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2016 Mazda CX-3 review: Tiny crossover SUV wows with big style, crisp handling

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The Good The 2016 Mazda CX-3 impressed with handling that delivers on its "sport-tuned" promise and a responsive Skyactiv powertrain that's more zippy than its horsepower numbers would indicate. The compact also boasts more available driver aid and cabin tech than you might expect at this price point.

The Bad Positioned below an armrest in the Grand Touring model, the Mazda Connect's physical controller can be an awkward reach. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are not available.

The Bottom Line Small in stature and a tad light on utility, the 2016 Mazda CX-3 hustles to the front of its burgeoning segment on the strength of its looks, dynamics, interior polish and technology.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

8.4 Overall
  • Cabin tech 9
  • Performance tech 8
  • Design 8

Review Sections

If you were in the market for a subcompact crossover not long ago, your choices were limited. If a Buick Encore, Mini Countryman , Mitsubishi Outlander Sport or Nissan Juke didn't strike your fancy, you were pretty well out of luck. Barely six months later, what was once a trickle of offerings has become a flood, including the Chevrolet Trax , Fiat 500X , Honda HR-V , Jeep Renegade , and the Mazda CX-3 seen here.

The so-called cute-ute genre may be a suddenly crowded segment (sales volume is projected to just about quadruple inside of four years), but there should be no ignoring this little Mazda. That's because its smartly aggressive looks, premium interior, confident handling and excellent fuel economy add up to quite a value. (Click through my gallery below for tons more photos.)

We'll start with this Japanese confection's candy-coated shell. It's handsome and toned in a way that recalls its larger CX-5 brethren, yet it doesn't lift any design elements wholesale. Compared to segment-mates, the CX-3 has an unusually long hood and swept-back windscreen, pinched glass area and curvy sheet metal.

It just looks sportier and more athletic than rivals, and it manages to do so without looking cartoonishly pumped up for such a small vehicle. With its contrasting black fender overriders, it has a strong wheels-at-the-corner stance, particularly upper-level models that feature 18-inch wheels. Those aggressive proportions pay aesthetic dividends, but they also suggest that a priority has been given to aerodynamics and styling over interior space.

The Mazda CX-3 is available with cornering LED headlamps. Chris Paukert/CNET

That impression carries over to the cabin, as well, which is both smartly designed and available with an unusual amount of safety and convenience technology for such a low-end segment. However, the interior is plainly less capacious and flexible than some others in its segment (particularly the plainspoken but versatile Honda). That's not to say that the Mazda feels cramped -- engineers have done a good job of scooping out the doors and presenting a horizontally themed dashboard design to emphasize visual width. But it follows that rear seat room and cargo area are less roomy than many competitors, and a chopped greenhouse means that it doesn't feel quite as bright and airy inside.

Choosing a warmer interior color scheme helps mitigate the latter somewhat. Fortunately, Mazda offers a stunning light-colored interior on top-shelf Grand Touring models that looks both surprisingly upscale and technical, but even lesser models include upscale contrast stitching and deep red trim accents.

Note the compelling use of accent colors in the cabin of this top-shelf GT. Chris Paukert/CNET

Regardless of trim level, there's a standard 7-inch LCD display mounted atop the low-profile dashboard. With both touchscreen functionality and a multifunction knob between the seats, it's quite a sophisticated control setup for a vehicle that starts at around $20,000. There are also a pair of secondary digital displays in the instrument cluster that sit astride a central analog gauge (speedometer in Sport and Touring models, tachometer with digital speed readout in GT trim) to relay information.

GT models even receive Mazda's unique Active Driving Display, a head-up display that projects speed and navigation information on a translucent tab of angled plastic above the gauge pod. The latter does its job, but it is also dated graphically, appearing monochromatic like an old calculator. Mazda notes ADD is lighter, more economical and more compact than conventional HUD units, but it's also not retractable and appears somewhat cheap and fragile.

Less controversial are the CX-3's seats, which are firm yet comfortable, offering legitimate all-day support in the buyer's choice of cloth, leatherette or leather, depending on trim. Combined with the tilt/telescope wheel, there's a good range of adjustability and nearly everyone should find a comfortable driving position.

The CX-3 rides atop an all-new Skyactiv chassis not shared with anything else in Mazda's lineup, though it does share quite a bit with the Mazda2 subcompact sedan and hatchback (models not available in the US). It's a stout little thing, made of 63-percent high-strength steel, 29 percent of which is ultra-high-strength steel.

The Mazda CX-3's cabin is upscale, particularly the Grand Touring trim. Chris Paukert/CNET

The suspension that hangs beneath the chassis is quite ordinary -- Macpherson strut up front, rear torsion beam in the back -- but it's been expertly tuned. Mazda has long enjoyed a hard-earned reputation for producing some of the most entertaining to drive cars in the business, and despite the CX-3's basic underpinnings, it delivers.

In fact, at the vehicle's introduction, Mazda took the unusual step of letting us loose on demanding canyon roads -- legendary stretches of tarmac that spaghetti over and adjacent to Southern California's spectacular coastal cliffs. With their dramatic elevation changes, frenetic left-right sequences, omnipresent threat of falling rocks and often indifferently maintained surfaces, these roads are the sort that automakers typically reserve for sports car launches, not first drives of modestly powered CUVs.

The CX-3 handled it all with genuine aplomb. Steering turn-in and feedback was keen, cornering was flat, and despite repeated hard use of the four-wheel disc brakes on downhill canyon jags, the brake pedal never went soggy.

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