It’s been just over four years now since the Mazda CX-3 first launched, and there’s no doubt that it has become one of the most well-established players in the small SUV segment in that time.
Like Mazda’s other recent SUV offerings, the CX-3 has been positioned by Mazda as a more premium – and more stylish – alternative to what the competition is offering. Go for one with all-wheel drive, and it has the potential to be more dynamic, too.
But even the best of cars will one day be eclipsed as times change and things improve. So, to see just how kind the past four years have been to Mazda’s baby crossover, we grabbed the keys to the Akari version you see here, which sits right near the top of the range just one rung below the Akari LE, to see if a bit of light refreshment for 2019 is enough to keep it on top.
Despite its age, the CX-3 still looks surprisingly fresh despite the visual changes being limited to a new set of alloys. Its hench facial expression and strong character lines carrying back from the front wheel arches definitely help to give it a noticeable presence despite its diminutive size, and the shiny Soul Crystal Red paint – which is probably the best paint colour on the market – does help it stand out too. Well worth the extra $300, then.
It’s on the inside that the Akari impresses most, however, especially if you go for the white leather interior of our tester, which is a no cost option. Where some SUVs in this class can feel drab and plasticky inside – Toyota C-HR, I’m looking at you – the CX-3 feels bright, open, and welcoming.
As is becoming standard for Mazda nowadays, the interior materials are absolutely excellent, and the mix of finishes in this CX-3 could be my favourite I’ve seen from Mazda yet. If you can think of a trendy interior material, it’s in here – suedecloth, faux carbon fibre, brushed aluminium, and the aforementioned white leather too, of course. Give anyone a lift in this thing, and you’ll definitely be pleased by the comments you’ll get, as people will certainly notice how nice a place it is to be.
Well, at least your front passenger will note that, as while the rear seats and door cards are just as well-trimmed as the front – no cost cutting here – there is little in the way of room back there. It’s not an unusable backseat by any means, but headroom and legroom are both very much on the tight side for most adults.
A lot of that is down to the fact that the CX-3 is based on the tiny Mazda2 underneath, and given that very few people would be carrying around four adults in a 2 on a regular basis, few are likely to in the CX-3 either. Still, though, it’s something to consider.
Being based on the pint-sized 2 does mean that it’s a great little thing around town, as it hits the nail on the head as to what the sort of person the CX-3 is aimed at are looking for – something that’s easy to park and practical, and that offers enough ground clearance to mount the odd curb or speed bump, and a high-riding driving position.
For city driving, it’s an absolutely fantastic little thing. Unlike in most SUVs, you can whizz between traffic with typical hatchback ease and slot into even the tightest of parking spaces with ease. And don’t worry, it’s boot is the perfect size to swallow all of the shopping any human could realistically do, except perhaps a tonne of bricks.
The ride around town is very good, too, with it ironing out the typical potholes and road imperfections you’ll come across with ease, with not even the biggest of divots able to upset it in any way.
But while it’s a fun little thing to toss around town, like the 2 on which it’s based, when you hit the open road or a stretch of tarmac with some twists and turns it’s not all quite so sunny then.
Certainly, it’s nothing to do with the chassis as the CX-3 steers confidently, feels balanced through the bends with no more body roll than is acceptable, and remains planted if you have all-wheel drive, which our tester was fitted with.
No, the source of my issue is entirely down to what’s under the bonnet. It’s a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated four-pot making 110kW and 195Nm, which is a slight increase of 1kW and 3Nm over last year’s model, and on paper, those outputs sound okay.
And indeed, when you access the full 110kW this engine has to offer, it feels punchy. The problem is that it doesn’t feel like it’s making any power at all until you wind it all the way up to 5000rpm, and when you finally access all it’s got to give, it’s over in the blink of an eye as you hit redline and need to upshift.
Around town, you won’t notice this as you’d never possibly need to fully floor it for any reason, but driving around the Adelaide Hills, which I sort of have to do given it’s where I live, the limitations of its power became abundantly clear to me.
