Thursday, December 31, 2015

Review: 2016 Mazda CX-3 Grand Touring

2016 Mazda CX-3 Front

By Scott Araujo

The CX-3 is Mazda's entry in the compact crossover/cute-ute market. It's based on the Mazda2 but with a bigger motor and available all wheel drive. We got a Grand Touring model with AWD in Soul Red Metallic with parchment interior. And at an MSRP of $29,540 delivered, it's loaded to the gills with options.

Mazda3 vs. Mazda CX-3
Here's my own 2014 Mazda3 next to the CX-3.
The Kodo "soul of motion" design ethos is readily apparent in the body lines, it really looks great in red. The flow is a bit more compressed than on my 2014 Mazda3 since the car is shorter but it still looks sleek and has a unique look. It's obvious at first sight that the car is raised a bit and the fender flares give it a nice burly edge. The gray rocker panels with bright accent strips are also a nice touch. The 18" aluminum wheels are a mix of graphite gray metallic paint and machined aluminum face. Overall the car's styling is striking, especially for the lowest end model Mazda has in the U.S.

Mazda CX-3 dash

Getting in you'll see a very familiar Mazda design. The instrument pod looks just like my 3 but with one fabulous change: the big gauge that's dead center is a tach! Almost nobody puts the tach front and center and it's a pleasure to see that someone did. There's a small corner in the tach face for a digital speedo, and there's another speedo projected on to the heads up display. The HUD comes up nicely when you start the car and settles back into the dash when you turn it off. It shows speed along with front, rear, and side warnings for anything that's re getting too close.

Mazda CX-3 interior
The interior is tastefully appointed with parchment leather seats, heated in front. The front seats are supportive but not too sporty. Mazda must have had me in mind when they put black suede on the seat bottom and lower back. I always seem to sit in grease or chain lube, nice to know it won't show up on the light colored leather. There's also a nicely padded parchment leather accent panel that goes across the dash. The doors continue the black suede above the arm rests. The arm rests themselves are done in a lovely contrasting burgundy leather that plays nicely off the other colors. There's also a black leather cover over the instrument binnacle and two small burgundy pads in the center console by your knees, but while the rest of the interior flows nicely these seem a bit like tacked on afterthoughts.

The front seats are comfortable and there's plenty of leg and headroom. With two adults up front you may start to feel just a bit cramped on elbow room, but just a bit. The center arm rest is right where it shouldn't be. It makes it hard to get to the shifter, parking brake, cup holders, and infotainment controls. It’s even annoying when you’re just driving along. I have a dislike for most center arm rests but Andy mentioned this one being in the way before I even said anything. On the plus side you can fold it up and out of the way (which I did all week) and it's got a nice little slot in the end that you can slide your smart phone into. Kinda helps to keep the rest of the console clear. The rear seats have plenty of headroom, even with the power sunroof, but are pretty short on legroom. I probably wouldn't want to haul full sized adults back there for long trips.

The center console has the Subcompact Culture-approved three dial climate controls. This being the fancy model, I set the fan and vents to "Auto" and the temp to 72 F. This worked really well except for the few minutes just when the car is starting and the windows tend to fog very easily. Pop on the A/C, blast the defrost and it all cleared right up.

Mazda CX-3 center consoleThe infotainment system is really easy to figure out. It only took a minute to pair up my iPhone over Bluetooth. You can use the touch screen on the dash and the steering wheel controls, but the center console wheel control is all you need most of the time. There is a large wheel that you can spin and move in four directions to navigate the menus. There are also shortcut buttons for music, home, and nav which is probably where you want to go most of the time. There's a smaller wheel behind the big one that turns for volume, and you can press it to mute everything. I found I muted things a few times without meaning to but you get used to that quickly. There are two USB ports and an AUX in. The sound system itself seemed good but not great. There is a Bose subwoofer tucked in on top of the spare tire. Sound quality is great but it sounds like it's all coming from the front speakers when you're driving, even if you fade the balance to the rears. It's a minor issue with an otherwise excellent system.

Under way, the nav system is pretty good. I definitely wouldn't want to type in an address as I'm driving but once it's set the directions are good and clear. The audibles only come out of the driver side front speaker so everyone else can keep listening to music. The screen shows clear maps and pretty little pictures so I knew just which lane to be in.

The driving experience, and it really is a driving experience, is fantastic!  The patented Mazda Zoom-Zoom is totally intact. Steering is tight and precise, brakes are right there and modulate well, suspension is decidedly firm. It's firm enough that if you don't like that kind of thing you'd probably look for another car. It surprised me a bit. I expect a crossover to be a bit more plush and better suited for a potholed or gravel road but this is definitely a street car, and one that's serious fun to drive!

Mazda CX-3 SKYACTIV engine

I test drove the Mazda2 back in 2014 and it handled great but was a bit anemic when I put my right foot down. Fortunately, the CX-3 comes equipped with a 2.0 liter 148hp/148lb-ft of torque engine. This is basically the engine in the base Mazda3. It doesn't make the CX-3 a rocket ship but it's certainly no slouch.

So there's one detail that I'd normally say is "the problem" but after driving the car, I can't honestly say that it is. The CX-3, at all trim levels, only comes in automatic. That would normally be a deal breaker for me but after driving it for a week my resolve on that point wavered to say the least.

The tranny is auto with manual shift mode.  You slide the shifter to the left and then you can control it with wheel mounted paddles or by sliding the shifter back and forth. Many cars with manual mode kind of let you vote on shifting. You hit a paddle and then a little while later, when it's ready, it shifts. Like everything else about driving the car, the Mazda is right there for you. It's so quick shifting we wondered if it was a dual clutch, but it's not. It just does it's job, and a little more to tell the truth.

