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Rivals: Mazda CX-3 vs. Jeep Renegade vs. Honda HR-V

We take a look at three of the newest small crossovers on the market. Which one reigns supreme: the off-road bomber, the utility maven or the invigorating corner carver?

The crossover market has been white-hot for some time. Tons of families and single folks on the go have realized that a CUV offers many of the same advantages as a traditional sport utility vehicle, sedan or hatchback, with few of the drawbacks. They typically offer more space than a similarly sized sedan, but are easier to maneuver than SUVs (especially in cities where traffic and parking can be a hindrance), and they offer essentially the same practicality as a hatch wrapped in a more stylish package. Crossovers also can return fuel economy that's as good as many sedans on the market, while still remaining nimble and even fun to drive.

Crossovers started off a bit larger, but proved to be so popular that manufacturers have lately been looking for other segments to CUV-ify. The latest examples are much smaller, coming in under the best-selling Honda CR-V and its nemesis, the Toyota RAV4. We decided to go with three brand-spanking-new cute utes for this Roadshow Rivals episode: the Honda HR-V, Mazda CX-3 and Jeep Renegade.

We took our three test subjects out to Lake Berryessa, just outside of Napa, California, for a knock-down, drag-out battle, sussing out the cabin technology, utility and handling characteristics of each crossover. And what CUV test would be complete without a little off-road action? That's right -- we got our rides dirty, too.

Third place: 2016 Jeep Renegade

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The 2016 Jeep Renegade in the Trailhawk trim is a small yet mighty off-road crossover.

Josh Miller/CNET

Introduced in 2015, the Jeep Renegade initially took a bit of flak for sharing the same platform as the Fiat 500X. Folks just didn't think the little ute, built in Italy no less, was rugged enough to be called a Jeep.

It seems like Jeep is having the last laugh, though, as the Renegade has sold over 60,000 units in the US since it went on sale in March of last year. Sure, that's small potatoes compared to other Jeep products like the Wrangler or Cherokee, but it's still more than either of our Rivals over the same time period.

Visually, the Renegade is chock full of character. Its taillights have a unique X-design like the strengthening ribs on a jerry can and there are little "Easter egg" nods to the Jeep brand scattered throughout the cabin. Plus, it's the only one of our Rivals to offer removable roof panels. Despite its passenger-car roots, the Renegade looks more like a traditional Jeep than the radical Cherokee that preceded it.

We tested the top-flight Trailhawk trim line, which has five Terrain-Selec modes: Auto, Snow, Sand, Mud and Rock, as well as a 4WD Low, keeping the Renegade in 1st gear with a 20:1 ratio for any super-slow rock crawling. The Renegade has skid plates protecting the fuel tank, transfer case and transmission, as well as excellent approach, departure and breakover angles and a ground clearance of 8.7 inches. The little Renegade, even with its stock all-terrain tires, certainly bests the HR-V and CX-3 when it comes to getting it done in the dirt.

Of course, to get to the dirt, you more than likely have to drive on the pavement, and that's where the Renegade falters a bit. The ride is fairly rough, and the suspension, tuned for off-roading, makes for bouncy outings on the asphalt. Roadshow Editor-in-Chief Tim Stevens noted, "This is not a road-optimized machine. This is a Jeep after all, and it feels like you're driving a Jeep."

The Renegade does feel the most SUV-like of our three players, thanks to its high seating position and bulky 4x4 system. Sure, it may be cute, but the Renegade is also the heaviest of our Rivals, weighing in at 3,490 pounds. That number goes down considerably if you opt for the front-wheel-drive version, but you'll also get a smaller and less powerful 1.4-liter turbocharged engine.

As it is, our Trailhawk Renegade is powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder, giving 180 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque. A nine-speed automatic transmission is standard with the Trailhawk, and a manual is not available on this trim line.

At over a foot shorter than the Cherokee, the Renegade is Jeep's smallest and least expensive product line. However, it does have a wide stance and can accommodate three passengers in the rear. Its boxy styling makes for excellent headroom, and the Renegade offers a fair amount of cargo space, with 18.5 cubic feet with the rear seats up and 50.8 with the rear seats down. There is also a height-adjustable cargo floor in the rear to stow the removable My Sky roof panels.