While I respect Mazda for sticking with a naturally aspirated engine in the face of turbocharging, sometimes, you have to accept that the torque a turbo delivers is necessary. In an MX-5 – which, coincidentally, shares the same basic engine design with the 2.0-litre in this, albeit quite heavily reworked otherwise – a zingy NA engine is the right choice, but in something like this, a smaller turbo unit would make more sense.
Not having driven it, I should point out that there is a 1.8-litre turbo diesel available as well which does churn out far more torque, although I’d avoid it, like all diesels, if you’re only ever going to drive around town.
Not all’s bad when it comes to the CX-3’s drivetrain, however, as the six-speed automatic transmission fitted to my tester is absolutely brilliant.
Despite only offering six ratios in a world of eight-speeds, its gears are perfectly spaced and the programming of it is so intuitive that it’s uncanny how precise it is. It has a knack of selecting the perfect gear at the perfect time, and no matter what I tried to do, I never once managed to catch it off guard.
The optional all-wheel drive helped keep everything in check on the twisties, too, although again, it’s not worth spending the extra money on if you’re only ever going to sit in traffic as it’ll only make you use more fuel.
On the topic of fuel, the CX-3 actually did a lot better than I expected when it came to fuel consumption. Running on 91RON, I saw an indicated return of 8.4L/100km over the course of 800km which saw me either sat in traffic or wringing its neck up hills, and that’s a good enough return for me to be impressed.
Also impressive is just how much you’re getting for the money. With the Akari starting at $33,990 for a front-drive manual and coming up to $37,790 as tested with the auto, all-wheel drive, and metallic paint, you’ll definitely feel like you’ve got your money’s worth with one of these.
But the thing is, I feel like there’s a certain something more to the CX-3’s success that has helped it continue to see the popularity is has than simply being great to drive, economical, and well-priced. It’s a certain ‘it factor’ that’s a bit intangible to comprehend, but I’ll try to explain what I’m on about as best I can.
A lot of it is to do with Mazda positioning all of its offerings as feeling more premium for the price when compared to rivals. As a fan of putting an emphasis on attention to detail, I’d like to think that this is what’s solely responsible.
The solid feeling, the classy ‘fits-in-anywhere’ looks, the supple materials, and just the well-roundedness of the whole package is all a big part of the CX-3’s appeal. But yet, there’s still something more to the CX-3’s success, and this is an even trickier one to explain.
Simply put, girls love the CX-3. And that’s a problem, because now I’ve got to try and explain that without sounding patronising.
Honestly, I couldn’t tell you quite why girls dig it so much, but every girl I know seems to love these. All of my female friends who went in it during the week I had it oohed and aahed over the thing in a way they wouldn’t over half of the doubly expensive cars I drive.
One friend has a picture of a CX-3 on her inspiration board. Every time I see a girl I went to school or uni with posting on Instagram about their new car they just bought, it’s almost always a CX-3. And when one of my good friends was out with me in it, she commented that she “would definitely buy one of these,” before following it up by pointing out that “it is a total chick’s car.”
If it wasn’t for her pointing that out, I honestly wouldn’t have put any thought to this myself as I simply detest the notion of there being chick’s cars or guy’s cars as I believe people should simply drive whatever car they want without judgement. And, certainly, there’d be nothing to turn me off one of these if I was in need of a city-dwelling runabout.
But regardless of why exactly people are buying these, the fact is that they’ll be ending up with a really fantastic little car that will do just about everything most people could ask of it.
Sure, it mightn’t exactly cater to the revheads out there, but to you lot, among which I am one, just remember that the CX-5 Turbo and the new Mazda3 G25 are cars that also exist in the company’s lineup. For everyone else though, this thing’ll do the job very nicely.
2019 Mazda CX-3 Akari AWD List Price: $37,490 | As Tested: $37,790
Pros: Excellent selection of cabin materials, smooth and intuitive transmission, still looks great
Cons: Naturally aspirated engine feels a bit gutless, tiny infotainment screen, tight rear seat
In a nutshell: Despite its age, the CX-3 still looks and feels fresh in a sea of newcomers.
Full Disclosure: Mazda Australia lent us the car for this review for a week with a full tank of petrol. All additional fuel expenses were covered by the author. Additionally, our good friends at MPF Detailing gave it a complementary Express Detail for us prior to our photo shoot.
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