Deputy editor Dan Pund gazed out from his cubicle into the Car and Driver parking lot, considered the 2016 Mazda CX-3 for a moment, and declared, “It’s just a Pontiac Vibe.”
He was making an observation, not hurling an insult. If we weren’t living in the age of the crossover, we—you, me, and the entire driving public—would call the CX-3 a car. The most striking difference between this so-called crossover and the Mazda 3hatchback is the gray plastic cladding that traces the body’s bottom edge.
Pund’s remark points out a larger truth, as well: As crossovers shrink to these subcompact proportions, they become less SUV-like and more closely resemble cars. From our perspective—where we appreciate a low center of gravity and the commensurate benefit to handling—that isn’t a bad thing.
In fact, the CX-3 is a very, very good thing. Mazda’s mini-ute drives like a Pontiac Vibe in the same way that a Ferrari drives like a Fiat. The CX-3 steers with precision, corners with aplomb, and scoots down the road with a verve that is almost universally absent among crossovers. Toggle the Sport mode and the quick-shifting automatic transmission takes on Porsche-esque logic, downshifting as you brake for an upcoming corner. Without question, Mazda has built the driver’s car—er, crossover—in this burgeoning segment.
The CX-3’s 8.1-second amble to 60 mph qualifies as quick, but only because vehicles in this class often run in the nines and occasionally flirt with the 10-second mark. Credit for its fleetness goes to the svelte 2932-pound curb weight as much as the 146-hp engine. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder needs revs to make its power, but it grinds toward its 6800-rpm redline with noisy protest.
The humble 16-inch wheels and pedestrian tires on our mid-level Touring model produced modest performance figures at the track. The CX-3 circled the skidpad at 0.81 g with the undefeatable stability control nipping at the brakes, then posted a ho-hum 70-to-zero-mph stopping distance of 181 feet. In typical Mazda tradition, though, what the CX-3 sacrifices in cold, hard numbers it more than makes up for in driving character.
Even those who are oblivious to Mazda’s dynamic charms should find plenty to love in the CX-3. The upscale, aggressive exterior styling encases an upscale, serene interior. Our Touring test car carried a price of about $25,500 (official MSRPs have yet to be announced) and delivered a nicely tailored cabin, flawless ergonomics, and all of the technology people actually use without any extraneous fluff. We also were impressed by our average fuel economy of 28 mpg over 300 miles.
At 7.3 inches shorter in length than a Mazda 3, the CX-3’s greatest shortcoming is its shortness. The amount of space behind the front buckets is seriously compressed. Anyone planning to use the rear seats with any regularity would be better served by one of this segment’s rolling refrigerator boxes, such as the Jeep Renegade or the Kia Soul.
But if fun-to-drive tops your shopping list, you can’t find a better small crossover than the Mazda CX-3. Or you could just buy a car.