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Things get a little crowded on the 6.5-inch touchscreen in the Jeep Renegade.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

While Jeep gets Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' excellent Uconnect system, it's all crammed onto a smaller 6.5-inch touchscreen, which makes things difficult to read. Still, the screen is responsive and there's an available data connection that powers built-in apps, including Yelp.

At $31,440 plus $995 for delivery, the Renegade is the most expensive of our bunch, but there are less-costly Renegade models that line up a bit better with our Rivals, like the Latitude, starting at $23,395. Knock those down to front-wheel drive and the price decreases by another $2,000.

The Renegade Trailhawk isn't for everyone. It's not a very refined ride on the pavement, and its EPA fuel rating of 21 miles per gallon in the city and 29 miles per gallon on the highway is the worst of our group. Trail Rated badge notwithstanding, most people just aren't in the market for a crossover that can go cross-country.

Second place: 2016 Mazda CX-3

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The Mazda CX-3 was by far the most fun to drive of our three Rivals.

Josh Miller/CNET

At first glance, the Mazda CX-3 isn't much different from the Mazda3 hatchback, as their silhouettes are strikingly similar. However, the CX-3 is actually based on the smaller Mazda2, which unfortunately isn't offered in the United States anymore. At any rate, the CX-3 is a whole foot shorter than the Mazda3, while standing more than 3 inches taller.

The CX-3 is also offered with all-wheel-drive, but unfortunately, only a front-wheel-drive model was available for our comparison test. Either way, given our dry weather conditions, this wasn't really a penalty on road.

Mazda's newest crossover shares the same KODO design language that is prevalent across all of Mazda's current offerings, and to our eyes, it's by far the most attractive of our three contestants. Bold lines and the Japanese brand's recognizable five-point grille may bring in those who choose to buy with their heart.

But Mazda has always been more about driving emotion than about flat-out power. The 2.0-liter Skyactiv engine in the CX-3 puts out 146 horsepower and an equal amount of torque. That's more than the Honda HR-V, but much less than the Renegade. Still, the CX-3 is the lightest of the bunch, tipping the scales at a comparatively svelte 2,809 pounds. Adding all-wheel drive only increases the weight by 143 pounds.

The CX-3 delivers the most engaging drive of our challengers. It may seem a bit underpowered, but it will attack the corners with abandon, exhibiting a just enough body roll to keep you on your toes. The electric power steering is fairly direct and it weights up nicely at speed. Mazda's reputation for building fun and affordable driver's cars is certainly present in the CX-3.

Sure, the CX-3 certainly hauls the mail with its lively handling, but that's about all you'll be hauling. While technically rated to carry five passengers, at least one will have to be on the smaller side to get three people in the backseat. Storage is at a premium, too, with only 10.1 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats. That expands to 42.3 cubic feet when the rear seats are stowed, but they don't lie flat. It's a little thing, but when it comes to utility, every cubic inch counts.

The CX-3 does get our pick for the best infotainment technology among these Rivals. A 7-inch touchscreen can also be controlled from the rotary knob on the center console and the home screen allows for easy access to navigation, phone and audio controls. Pandora and Stitcher will even run off a paired smartphone.

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The interior of the Mazda CX-3 belies its affordable price.

Mazda USA

The devil is often in the details, and as Managing Editor Wayne Cunningham notes, "Mazda shows all the audio sources on one screen... and I can browse my music library wirelessly." We like that level of convenience, and it's not the only one -- the CX-3 has many other little tech touches that distinguish it from its opponents.

What further sets the Mazda apart are its optional driver-assistance features. Our test model is the only one of these three to come with a head-up display and adaptive cruise control, available as part of Mazda's i-Activsense package. The CX-3 also gets lane-departure warning and a forward-collision-mitigation system with automatic braking, neither of which are available on the other vehicles we tested.

Where the CX-3 really faltered was in off-road capability. While it's not fair to throw a front-wheel-drive vehicle up against a Trail Rated Jeep, its inclusion in the crossover class does imply more capability away from the pavement than your average sedan. However, with all-season tires standard and low ground clearance, the CX-3 is meant for a graded dirt road and nothing more, even when you pony up for all-wheel drive.

