Mazda's smallest sport utility vehicle, the new CX-3, is a nimble five-seater with fresh styling, an affordable starting price, generous standard equipment and noteworthy fuel economy.
Available with front- or all-wheel drive, the 2016 CX-3 has a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price of $20,840, including destination charge. That's $1,835 less than Mazda's larger CX-5 SUV and makes the CX-3 competitive with the starting retail prices of other small SUVs, such as the Chevrolet Trax, Nissan Juke and Honda HR-V.
Better yet, the CX-3 with front-wheel drive is rated by the federal government as high as 29 miles per gallon in city driving and 35 mpg on highways -- good enough to share the top spot with the Honda HR-V for combined fuel mileage among new gas-powered, non-hybrid SUVs in the United States. The mileage rating also beats the 2015 Toyota Camry sedan, which has 25/35 mpg.
A surprising number of features and equipment come standard, even on the lowest-priced CX-3: rearview camera, keyless remote entry, push-button ignition, infotainment system with voice control and 7-inch color touchscreen display, tilt and telescoping steering wheel and Bluetooth for audio and hands-free phone connectivity.
Every CX-3 also comes with a six-speed automatic transmission and a 146-horsepower, non-turbo four-cylinder engine that can deliver spunky performance in many situations, due to the direct injection and the compact SUV's light weight.
The top-of-the-line Grand Touring models, while nicely equipped with a moonroof, leather seats and other things, start at more than $25,800, rivaling pricing for roomier SUVs. The test Grand Touring model with all-wheel drive and optional safety equipment package approached $30,000.
Cargo space behind the second-row seats in the CX-3 totals only 12.4 cubic feet, which is less capacity than the trunks of some compact cars, and the floor sits high. However, cargo space can be maximized to 44.5 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down.
The CX-3's styling has side body metal swooping upward toward the back of the SUV, so the rear-door windows can seem a bit small for those in the back seat. Legroom back there is 35 inches (compared with 41.7 inches in the front), and three adults sit snugly across the back bench.
Overall, the CX-3 is a nice blend of Mazda's character and small-car history and the ride height and flexibility expected of an SUV. At just 14 feet long, the CX-3 slips easily into curbside parking spaces.
The Grand Touring test model got up to speed and merged with traffic well but could get noisy when pressed hard to accelerate on mountain roads. A sportier response can be attained by pressing the "sport" mode button, which adjusts gear shifts for quicker power response.
The 2-liter four-cylinder engine delivers peak torque of 146 foot-pounds at a decent 2,800 rpm. Electric power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering responded well, and the vehicle's ride tended to the firm side, rather than cushioned. Road noise from the test SUV's 18-inch all-season tires two sizes bigger than the base 16-inchers, intruded when the vehicle was on rough pavement but was otherwise normal.
Achieving the government's fuel economy numbers appears to be realistic. The test all-wheel drive CX-3 averaged 28.7 mpg, which is close to the 29-mpg combined city/highway rating for this model. This translated into a 341-mile travel range on a single 11.9-gallon tank; front-drive CX-3s have a slightly larger tank that can hold 12.7 gallons.