The moment I came across cheap-as-chips flights from Australia to Hawaii, I booked a trip to the island getaway to see the sights and swiftly arranged a 2018 Mazda CX-3 Touring to drive around Maui. As soon as my flight landed and I walked out of the arrivals hall, I thought I’d made a massive mistake.
Those who’ve been to Hawaii will know that the locals have an affinity for lifted pickup trucks that simply beggar belief. Of course, there are heaps of U.S. states where pickup trucks reign, but in Hawaii, owners go to incredible extremes to make their trucks stand out. Do a quick Google search for lifted pickup trucks in Hawaii and you’ll see creations more akin to monster trucks than road-legal vehicles. And yet, here I was about to pick up the keys to a CX-3, the cheapest and one of the smallest vehicles in Mazda’s local family. Was I going to be confronted with roads impassable to anything other than a lifted pickup or would the CX-3 suit the beach lifestyle perfectly? Time to find out.
In the U.S., the 2018 CX-3 is sold in Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring guises respectively with front-wheel drive as standard and all-wheel drive as an option across all trim levels. Our tester was the mid-range Touring and lacked the all-wheel drive system.
All models feature a naturally-aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 146 hp and 146 lb-ft (197 Nm) of torque that’s coupled with a conventional six-speed automatic transmission.
Looking past the dents and dings of our test car, the CX-3 is quite a nice looking thing, even though it often felt undersized compared to the trucks around it. Mazda’s Kodo design language has been utilized well and works perfectly with a subcompact crossover like this. The bland grey paintwork wasn’t particularly inspiring, however.
There are a host of impressive features that come standard with the mid-range CX-3 Touring model. Among these features are heated side mirrors, 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels, rain-sensing variable-intermittent windshield wipers, Piano Black pillar garnish, automatic climate control with pollen filter, Mazda Advanced Keyless Entry System, heated front sports seats, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear selector. Our test car was also outfitted with the $1,410 Preferred Equipment Package that includes a power sliding-glass moonroof, Bose 7-speaker audio system, HD Radio, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, and a cargo cover.
Those shopping for the more recent 2019 model year CX-3 Touring can also option the Touring I-Activsense Package for $1,000 that adds radar cruise control with stop & go, Smart Brake Support with collision warning, Advanced Smart City Brake Support with pedestrian detection, lane departure warning, high beam control, adaptive front-lighting system, LED headlights with an auto-leveling feature, LED combination taillights, and an active driving display. For $1,000, that’s superb value and a must-have for shoppers.
Mazda’s infotainment system works well although the interface is starting to feel a little dated. While driving, it can be operated through manual controls in the center console and when stationary, the touchscreen is enabled. It’s a nice compromise for those not yet sold on the idea of using a touchscreen while driving.
The moment you slide into the supportive sports seat of the CX-3, the small crossover wraps around you and feels very welcoming. It feels docile, as if all it cares about is getting you from A to B in comfort and with little fuss. And it does exactly that.
Steering is direct and beautifully weighted, making it a joy to thread the CX-3 through traffic or around tight parking lots. Away from smooth and flowing coastal roads, however, we did uncover some shortcomings.
Those familiar with the CX-3 will know that it has never had the most compliant ride and over speed bumps, rough roads, and gravel, verges on harsh. Admittedly, it was hard to accurately judge the ride quality of our test car because it seemed in desperate need of having its shocks replaced. Clearly, this CX-3 has had quite a tough life. This was particularly noticeable at low speeds with the steering wheel emitting a slight drone when turned. Again, we’ll put that down to this particular example simply needing some care.
One aspect of the crossover that’s impossible not to love is the engine and transmission combination. With 146 hp and 146 lb-ft, the CX-3 has more than enough pull for a vehicle of this size that weighs less than 2,900 lbs (1,339 kg) with the front-wheel drive system. Throttle response is good and work done by Mazda engineers to improve low-end torque over previous iterations of this engine pays off. Working alongside this engine is a traditional six-speed automatic as opposed to a CVT or more expensive dual-clutch transmission. The gearbox shifts through the gears with little to no fuss, and in Sport mode it will hold onto the gears nicely.
Through corners, the Mazda’s scarce overall weight has hugely positive effects on turn-in and mid-corner stability. It may technically be a crossover, but it feels very much like a small hatchback.
The EPA rates the CX-3 at 29 mpg city, 34 mpg highway, and 31 mpg combined with front-wheel drive. In our tests, we recorded very similar figures.
While having a compact and light car is nice along twisty roads, it does mean you’ll have to deal with limited cargo space. In fact, there is just 12.4 cubic feet of space in the trunk and that drops to 9.6 with the Bose audio system. Fold down the rear sits and that increases to 44.5 cubic feet without the Bose system and 41.7 cubic feet with it. There’s enough space to store a couple of reasonably sized bags, but that’s about it.
All in all, the 2018 Mazda CX-3 is quite a compelling package and strikes a nice compromise between sportiness and comfort. While the Mazda USA website still lists the 2018 model year CX-3 starting at $20,110, those in the market for one would be better off opting for a 2019 example with prices starting at $20,390. Bear in mind, though, that very shortly, the 2020 Mazda CX-3, which will reportedly be available only in Sport trim from $21,685 in the States, will hit dealership floors.