed with ABS brakes, six airbags, dynamic stability control, traction control, emergency-stop signal, childproof rear door locks, emergency brake-force distribution and emergency brake-assist.
You also get rear cross-traffic alert, forward-and-reverse smart-city brake support, hill launch-assist, ISOFIX child-restraint anchor points as well as whiplash-minimising front seats.
What’s it cost?
Pricing is driveaway and kicks off at $23,990 for the 2.0-litre petrol, front-wheel-drive Neo Sport manual and tops out at $40,490 for the range-topping 1.8-litre diesel, all-wheel-drive Akari automatic.
As with the previous model, Maxx Sport is expected to be the hottest seller with 55 per cent of sales, followed by the sTouring with 25 per cent, Akari on 13 per cent and the Neo Sport just 7 per cent.
Mazda reckons 92 per cent of total CX-3 sales will be the front-wheel drive with a whopping 99 per cent of buyers opting for the petrol engine and 90 per cent plonking down an extra $2000 for automatic versions.
What’s it go like?
Behind the wheel of the new CX-3 is, not surprisingly, pretty much the same as its predecessor.
That is, you feel more like you’re driving a small hatch than an SUV. But that said, the work Mazda’s engineers have put into the new model’s steering, handling and ride comfort has certainly paid off.
The cloth-trimmed seats in the Maxx Sport are well shaped and supportive and, as before, it has height and reach-adjustment for the leather-wrapped steering wheel, which combined with adequate manual seat adjustment, means you can quickly create the perfect driving position.
Fire up the newly tweaked twin-cam, 16-valve “four” and you notice that things are a bit quieter in the cabin.
This is because the engineers have continued to improve the isolation of engine and road noise from the cabin — something the original 2015 model badly needed.
The test car’s engine was mated with Mazda’s excellent six-speed auto and while you can play with manual gear-shifting via the console-mounted stick shift — paddles would have been nice.
The drive program kicked off from Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport and headed “via the Cape” to the striking Mitchelton winery at Nagambie in Victoria’s beautiful Goulburn Valley.
While there was no gravel, we did encounter just about every variation of bitumen there is, from freeways to narrow, winding country roads.
Even pushed hard, the Maxx Sport sits nice and flat without the slightest hint of body roll.
Turn-in is precise, the steering beautifully weighted and while, like all Mazdas, the ride is on the sporty side — it’s not too firm.
While a fair bit of road noise penetrated the cabin over a couple of very coarse sections, you really can notice the reduction in noise, vibration and harshness otherwise.
While my co-driver and I spent most of the day in the Maxx Sport with its 16-inch wheels and tyres, we also drove the top-spec Akari with 18s which was noticeably noisier on the coarse stuff.
In terms of the cabin and its various storage options, with the rear seats occupied, there’s still just 264 litres of cargo space – well down on the competition.
The Mitsubishi ASX has 393 litres and Honda’s HR-V has an impressive 437 litres.
Drop the rear seats and the space rises to a respectable 1174 litres.
There is a fair-sized glove box, various bins on the centre console, roof-mounted sunglasses holder, front-and-rear cup holders, a map pocket behind the front-passenger’s seat and four door pockets.
For the front-seat passengers, there’s a good amount of legroom, but with the front seats right back to accommodate tall people, rear legroom and “ceiling” height would certainly be uncomfortable for seven-foot basketballers.
What we like?
- Finally . . . a five-year unlimited kilometre factory warranty
- Excellent on-road poise
- Class-leading safety credentials
- Overall value-for-money
What we don’t like?
- Space-saver spare
- Limited rear-seat and cargo space
- Hard interior plastics
- No steering-wheel paddles
The bottom line?
Although it’s just three years since the CX-3’s arrival in Australia, Mazda continues to improve it.
It has addressed criticism about high levels of road, engine and wind noise, as well as well its stingy three-year warranty.
Mazda Australia put the business case to head office and the new five-year, unlimited kilometre is now the only such warranty offered in the entire Mazda world.
While the car does cruise remarkably well on the highway, it is, as Mazda Australia boss Vinesh Bhindi says, “the ultimate inner-city car.”
CHECKOUT: The George Clooney of SUVs
Mazda CX-3, from $23,990 driveaway