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2019 Mazda CX-3 Test Drive Review
With the freshened 2019 CX-3, Mazda adds even more style and sophistication than you’ll find in other small SUVs, matching some that wear luxury brand names in the process.
Tiny and impractical, comfortably seating just two people, in need of more power, yet plenty of fun to drive, the 2019 Mazda CX-3 is the Miata of SUVs. It competes against other inexpensive entry-level crossovers ranging from the Buick Encore to the Toyota C-HR, swapping outright utility for stylish good looks and rousing dynamics. You don’t buy a Mazda CX-3 for off-roading capability or spending sprees at the local IKEA. You buy it because it looks terrific and is a joy to pilot, putting a smile on your face whether you’re commuting, running errands, or heading out for a drive just because.
Look and Feel
Mazda offers the CX-3 in three trim levels: Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring. Prices start at $20,390 and range up to $27,145, plus a destination charge of $995.
My test vehicle was a Grand Touring trim with Soul Red Crystal paint, doorsill trim plates, and a rear-bumper guard plate. It also had a Premium Package with power driver’s seat adjustment and memory, a heated steering wheel, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, and traffic-sign-recognition technology. The price tag for the front-wheel-drive (FWD) version I tested was $28,245, including the destination charge.
Mazda gets many things right with its cars and SUVs, and design is one of them. They look like nothing else on the road, and in a good way. Even though the CX-3 is an entry-level SUV, it looks more upscale than many luxury models. For 2019, Mazda updates the CX-3’s styling, swapping in a new grille, new LED headlights, new wheels, and new LED taillights; adding more chrome; and using a new version of Mazda’s now-classic Soul Red paint.
Inside, the upscale look and feel continues, especially in Grand Touring trim. This year, all CX-3s get a reconfigured center console with more storage, thanks to a new electronic parking-brake system with an Auto Hold function. Redesigned seats aim to improve comfort, there’s new suede trim on the dashboard and door panels, and Grand Touring versions add full leather upholstery for the first time, complete with classy piping.
I like the way the CX-3 looks, even if its rakish design forces compromise in terms of backseat room and cargo space. This is a stylish crossover that looks more expensive than it is, with a graceful elegance that typically eludes entry-level models.
Although it isn't powerful, the Mazda CX-3 is enjoyable to drive, especially with the 2019 model's improvements reducing noise, vibration, and harshness.
Remember, this is an entry-level vehicle, based on the company’s global Mazda2 platform, and it weighs just 2,800 pounds to start. There isn’t much sound deadening, and it’s got a rear torsion-beam suspension. Yet it always comes across as something more than basic.
Mazda tweaked the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine for 2019 to make a little more power. Output measures 148 horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque, and Mazda says more of that torque is available across a larger part of the engine’s rev range. A 6-speed automatic transmission is standard, powering the front wheels. All CX-3s have Sport and Manual driving modes, and Grand Touring trim adds a pair of paddle shifters.
An optional predictive intelligent all-wheel-drive (AWD) system sends up to half the engine’s power to the rear wheels before occupants can feel any slip, and standard G-Vectoring Control improves cornering by modulating the engine's torque to help transfer the vehicle's sprung weight to the outside wheels. It's proven to work, but in a way that is nearly imperceptible to the driver and passengers. For 2019, Mazda also says it has revised the CX-3’s suspension and chassis tuning in order to improve ride and handling.
So, what’s the verdict on this collection of small and subtle mechanical updates?
The CX-3 is zippy enough that, most of the time, you’ll be happy with its performance. The transmission does an excellent job of picking the right gear at the right time, and it holds lower gears to maintain speed when climbing hills. I used the paddle shifters on twisty two-lane roads, but they weren’t as satisfying as simply letting the transmission’s Sport mode figure things out.
The CX-3 was able to pass a semi truck on a rural two-lane road without working too hard, and there’s enough power and responsiveness to slice-and-dice through heavy traffic.
Handling is nimble. You can take corners with some speed in this little SUV. The steering impresses, too, and the ride quality is improved as well, though some rear-end bounce and wiggle is still evident due to the solid axle rear suspension. Most people, however, will likely assume this is due to the CX-3’s athletic tuning more than anything else.
While running hard in the mountains, I did tax the brakes. They’re a 4-wheel-disc setup, but they faded a bit, resulting in a longer-than-expected stopping distance when hot.
Also, for the record, I got 29.2 mpg on my testing loop. The EPA estimates that a CX-3 with FWD will return 29 mpg city, 34 highway, 31 combined. Adding AWD drops those numbers to 27, 32, 29.
