Lightness pays dividends in latest Mazda crossover
Popularity is improving the purchase proposition for both car companies and buyers, states Iain Robertson, and Mazda’s latest CX-3 crossover model embodies all of the right elements to ensure currency of mood.
Scarcely a week passes before I drive yet another ‘4×4’ (or ‘4×2’) Sport Utility Vehicle. The truth is, the ‘utility’ aspect is now the preserve of very few players and an increasing number of them employ two, rather than four, wheel drive systems, as the crossover sector develops and transmutes into the consummate family car.
It is fascinating to observe it. At various stages of my forty-plus years of critical appreciation of the new car scene, I have watched successive manufacturers’ models growing like Topsy, some with up to seven seats, most with scant regard for carrying luggage, or goods, while the traditional segments of hatchback, saloon and estate car become so inter-bred that little less than confusion reigns.
Is it settling down? Well, no. If anything, a pursuit of new niche models to fill gaps in the market that somebody, somewhere believes exist, has become so intense that I believe the carmakers’ minds are becoming equally addled. To a certain extent, it is pleasant to watch the smaller carmakers, which do not possess the bottomless resource pits of the smattering of giants, as they face up to facts. Mazda is one such company.
When it was a Ford subject, it could assuage its development costs to the corporation. Now, as an independent, while it might too readily fall into the realms of ‘troubled’, it knows that the archetypal USP (Unique Sales Proposition) is its only guiding light through the mire. With no substantive plans to go smaller, the CX-3 is its compact SUV offering and it is one packed with USPs, were such a thing possible.
For a start, the car is lightweight (1,275kgs), for a hiked-up, 4.2m long, 4×4 look-alike. It is compact, because its footprint is largely the same as the Mazda3. Yet, it is a good place to start, as the 3 is such a compact hatch phenomenon that embodies Mazda’s current search for lightness, which gifts enhanced efficiency to owners, in terms of beneficial fuel economy, lower exhaust emissions and enhanced performance. Pound for pound, a Mazda can slug it out most fruitfully with any of its rivals.
However, because Mazda has always been innovative on the design front, the CX-3 is the best looking of this recent crop of squat SUVs. There is a compellingly organic flow to its lines, from the descending waistline behind the front wheels, to the subtle upwards kick above the rear wheel arches and the practical use of black cladding at sill level, around the body shell. It is eminently attractive and very pleasing to the eye, factors that tend to be merely superficial for some manufacturers but which serve purpose in the Mazda camp.
Because the car is compact, the boot is not particularly large (287-litres), although dropping the rear seats can expand its capacity to around 1200-litres, which makes it practical, when it needs to be. However, only a modest amount of shopping will fill the boot alarmingly quickly, despite the fact that there is no spare wheel (a puncture repair kit is supplied), not that much would exist anyway to accommodate its stylish 18-inch wheel rim. Yet, the space is given over to the cabin, which boasts tremendous room up front and enough space behind, even a two-metres tall driver, to accommodate another couple of six-footers in comfort.
Although the steering column does not adjust for reach (only tilt angle), a comfortable and commanding driving position does result. The driver is fronted by the same instrument pack fitted to the hatchback model, which is stylish and provides most of the information required in a clear and easily-read manner. The leather-wrapped tiller and leatherette dashboard-strip add a visually interesting and higher-end textural trip for users and the stylish air vents (ringed in red for the three eyeball units, while a fourth, horizontal vent is styled into the centre top strip) look technically interesting and feel pleasant to operate. Devoid of banks of switches, the impression is of higher-end quality and tactility, as even the hard plastic mouldings are made to feel better than some rival products do. The half-hide trim is an extra cost option at £800, while the pearlescent white body colour adds a further £540 to the invoice.
The ‘touch-screen’ in the top of the dashboard works simply and effectively, while the heating and ventilation controls are the only other distraction ahead of the gearstick. The multi-function steering wheel works a treat, although wheel-twirling can lead to some unexpected messages appearing on the screen, the main controller for which is located in the centre console and, with minimal familiarity, proves fairly logical to operate. Integrated sat-nav and a BOSE seven-speaker premium hi-fi provide additional interest.
The Mazda efficiency drive is highlighted by the car’s underpinnings. Propelled by a mere 1.5-litre turbo-diesel engine that develops a pauper-grade of power (102bhp), accompanied by a wholesome slug of torque (200lbs ft between 1,600-2,500rpm), its performance is not as laggard as the on-paper numbers might suggest. In fact, the delivery is superb, belying those figures, and the CX-3 seldom feels breathless, despatching hills and overtakes with satisfying abandon. Mind you, I am sure that towing a caravan, with a full complement of cabin occupants, while capable of it, might not be as smile-inducing.
Mazda produces very good engines that are not short on technology. Transversely mounted and in conjunction with a deliciously slick, six-speed manual gearbox that drives the front wheels only, it returns a consistent 55mpg, which makes its 70.6mpg Official Combined statement look a tad optimistic. I can assure you, on my customary economy test route, while I managed a very careful 63.4mpg, more than just a light foot and an active brain would be needed to exceed those figures. Incidentally, in Band B for VED (£20 annually), it emits only 105g/km CO2, so it is a fairly clean machine too.
While its top speed is pegged at 110mph, which does not sound particularly enticing (despite the illegality of exceeding 70mph on certain roads, at which speed the engine is turning over at an easy 3,000rpm), its 0-60mph benchmark acceleration time is given as a wholly believable 9.8 seconds. The CX-3 does feel a lot zestier than that.
Those 18-inchers, as pretty as they are, do allow some road surface drumming to permeate the cabin, thanks mainly to the 50-profile tyres. The suspension can feel a touch ‘nuggety’ on some A-road surfaces and on every B-road but, as the car is designated as being in Sport trim, it is fairly understandable and not overly annoying. Grip levels are excellent and, even on ‘low-mu’ countryside tarmac, there was never any need for the traction control warning lamp to illuminate, even when indulging in the car’s finely judged chassis dynamics.
The ride is firm and supportive and the electronic power steering, with a respectably tight turning circle, is highly communicative. The all-round disc brakes work effectively, despite an initially ‘dead’ feel in the pedal, with which the driver becomes familiar and compensates to achieve secure stops and effective slowing down manoeuvres. Yet, it is easy to be clinical about all of these factors. The bottom-line is how the car feels and, while superficial ‘looks’ are a component of the ‘feel-good’ aspect, there is a wonderful, homely appeal to the Mazda, which makes it right and there are few enough new cars that can achieve that status.
Conclusion: Mazda will hardly topple the leading contenders in the most hotly-contested sector of the new car market, because, as we all know, most people still buy on ‘badge value’, which should never be the criterion. However, discerning consumers will fall for the allure of the Mazda CX-3 and they will not be disappointed in their choice. The Mazda CX-3 1.5D Sport-Nav model, priced at a moderate £21,895, is a very complete car, with high satisfaction at its core.