"We saw a real opportunity to bring a new level of interior quality to the segment,” says Mazda North America design director Derek Jenkins. “We know that this is highly valued by Mazda's target customer."
Opportunity indeed. Mazda’s cabins have been voids of blackness, with hard, shiny materials and faux-BMW red illumination. They were simultaneously filled with foreboding and cheapness.
Customers bought Mazdas in spite of their interiors rather than because of them. No more. Even the company’s new entry-level crossover SUV contains cockpit appointments that would flatter cars in higher categories and with greater cultural currency.
This has entailed adding colours and textures notably absent from previous Mazdas. “We wanted to avoid being hard-edged or Teutonic,” Jenkins says. “We want it to be approachable and warm.”
Base CX-3 models have single-tone fabric inside, yet the material’s texture conveys more consideration – and comfort – than what might be expected for a product in this sizzling segment. Move up the model range and there’s leather with two accent colours providing flash. A black, white and red leather interior with a vibrant Soul Red exterior is the CX-3’s statement combination, and it is very effective.
With the CX-3 rolling out to global markets in coming months, its exterior design is certain to draw potential customers close enough to note the appealing cabin. Despite the challenging, stubby proportions of any sub-compact SUV, Mazda’s design team integrated aggressive cues, lending some of the racy flair of the fourth-generation MX-5 Miata. An elephant on a skateboard, the CX-3 is not.
“We didn’t want to go the ‘funky’ route,” Jenkins says. “We feel that’s already been covered by Nissan.” He didn’t have to say “Juke”.
A crisp character line arches from the front fenders, diving beneath a second line that rises ahead of the rear wheels. Blacked-out rocker panels connect wheel arches that underscore the diameter of the available 18in aluminium wheels (16-inchers are standard).
As seen previously from Mazda’s so-called Kodo form language, the CX-3 features a long hood with a laid-back windshield to avoid the pod profile that plagues many small hatchbacks and SUVs.
The CX-3’s hardware cashes the checks that its bodywork writes, with a 146-horsepower, 146 pound-feet 2-litre version of the company’s SkyActiv gasoline engine, matched to a standard six-speed automatic transmission, to provide Mazda’s expected zip.
Mazda’s i-ACTIV all-wheel drive system is invisible in regular driving, as the system’s computer recognises its redundancy and disconnects the rear wheels to save fuel. However, in slippery conditions, where older all-wheel-drive technology might react to loss of traction, the i-ACTIV system “predicts” an impending slip based on feedback from sensors monitoring temperature, anti-lock braking and traction control. The power is directed to the rear wheels pre-emptively, to give the CX-3 a nudge forward, before the front tires slip.
Honda’s new HR-V provides the most direct comparison to the CX-3, but the two vehicles have entirely different personalities despite their obvious similarities. The Honda is more spacious, with a more useable rear seat and more cargo capacity, while the Mazda accelerates more smartly, turns more crisply and displays more flair than its altogether more ponderous foil.
Although the CX-3 is clearly targeted towards young families, part of even a sub-compact SUV’s remit is the carrying of adults in the back seat, and the CX-3 not unexpectedly surrenders some ground. A six-footer can sit behind another six-footer, but only just, with knees touching the seatback and shoulders and elbows against the door for a cocoon fit. Similarly, soft luggage is probably the order of the day for the cargo bay.
Unlike some recent SkyActiv Mazdas, the CX-3 does not chug along in too high a gear, with the engine turning too low in the rev range. So, while its transmission has an unfashionably paltry six speeds (a Jeep Renegade, which sits amid the CX-3’s competitor set, will give you nine), it makes the most of what it has.
Enthusiasts are Mazda’s traditional customer base, and they will surely grouse about the absence of a manual transmission, at least in the US market, but few urban-dwelling crossover buyers are in a hurry to shift their own gears. Moreover, when in Sport mode, the automatic makes all the right choices – holding gears through tight bends and letting the engine rev at high-speed merge points. It may not be terribly involving, but it serves the purpose.
The new customer that Mazda is courting is not one to count gear ratios or watch the tachometer needle. No matter. The inner beauty of Mazda’s newest product requires no special expertise to behold. Meanwhile, die-hard Mazda-philes will know the CX-3’s true beauty lies in the next bend in the road.
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