Form and Function
Thanks to its new seats, the updated 2019 CX-3 is more comfortable than before. Up front, anyway.
With 6-way power adjustment, it’s easier for a driver to find a proper position behind the steering wheel, and in all but the base Sport trim, a manual front passenger’s seat-height adjuster ensures better leg support and an improved view out. Plus, Mazda includes padding on the center console where your legs are likely to rest, a thoughtful touch that's missing from many vehicles that cost twice as much.
The backseat is an afterthought. If short adults are riding up front, short adults will be happy in back. But with the driver’s seat set for my comfort, the CX-3’s back seat was undeniably cramped. Even my elementary-school-age children groused about riding back there. There is, however, a new center armrest with cupholders.
The trunk isn’t terribly roomy, either. It has a shallow tray under the cargo floor, but all told the space measures 9.6 cubic feet in versions equipped with the Bose premium sound system. If you can live without that upgrade, you’ve got 12.4 cubic feet to work with. Fold the backseat down to maximize cargo space at 41.7 cubic feet with the Bose audio system or 44.5 cubes without it.
In addition to sophisticated safety systems, the CX-3’s Mazda Connect infotainment system is a real treat, and the Active Driving Display with traffic-sign-recognition technology (part of the Grand Touring Premium Package) adds some gee-whiz-wow factor to the CX-3.
You can operate Mazda Connect using the 7-inch touchscreen, the Euro-style controls on the center console, or natural language voice commands. The system responds to input quickly, offers a number of personalization options, and includes navigation and a decent Bose 7-speaker sound system in Grand Touring trim.
Mazda Connect offers access to various internet radio platforms, supports audible and verbal text messaging, and includes E911 automatic emergency notification service. It does not, however, include Apple CarPlay or Android Auto smartphone integration, which is somewhat inexplicable in a 2019 model year vehicle aimed at young buyers.
One of my favorite things about Mazda Connect is its natural voice-recognition capability. Push the Talk button, ask the system to find the nearest (insert name of favorite coffee shop or restaurant chain here), and the CX-3 will offer a list of locations with the closest one first.
Mazda has also upgraded the CX-3’s safety technologies for 2019.
Standard equipment for all trim levels includes a blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert. For Sport and Touring trim, new iActiveSense option packages add a slew of driving-assistance and collision-avoidance technologies. This means that even if you can afford only the entry-level Sport version, Mazda makes critical safety features available to you.
Included in those packages, and standard with Grand Touring trim, a new adaptive cruise-control system offers stop-and-go capability. That’s unavailable on some luxury-brand SUVs, let alone entry-level models like this Mazda. The adaptive cruise is paired with new all-speed forward emergency braking, lane-departure warning, and adaptive high-beam headlights.
Mazda provides lots of ways to configure the CX-3’s driver-assistance and collision-avoidance technologies. In addition to choosing sensitivity settings, you can change the type of warning. For example, I prefer a rumble-strip type of lane-departure warning, and I can get that in the CX-3, instead of an irritating beep. That way, I’m inclined to leave the system on rather than shut it off in frustration.
The adaptive cruise control works smoothly, but the CX-3 is in no hurry to regain speed once traffic starts moving again. I needed to prod the accelerator pedal to keep the CX-3 from becoming a rolling traffic cone. On a positive note, I did not find the CX-3’s forward-collision warning system or the automatic emergency-braking system to be over-sensitive, like I have in other Mazdas.
The CX-3 gets a 5-star overall rating in federal government crash tests. However, in the test simulating a side impact with a pole, the left rear-seat crash-test dummy indicated an elevated potential for thoracic injury. As this review is written, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) hasn’t rated the 2019 CX-3, but last year it got top marks nearly across the board.
Slowly but surely, Mazda is re-positioning itself as a premium brand among the likes of Acura and Buick.
The good news is that from styling, quality, and refinement perspectives, the company’s vehicles are already worthy of that status. Yet pricing remains comparatively low, which makes them seem underpriced for what you’re getting—especially in direct comparison to the competition.
As far as small SUVs go, without more power, more ground clearance, more backseat room, and more cargo space, the Mazda CX-3’s appeal is somewhat limited.
Don’t get me wrong. This is one of my favorite small crossovers—especially in Grand Touring trim. But this Mazda is best for people who value style, sophistication, and on-pavement driving dynamics over utility and adventuring off the beaten path.
In other words, it’s the Miata of small SUVs.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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