Our top-of-the-line 2016 Mazda CX-3 will set you back $28,340 (plus $880 for delivery), but the base Sport model starts at $19,960. Expect to shell out $1,250 extra for all-wheel-drive. EPA fuel ratings for our test model are 29 miles per gallon in the city and 35 miles per gallon on the highway. Expect slightly lower numbers when all four wheels are powered. The CX-3 is a blast to drive and has a great infotainment interface, but it suffers from lack of storage space... for both people and cargo.

Bingo! 2016 Honda HR-V

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The new Honda HR-V doesn't break any styling ground, but its utility puts it at the top of our list.

Josh Miller/CNET

Trust me -- we were surprised, too. The Honda HR-V is not the most exciting CUV here. It's the only one equipped with a joy-dulling continuously variable transmission, and its exterior is nothing short of boring. Still, its price, utility and fuel ratings won over the intellectual in each of us, even if our enthusiast side had us pining for the Mazda CX-3.

Think of the HR-V as a more butch sibling to the Honda Fit, because it is -- the two are models are based on the same platform. However, the HR-V is a bit bigger and is available with all-wheel drive, making it more versatile. Although its styling is a pretty bland, it's at least inoffensive. If you're looking to make a statement by not making a statement, the HR-V is your jam.

Powered by a 1.8-liter engine, the HR-V produces 141 horsepower and 127 pound-feet of torque. Our test mule with its CVT and all-wheel-drive returns 27 miles per gallon in the city and 32 mpg on the highway. If you opt for the front-wheel-drive model, expect 29 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway.

Out on the road, the HR-V turns in a comfortable drive, but it's far from enthralling. The CVT keeps the engine operating at optimum efficiency with a band rather than fixed gears. It's great for fuel economy, but doesn't deliver the thrills of a manual gearbox or even a shiftable conventional automatic. Still, the transmission is responsive enough to power the 3,100-pound HR-V smartly in everyday driving situations.

The HR-V's Magic Seat is what pushed it to the top of our winner's podium. This aptly named feature can flip and fold and otherwise hide out of the way, allowing owners to carry items up to 4 feet tall. Over 23 cubic feet of space is available behind the rear seats, and that expands to a whopping 57.6 cubic feet with those rear seats folded flat. That's more than some larger SUVs, including the Jeep Patriot, Compass and Cherokee. The icing on the cake is the HR-V's fully reclining front seat, which gives enough storage space for items up to 8 feet long.

Even though the Honda's interior tech is not quite as slick as the Mazda's, it's still a good system. A 7-inch touchscreen is quick to recognize inputs, although graphics in some of the submenus are below par. The HondaLink connectivity system lets you download third-party apps to the head unit, as long as you have an iPhone. Android phones are not compatible with HondaLink, and we're also also puzzled why Honda chose to remove traditional volume and tuning knobs -- it's an ergonomic step backwards.

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The Magic Seat in the HR-V allows for cargo up to 4 feet high.

Honda

If freedom from the pavement is what you're looking for, the HR-V is surprisingly capable. Its all-wheel-drive system is helpful in the rough, and it comes with all-season tires rated for mud and snow. Sure, it sits only around a half-inch higher than the Mazda CX-3, but sometimes, a little extra room is all you need. The HR-V hits the sweet spot most crossover buyers are looking for when it comes to off-road prowess: just enough to get you to the cabin through the snow in time for hot chocolate and s'mores.

Our test model HR-V with navigation, all-wheel-drive and CVT comes in at $26,720 plus $900 in destination charges. This Honda doesn't provide the same joyful experience behind the wheel as the Mazda CX-3, but neither is it a slouch to drive. And while it's no off-road monster, it certainly has enough chops to satisfy most folks. Even though we all agreed the Mazda CX-3 has the best tech and the most engaging dynamics, we knew we couldn't declare it the winner because of its subpar utility; not when the HR-V offers up so much more space.

The Honda HR-V is a jack of all handling, technology and off-road trades, and master of one: cargo space. Sometimes being middle of the road pays off.

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