Good: really handsome, well made, comfy, punchy and frugal diesel, lovely handling
Not so good: far too small in the back and boot, quite pricey
Wow, it's getting busy in here. It used to be just the Suzuki Jimny, sitting over there in the corner looking lonely and waiting for someone to show up to the party. Next thing you know, Nissan's Juke kicks things off big time and suddenly we've not got enough seats for everyone and we're running short of nachos. The Renault Captur has taken over the lounge while the Ford EcoSport is crying in the toilet because no-one pronounces its name right. Meanwhile, the Fiat 500X and Jeep Renegade have just shown up wearing the same shoes and the new Suzuki Vitara is being hipster-ish and saying that it had the idea for this small crossover thing all along.
And there's the Mazda CX-3, casually draping itself across the arm of the sofa, while all the other compact crossovers throw it jealous glances and wonder if they look as good in the mirror. They don't - I don't think there's much real doubt that the CX-3 is the best-looking compact crossover yet. The best though? Well, that's a different matter.
As we noted recently when testing the Fiat 500X, being the best compact crossover is like being the most likeable Marvel super-villain. Popular you might be, but Iron Man's still going to kick your ass. That's the problem with a compact crossover. By trying to squeeze the styling and rugged appeal of a proper SUV or 4x4 into a compact, city-centre friendly shape, they have to make massive compromises on the U bit of SUV - Utility.
It's not as if the CX-3 does anything especially badly; it's more that it's limited by the confines of its class. Behind those good looks lies the hugely impressive chassis and mechanical makeup of the Mazda2 supermini. So the CX-3 inherits that car's ultra-sharp steering and delightful attitude to corners. Here's a chunky, front-drive Japanese hatchback that sweeps around bends and twists with the alacrity of a proper sports car. It's just lovely to drive.
The engine is good too. The 1.5 SkyActiv-D diesel is a development of the older 2.2-litre unit and it's an engine far better suited to Irish conditions than its bigger brother. For some reason, we've always had trouble getting the 2.2 to hit its official economy marks, but the 1.5 does a much better job. You may not manage the official 65mpg, but you'll easily get it to top 55mpg, and that's good enough in the real world. An emissions rating of 105g/km means you'll get off lightly at tax renewal time too.
Inside, the cabin is basically lifted straight from the Mazda2 and Mazda3 and that's a good thing. You get an understated, minimalist instrument pack right in front of you, dominated by a big analogue rev counter with a small digital speedo inset. Then there's a bright easy to use touch screen for the satnav and infotainment, although it's a bit confusing sometimes as to how much it's a touchscreen and how much you need to use the little iDrive-alike controller between the seats. Still, quality is excellent and the front seats are comfy.
But, and it's a big but, there's not enough space. There's barely any more room in the back than you get in a Mazda2 supermini and even my nine-year-old son, who admittedly is a bit lanky for his age, was complaining about a lack of space. The boot, at 350 litres, is on par for the class, but is actually only as big as that of a Honda Jazz - a car from the class below.
And that's the problem. Like the rest of the cars at the compact crossover party the CX-3's styling and image are writing cheques its structure can't cash. Call me old fashioned (go on, it's OK, everyone does...) but I think a car that purports to be an SUV should actually be practical. Then there's the matter of cost. At €26k as tested, the CX-3 is a little more expensive, model for model, than a Renault Captur, Peugeot 2008, 500X or Renegade. Not outrageously, but noticeably so. It's also, I'm duty bound to point out, about the same price as a well specified Mazda3 hatchback or saloon, which use the same engine, are equally good looking and just as good, if not better, to drive.
So, if you are bound up with desire for the trendiness of a compact SUV and it's the kind of thing you like, then the CX-3 is as good a choice as you'll find. There are more spacious cars in the class (slightly) but it's the best car in its class to drive and arguably the best looking. Personally? I'd have a 3, thanks...