► Mazda joins the small SUV set
► Classy cabin, crisp drive
► Premium feel, but price to match
With the MX-5’s halo consistently bright enough to readily facilitate the Helix School Geometry Set compass-sponsored excavation of a verucca in a powercut (don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it), I’ve never quite understood why Mazda doesn’t thrive more in the UK. There’s now something of the spiffing in almost every model in the range, yet sales tick over at just below 50,000 units per annum.
Truth is, of course, lacking a production facility in Blighty (and, hence, relentlessly worked over by punitive exchange rates), disinterested in fleet discounting at the expense of profitability (just 30% of sales are to the fleet market) and no longer dangerously shackled to Ford, Mazda has been entirely happy with its status as a relatively compact, engineering-led outfit producing some 1.25 million cars each year.
However, punting a new contender into a fiercely competitive B-SUV segment pond already boiling with alternatives ranging from the prosaic to the premium is, surely, a clear indication that Mazda might now settle for shifting a few more…
What's the Mazda CX-3 up against?
The spread of segment rivals is lavish, encompassing everything from the likes of the Renault Captur, Nissan Juke and Peugeot 2008 to pricier offerings such as Vauxhall’s Mokka, that Fat Slag Mini variant and forthcoming nippers from the VW stable such as the Audi Q1.
With prices ranging from £17,595 to a daunting £24,695, where you slot the CX-3 into this list will depend on whether or not you buy into Mazda’s protestation that standard equipment levels are so high at even entry level you’ll quickly achieve price parity when kitting out most rivals to match. Safest to assume, though, that the CX-3 targets the premium end of the spectrum; not least because it certainly looks, and feels, the part.
Let's start inside. What's the cabin like?
This is definitely one of the classier interiors of its type: nicely made, leather-trimmed, largely good to touch. The front seats are comfortable and supportive and, with both seat-height and reach-and-rake steering adjustment, the driving position’s first class, even if the seat back needs turning knob rather than lever adjustment.
Indeed, my only real beef is with the instrument binnacle, and even that’s model-dependent. High end, Sport Nav models boast an analogue rev counter with a digital speedometer inset. But lesser variants are equipped with an analogue speedometer and a diminutive LED rev counter in one of the binnacle side pods.
And this is significant not because you’ll be watching the rev counter like a hawk, but because said side pods are hard to read; the back-lighting isn’t bright enough, and there’s a lot of reflection off the covers.
Which particular CX-3 is being tested here?
All-wheel drive is available at the top of the CX-3 range, but it’s the £19,595, front-wheel-drive, 118bhp SE-L Nav that’s destined for best-selling status in the UK. Standard equipment is comprehensive, and includes air-conditioning, electric everything, sat-nav, a raft of safety features and a nicely intuitive multimedia system operated via a 7in touchscreen at speeds below 5mph, and a rotary dial thereafter.
How does it feel on the move?
In these days of tiny turbocharged engines powering behemoths in the interest of on-paper-only fuel and CO2 miracles, it’s pleasing that Mazda has shunned this approach in favour of added lightness allied to an under-stressed 2.0-litre unit that will sustain respectable cruising speeds at a gentle thrum. That said, this engine does have to be worked surprisingly hard through the gearbox to move 1230kg with anything approaching proper alacrity.
Happily, that’s no chore, because the gearshift has an engaging throw and accuracy a mile away from, for instance, the gallows trapdoor release lever equipping the Cactus. It’s only a shame that, in these days of direct injection, the engine doesn’t sound as sweet as I’d hoped.
Nicely weighted steering boasts the feel and accuracy we’ve quietly come to expect of a Mazda, and the CX-3 acquits itself with a flat handling stance and a poise which is almost unseemly for this segment; the only downside being that ride quality is somewhat uncouth on even relatively unchallenging surfaces. This is the second family-orientated car I’ve driven in as many weeks wherein ride comfort has been sacrificed in the interests of removing the paint from the door handles at every corner (stand up Volvo XC90), and I still don’t get the raison d-etre. Mazda already has the MX-5 to put flies on your teeth, no need, surely, for the CX-3 to put flecks of puke on your toddler.