In a move that could be described as ‘opportunistic’, perhaps even ‘overkill’, reports Iain Robertson, Mazda has introduced a middle-ground SUV that surprises with its brilliance and shows that it can ‘do a Kia’ that delivers on the dynamic front.

Everybody and his dog are looking to Kia for automotive inspiration these days. It is not a surprise. Kia does it incredibly well. The cynic in me suggests that cat-skinning is not an aspirational practice but it has done no harm to the Korean carmaker, no matter how many ways it does it. Yet, Kia is not ‘perfect’.

As a brand, Mazda has always impressed me. Its European-ness has seldom missed the mark. In many ways, I liken its developments in styling, engineering and vehicle dynamics to those of BMW, a brand to which it aspires. Yet, it is also a carmaker that has seldom done things by convention. Mazda knows that the way to its potential owners’ hearts is by not being afraid of its own shadow.

IMGWhile the latest CX-30 is a filling in the CX model sandwich, in which CX-3 is Mazda2-based crossover, while CX-3 is a crossover between both 3 and 6 model lines, it is far too easy to dismiss it as a valueless, sugary preserve. It is far closer to the new 3 than the CX-5 in almost all respects but, more importantly, it is a new model that can stand proudly on its own wheels and Mazda knows that it will be its best-seller by a long chalk.

Following a 200-mile, surprisingly high-pressure test drive session on the seasonally uncluttered but hugely challenging roads of the south-west of England, I can tell you categorically that Mazda’s repute for unfailingly well-engineered suspension and running gear is safe. The CX-30 feels uniquely competent and in a class of its own, when pushed to its safe limits on tortuous back doubles and across Devon and Somerset’s high moorlands.

IMGDirectly communicative steering (also a predominant factor of the new 3) enables surgically precise handling, supported by pliant damper settings and a resilient ride quality. Pushed into the bends, the car responds with sportscar-like competence that is mildly discombobulating when its ride height is taken into account. Yet, roll-resistance is good and the standard chassis vectoring control is non-intrusive and aids overall stability.

Provided with three variants, 119bhp Skyactiv-G (front-wheel drive) and 177bhp Skyactiv-X (both are petrol and of 2.0-litres capacity; no diesel option), the latter in both front and AWD (i-Activ) forms, all equipped with a deliciously slick, six-speed manual gearbox, in some respects I would have liked to sample a ‘DSG’ type of transmission too but it is unavailable for the moment. Incidentally, both engines are supported by 24V mild hybrid technology that enables stop:start and even cylinder deactivation for lower CO2 emissions (as low as 105g/km for ‘X’).

IMGHaving already and only recently reported on Mazda’s unique Skyactiv-X engine technology that is a mash-up of the best of normally-aspirated diesel and petrol types, I am able to tell you that the ‘X’ equates to genuine frugality, scoring a true 20% better fuel return than its 119bhp alternative on test. In terms of driveability, both engines are outstanding and worked appropriately can be as brisk as each other in normal motoring, although the ‘X’ is the better performer on paper.

However, as neither is forced induction, the driver is forced to rethink his driving style, as both can feel sluggish otherwise, because we have become so reliant on turbocharging. While both engines feature extraordinarily high compression ratios for petrol types (13:1 in 119bhp form and 16.3:1 in 177bhp), their respective torque outputs (157lbs ft at 4,000rpm and 165lbs ft at 3,000rpm) are close but highlight that extracting the available punch demands constant stirring of the gearbox. Thank heavens it is such a delight to do so. Driving less excitedly, refinement levels are excellent and progress is smooth.

IMGNaturally, what makes Mazda such a compelling choice is its styling fluidity, for which the company presents a plethora of delightful Japanese expressions to summarise the various concepts turned practice (I shall tell you them in a future tale). In plain-speak, the CX-30 is flaming lovely. Ignore the customary SUV addenda (the black spats, sills and bumper frills) and the relevance to the current Mazda3 is obvious. The window area is not generous, which enforces a cosseted feel from within the cabin, but from its shark-like frontal aspect, past the flowing flanks to its cutely upturned tail, it is every millimetre a thing of automotive beauty. Mazda does this trick correctly, every time, although it is very colour-dependent and spending the extra £790 on the Soul Red metallic paint finish could be a worthwhile option.

The cabin is a feast of multi-surface tactility and Audi-grade build quality. The dashboard is surprisingly not dominated by the central position of the information screen. There’s a ‘first’. Instead, a bold, flowing form emerges from the driver’s instrument binnacle, complete with stitching for visual appeal and a leatherette finish in a subtle contrasting colour. It continues into the door cards. Lovely slivers of chrome trim and Piano Black in the centre console add class.

IMGThe dials ahead of the driver are a paragon of visual clarity, being a digital central speedometer, flanked by analogue sweeps for fuel tank contents and water temperature, with programmable elements that provide useful information on the move. Naturally, safety and driving aids are abundant, some controlled by steering wheel micro-switches, while others are clutched together in a small bank in the lower-right of the dashboard. As usual, Mazda’s level of standard equipment is generous.

Thanks to good space utilisation, there is plenty of room for the driver and front passenger. Those in the rear can be a little compromised, if the front seats are on the rearmost positions. Dependent on trim level, electric operation of the driver’s seat is available. On higher-spec models, a glass tilt/slide sunroof is also available, which provides additional light on what could be a gloomy, if interesting, interior. Optional cream leather can raise spirits somewhat. The boot offers around 430-litres of space, expandable to over 1,024-litres by lowering the rear seat backs.

Conclusion:     There is much to love within the 4.4m long CX-30. It is a most handsome machine. Yet, on first acquaintance, I would opt for the 119bhp version, the price of which starts from £22,895, while a top of the shop Auto weighs in at £33,495. Five trim levels are available across the range.