Overall rating: 4/5
Mazda's CX-3 is really good looking, excellent to drive and is powered by a good diesel engine - just needs more rear space and sharper steering for perfection.
In the Metal:
Remember that line in Zoolander when Ben Stiller's titular character points out that he's really, really, really, really ridiculously good looking? That, but with wheels - Mazda's new CX-3 is being touted as an evolution of the firm's existing 'Kodo - Soul of Motion' styling language and if this is the evolution, count us in for Darwinism. It's a subtle thing really - it looks familiar and very CX-5-y at first, but when you see one parked next to its bigger brother you realise just how good the shaping and detailing of the CX-3 is. It's not even colour dependent - I've yet to see a hue in which it doesn't look nice.
Inside is a slightly less exciting story. The entire cabin is basically lifted from the Mazda2 supermini with which the CX-3 shares all of its underlying structure. That's not a bad thing, but it does look a little disappointing after the striking exterior. Still, quality levels were excellent on our test cars (and these were pre-production examples so actual production models are likely to be even better screwed together) and the instruments and head-up display are both clear and easy to read.
The central seven-inch touchscreen (which also has a BMW i-Drive-style rotary controller mounted down by the gearshift) is also familiar but it has a new trick in the shape of the MZD-Connect system. This is fully smartphone friendly and there's a new app, called 'aha' that you can download to your phone and which then can be used to customise the system to your taste - radio stations, internet radio, podcasts, restaurant bookings etc. All very clever and reasonably simple to operate.
Where the CX-3 loses a point off its score is in terms of space. There's not an awful lot more room in the back seats than there is in the 2 supermini and the boot, at 350 litres, is OK and nothing more. You would think a car being pitched as a family-friendly SUV would be a touch more practical.
Mazda is also pushing the safety side of the CX-3 pretty hard. It can be, optionally, equipped with an automated braking system (which can only detect cars, and not pedestrians or cyclists so far), blind spot warning that can also tell you if traffic is approaching when you're reversing out of a parking space, LED headlights with automatic high-beam, active cruise control and lane departure warning. A lot of tech for one so small, but of course not all of it will be standard.
The 1.5-litre diesel engine in the CX-3 is a seriously important unit for Mazda in Ireland. Saddled with just the 2.2-litre diesel for these past few years, there's no doubt that sales have been lost to those with more compact engines, even if the 2.2 had uncommonly good emissions performance. It was always tricky (nigh-on impossible) to get the 2.2 to get anywhere near its official economy levels in real-world driving too, so that's another hurdle that the 1.5 has to jump.
Rather pleasingly, it seems to do so. We were driving it mostly around town, and with the optional four-wheel drive, but it seemed to hit its marks pretty well, and a 43mpg (6.6 litres/100km) figure in city driving isn't to be sniffed at. It was a little noisy at times, and with a noticeable vibration too, although Mazda says that will be fixed for production models.
Performance is pretty decent - there's a good hit of torque at low engine speeds, but it does tend to get a bit breathless as you climb up the rev counter. It's a solid engine for the segment though.
Actually, the 2.0-litre petrol could be the better purchase. Most will recoil at the thought of buying a petrol engine in this (or any) segment these days, but actually, on this test, the big, non-turbo gasoline engine was the star of the show. You can have it in either 120- or 150hp forms and it's smooth, rev-happy and decently torquey. And it's even economical. On a mixed route (mountain pass, motorway and city), we got the same 43mpg (6.6 litres/100km) that the diesel managed around town, and it's in Band B2 for tax. Could diesel finally have had its day?
Whichever engine you go for, the CX-3 is nothing but lovely to drive. OK, if we're really quibbling then the steering could do with a little more feel and feedback and the suspension's rebound damping is a little bouncy over urban speed humps, but for the rest of the time it's just delightful.
Mazda wants us to think of this as a taller, more practical MX-5 and it might be on to something there. The way the steering, throttle and suspension all react as one fluid entity when you're cornering is genuinely impressive, as is the CX-3's stability and sure-footedness on fast, flowing motorways. Heck, it even has decent visibility for a car with such a low, swoopy roofline. In fact, with the 150hp petrol engine on board, you could almost think of it as a low-heat hot hatch...
What you get for your Money:
With a starting price of €20,695 the CX-3 looks like reasonable value for money, but that depends on what the final standard specification for Ireland is - at the time of writing it's still being decided upon. In the UK, SE spec comes with 16-inch alloys and heated and electric folding wing mirrors, but you need to trade up to the pricier SE-L for things like LED lights and parking sensors. Hopefully at least some of the safety kit will come as standard.
Few customers will take up the option but the CX-3's all-wheel drive system can be had with either of the two engines, and it's pretty clever. It always sends at least one per cent of engine power to the rear wheels, to speed up reaction times if it detects any slipping at the front, and it takes in readings from a battery of sensors to help it decide when and where to apportion torque. Even the windscreen wipers and exterior temperature gauge feed into the four-wheel drive computer's decisions, so for those worried about winter snows or who live up slippery country lanes, it could be a good option. Mazda says the system has also been specially designed to exact the minimum penalty on fuel consumption, which is nice to know.
There's a key to the CX-3's appeal and it's the words spoken by one of the engineers at the launch - that it was about more than engineering and bean-counting, that "love and affection were put into creating the CX-3." Coming from another source that might sound like so much bullshit, but from an earnest Japanese engineer, you kind of believe it. You believe it more when you drive the car, when you really feel that someone has thought, a lot and very hard, about each component and how it reacts with other components. It's a slick, fluid, pleasant thing to drive, Zoolander-handsome to look at and only really needs a bit more space in the back to nudge up close to perfection. Class leader? We need to drive it at home to truly decide but, yeah, probably.