2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo first drive review: Hostile torque-over

This upscale little crossover finally has the drivetrain it deserves, one that delivers oodles of turbocharged torque.

Craig Cole Former reviews editor
Craig brought 15 years of automotive journalism experience to the Cars team. A lifelong resident of Michigan, he's as happy with a wrench or welding gun in hand as he is in front of the camera or behind a keyboard. When not hosting videos or cranking out features and reviews, he's probably out in the garage working on one of his project cars. He's fully restored a 1936 Ford V8 sedan and then turned to resurrecting another flathead-powered relic, a '51 Ford Crestliner. Craig has been a proud member of the Automotive Press Association (APA) and the Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA).
Craig Cole
6 min read

Torque is important. Horsepower may be what sells cars, but this enigmatic twisting force is what you actually feel. Drop the hammer when taking off from a light and torque is the invisible hand shoving you back into the seat. For easy drivability and greater towing or hauling performance, loads of low-end torque is what you're after, and this is exactly what Mazda delivers in the 2021 CX-30 Turbo.

The Turbo addresses what is perhaps this crossover's greatest shortfall: an acute lack of giddy-up. Fill the tank with 93-octane fuel and that force-fed engine whips up 250 horsepower and a burly 320 pound-feet of torque. Even if you cheap out and run regular-grade gas -- which is totally fine to do -- those figures only drop to 227 and 310, respectively. Either way, that's far more than the 186 hp and 186 lb-ft the non-turbo CX-30 offers.

Smooth running and about as hushed as a librarian with laryngitis, the CX-30 Turbo's engine is both pleasant and potent, pulling like a tractor at low speeds. This grunt makes the Mazda enjoyable to drive, particularly around town where it punches hardest. The engine's power delivery is also free of lumps or sags, with acceleration coming in a predictable wave. The enthusiasm does, however, taper off a little at higher speeds, with the engine only revving to about 5,000 rpm before the transmission upshifts to the next gear.

2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo: Pretty and potent

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Like other Mazdas, the CX-30 is, quite literally, a step or two behind the times. It's only offered with a six-speed automatic gearbox at a time when at least eight ratios are the norm. Even though this transmission is antiquated and can be a little slow to shift, it's smooth and works well with that torque-rich engine. Despite its shortage of gears, the CX-30 Turbo's fuel economy isn't too shabby. With standard all-wheel drive, expect 22 miles per gallon around town and 30 mpg on the highway. Combined, this Mazda is rated at 25, which is close to the 24 mpg and change I got in real-world driving.

Just like its slick powertrain, the CX-30 Turbo's chassis is enjoyable. Even though the addition of that turbocharged engine and a new rear differential that can handle 300% more torque conspired to add about 120 pounds to its waistline, engineers threw in slightly stiffer springs to compensate, tuning the whole shebang to feel exactly the same as non-turbocharged models. This means the CX-30 is wonderfully balanced in corners, almost instinctively going where you point it, so there's no need to make midcourse corrections while rounding a bend. This Mazda's ride quality is definitely on the firm side, but this tautness maintains body control in nearly all situations and keeps things on an even keel when pushed.

2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo

If you like torque you'll love this 2.5-liter turbocharged engine.

Craig Cole/Roadshow

The CX-30 (Turbo or otherwise) is simply beautiful, with flowing lines and striking proportions. Up front is a tastefully rendered grille accented by a semicircle of chrome that extends to undergird the headlamps, which are leering and angular. The vehicle's flanks are purely sculptural, without any creases or character lines, only reflection-based surfacing spices things up, an approach that's as unique as it is effective. This Mazda's backside is short and similarly elegant, with the taillights matching the hatch's curves.

Visually setting the Turbo model apart from other CX-30s is a handful of tweaks. The grille is treated to a gloss-black finish and both the 18-inch wheels it rolls on and the exterior mirror housings are rendered in black as well. The exhaust outlets are larger, there's a turbo badge on the rear, its top is crowned by aluminum roof rails, and fortunately, that's about it. Designers resisted the temptation to tweak a bunch of things that didn't need to be changed.

This tastefulness carries right through to the CX-30's cabin, which is beautifully styled and built. The layout is as functional as it is elegant, with the climate controls being mounted high on the dashboard where they're easy to see and operate. The interior is made of top-quality materials, with plenty of premium leather and soft plastic on display.

2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo

The CX-30's interior is nicer than what you get in some luxury vehicles. 

Craig Cole/Roadshow

This subcompact crossover's front chairs are sufficiently coddling, with the driver's bucket power adjusting in eight directions, though its rear seat will be a bit on the tight side if you've got a longer inseam. The cabin's clean analog gauges, mechanical gear selector and lack of a touchscreen make the CX-30 feel a bit old-fashioned, but these anachronisms are also comforting and familiar. This is a vehicle that's easy to jump in and drive because everything is intuitive, well, nearly everything.

Really, this vehicle's cabin is more upscale than what you get in anything short of a luxury car, which begs the question, what does the CX-30 Turbo compete with? In the Mazda lineup, this subcompact crossover is shoehorned between the smaller CX-3 and the larger , a narrow space to be sure, though it's designed to appeal to youthful buyers that are after urban adventure. As for rivals, Mazda envisions this vehicle competing with models like BMW X1 and X2, the Audi Q3 and Mercedes-Benz GLA, not mainstream products like the Honda HR-V or Subaru Crosstrek.

The latest Mazda Connect Infotainment system is standard, complete with a crisp 8.8-inch screen and a control knob on the center console. This multimedia array looks good, but that display is not touch-enabled and nothing is particularly intuitive. If users have to root around to figure out how to save or adjust radio presets you've failed. This Mazda system has you doing all kinds of clicking and scrolling through menus to accomplish even simple tasks, but at least Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard across the range.

2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo

The Mazda CX-30 is pretty delightful.

Craig Cole/Roadshow

Navigation is included with the Premium Package, which also gets you features like leather seating surfaces, adaptive headlamps and a 12-speaker Bose sound system. Beyond that, the top-shelf Premium Plus Package brings even more to the table, including a high-definition 360-degree camera, which allows you to cycle through different views while driving to get a look around the vehicle. Traffic Jam Assist is also included, working in conjunction with the adaptive cruise control system to provide steering assistance in heavy congestion at speeds up to 40 mph. Curiously, this lane-centering is not available at higher speeds like it is with Honda Sensing or Nissan's ProPilot Assist. Among other things, the Premium Plus Package also gets you rear cross-traffic braking, which automatically stops the CX-30 to prevent you from colliding with other vehicles when backing out of a parking space. Aside from these two options groups, even the most-basic CX-30 Turbo comes with amenities like blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, keyless entry and automatic high beams.

The base CX-30 Turbo starts at a little more than $31,000, including $1,175 in destination fees. That's about eight grand more than the most-affordable non-turbo model. Naturally, the range-topping Premium Plus version covered in this review is appreciably pricier, but not as expensive as you might think. Out the door, it stickers for a not-unreasonable $35,995. Yeah, that's a lot to pay for a subcompact crossover from what is still a mass-market brand, but this Mazda looks so good and feels so nice that figure seems more than fair.

The 2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo crushes the base model's fundamental weakness with a sledgehammer or turbocharged torque. This utility vehicle continues to deliver a super-refined driving experience along with an interior that wouldn't look out of place in a luxury car, but now it offers the performance to match its premium feel. The CX-30 has only been available for little more than a year but it's already Mazda's second best-seller in America, behind the larger CX-5. Thanks to this extra oomph, it might just overtake its showroom sibling.