The marketplace is lousy with mini-crossover wagons – I count at least 13 — but the best combination of style, handling, comfort and useful, smart technology may very well be the Mazda CX-3.
Consider this rig’s nifty all-wheel-drive system, what I’ll call Exhibit A.
Note: AWD is a $2,000 option on GX and GS versions (worth every penny), and standard on the GT ($30,795). Yes, yes, like most AWD systems, most of the power goes to the front wheels for fuel economy reasons, with just a tad heading rearward. Why? When the front wheels slip and power goes to the back end, the transition is smooth, not abrupt.
So, what’ the big deal? This is where Mazda’s engineers have outdone themselves.
They programmed the system’s brain to monitor a collection of sensors up to 200 times a second, so that power goes when and where it’s needed to maximize grip. For example, if you’re using your wipers and its chilly outside, the system sees the potential for slippery pavement and the adjusts the balance of torque front/rear accordingly. Clever and elegant in its simplicity.
Exhibit B: Mazda calls it G-Vectoring Control and if you’re a skier or a race car driver, you’ll appreciate what’s going on here. That is, skiers and racers understand that if you want the tail/s to come around quickly, a little tap on the brakes shifts weight slightly forward, easing the rears around a corner or a mogul.
G-Vectoring does this by reducing engine output for just a moment when you enter a corner, shifting just a bit of the load to the front tires. Voila! Sharper turn-in without braking.
I could get further into the weeds, but let’s just sum up the best of the CX-3 this way: no small crossover is quicker through the corner, and I can’t think of one its equal, either. The CX-3 is light and agile, with nicely weighted steering, flatter than expected cornering, and a six-speed automatic tranny that most of the time finds its way to the right ratio – or you can do things yourself through the shift paddles mounted behind the steering wheel.
All this is a bit shocking because beneath the skin is the architecture of the very pedestrian city runabout Mazda2 – the same Mazda2 subcompact grocery getter no longer even sold in Canada, but still popular in other parts of the world.
But unlike the Mazda2, the CX-3 is a strong design, with a bold nose, sides marked by subtle lines and gentle curves, and wheel arches framed in black. It also delivers decent front bucket seats, an accessible infotainment system (though the 7.0-inch screen is smallish), clear gauges, very good fuel economy, nice if not fancy materials and wonderful cargo utility thanks to rear seats that fold flat and that big rear hatch.
Unfortunately, the back seat is cramped, suitable for kids and small adults, only. If you want more space and versatility, consider the Honda HR-V.
My tester CX-3 was the priciest of its lot, a nearly $33,000 (as tested) GT with all-wheel drive. (Mazda sells some 10 versions of the CX-3, starting at about $21,000 with front drive and a six-speed manual gearbox, and topping out here with the GT automatic with the fancy Technology Package.)
Thirty grand? I wasn’t surprised by the sticker. That’s about what you pay for a loaded and tallish teeny wagon these days.
And the GT is really quite loaded: leather seating surfaces; 18-inch alloy wheels; Bose sound with seven speakers; navigation; keyless entry; pushbutton start; electric parking brake; adaptive cruise control and other safety/convenience equipment; and a strong 2.0-litre four-cylinder that will get you from 0-100 km/hour in about nine seconds.
All told, the CX-3 is a very strong entry in a crowded field, and my first choice. All if the MX-5 of mini-wagons.
2018 Mazda CX-3 GT AWD
Base price: $30,795. Freight and PDI: $1,895. As tested: $32,890.
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder (148-hp/146 lb-ft of torque).
Transmissions: six-speed automatic.
Drive: all-wheel drive.
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.6 city/7.4 using regular fuel.
Comparables: Honda HR-V, Hyundai Kona, Nissan Kick, Subaru SV Crosstrek, Mitsubishi RVR, Buick Encore, Chevrolet Trax, Toyota C-HR, Jeep Renegade, Kia Niro, Fiat 500X, Ford Ecosport, Mini Countryman.