One of the reasons I prefer stick is engine braking. I live in a hilly area, I don't want to lean on the brakes going downhill so I just drop into a lower gear. Yes, I can do this in an automatic and I do but it always feels a bit lame. Now in the CX-3, you could put it in manual and downshift, but why bother? Just drive along in D, grab the paddle, and it drops a gear, or two, or three, just like that! You don't even need to go to full manual mode to do this. And once you slow down to about 3 MPH or stop, like when you get to the stop sign at the bottom of the hill, it pops right back into full auto mode and you go your merry way. The same applies for downshifting and stomping the throttle to get moving.  Once you start cruising like a civilized person again it drops right into full auto.  But that's not all...

The CX-3 is rated at 27 city, 32 highway and 29 combined.  I was getting about 31.  Until I found Sport mode. This innocuous little switch on the console is labeled "SPORT." Well, they labeled it that way because "FULL ON GIDDY-UP!!!" wouldn't fit. Flip the switch and a little light on the dash comes on and the RPMs instantly go up about 1k. In normal mode the Mazda is more willing to downshift with a press of the pedal than any car I can remember driving recently. In Sport mode, you just think about the pedal and it drops two gears and takes off. It also seems to hold that gear waaaay longer than prudent once you're at cruising speed. It's so willing to scoot it's just silly, so much fun! Honestly, it's so spin happy that I wouldn't really drive around in Sport mode unless I was looking to go fast. So with all that said, if I had to have an automatic it would be this one!

The car is lots of fun to drive. It rained all week so I only got to open the sunroof once, but at least I had the shade slid back to let in what little sun there was.  It feels just like sitting in my Mazda3 but a little taller. I'm not a truck or SUV guy, but whenever I drive a car with taller seating and a higher vantage point I can see why so many people like it. I didn't get to tear down any gravel roads but I also never scraped going in or out of a driveway. The CX-3 does have at least a little more ground clearance than the average street car.

Mazda CX-3 cargo room
Lots of space with the seats folded down.
Rear seat room is a bit cramped, and the cargo space is similar. You could probably get a couple of carry on bags back there but not much more. Fortunately the seats fold down and then you've got oodles of space. And when you put them back up you've got a nice molded package tray that covers the hatch area. I really do prefer the finished look of a hard cargo cover to the roller blind variety. There is a platform in the hatch floor area that you can lift that has a couple of inches of storage under it before you get to the spare. It's good for things like books, dog leashes, jumper cables, and anything else mostly flat that you'd rather keep contained a bit instead of having it slide all over the place.

There is a neat little button on the hatch. In the center is the usual button to release the hatch, but to the right is one that locks all the doors. I didn't really get it while I was driving the car but it made sense when I got back to my own for a bit. If I need to get something out of the hatch, I get out and close the door, open the hatch and get what I need, then close the hatch and start digging in my pocket for the remote to lock the doors. With this nifty little button there's no need.  Also nice if you want to pull in the driveway with the groceries and tell Junior to unload the bags and lock the car when he's done, without giving him the keys. It's a small thing, I don't know how many people will really even find out it's there, but I think if you do you’ll use it more than you'd think.

Honda CR-V vs Mazda CX-3
Here's the CX-3 next to a Honda CR-V.

Mazda CX-3 front
Just a typical winter downpour in Oregon. However, the CX-3 was ready for it.

Overall it was a super fun little car. Now I never really understood the cute-ute thing. I could see getting a small AWD car if you like small cars and dirt roads, but the very road focused cars like the CX-3 never really made sense to me. Was it just a marketing ploy? Car makers jumping on the SUV bandwagon with vehicles that are really neither sport nor utility, just raised grocery getters with fender flares? After all, as Andy pointed out, if you want a small car that's super fun to drive you could get a Mazda3 for less than the price of an AWD CX-3 and have more passenger and luggage space to boot.

And then I drove the CX-3 for a week and I finally got it. This is no Jeep Renegade, it has no pretense to any serious off road adventures. It's actually just a cool little sporty car with the merest modicum of ability to keep it out of a ditch. It's actually just about right for a guy like ...

2016 Mazda CX-3 rear

It handles like it's on rails, has enough power to be fun, and it looks great. So the car I have fits that bill too, but then it starts to fall short. Going camping down a dirt road? Plan your path carefully so you don't high center the thing. Live at altitude and wake up to six inches of snow a few times a year? Sick of putting chains on and off to get to work, only to have your boss look at you funny when you show up late because there's only an inch on the ground at the office? Or, as I am doing right now, do you obsessively monitor the weather in all high passes to see what route you'll be taking to avoid the snow as you make the annual trek to see the family for the holidays? Well, my Mazda3 with matte black alloys looks the business in the parking lot but it's sometimes stretched a bit in these types of situations. With something like an AWD CX-3 I'd have all the Zoom-Zoom I want and also a comfortable margin when the road conditions get a little more dicey than I'd like.

If you dig small cars, really like a car that handles right out of the box, and want AWD in your back pocket should the going get rough this car could be a great fit. Truth be told, I think I’d get a more modest version with fewer options,but I like to keep things simple in general. If you dig the tech and luxury the Grand Touring model might be right for you.

THE BASICS: 2016 Mazda CX-3
MSRP As Tested: $29,5490
Engine: 2.0-liter SKYACTIV 16-valve I4
Transmission: Six speed automatic
Horsepower: 146
Torque: 146 lb/ft
Curb Weight: 2,952 lbs.
Wheelbase: 101.2
Overall Length: 168.3"
Suspension: F: MacPherson Struts
R: Twist Beam
Brakes: F: Disc w/ABS
R: Disc w/ABS
Wheels: 18" alloy
Tires: 215/50/18
Fuel Economy (MPG): 27 city, 29 combined, 32 highway
Fuel Type: Regular 87 octane

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