First drive: 2016 Mazda CX-3

Mazda's do-it-all CX-3 is a compact crossover without compromise

Though it won’t win any drag races, the 2016 Mazda CX-3’s comfortable ride, class-leading design, and excellent handling help it race to the front of its class.

The market for subcompact crossover cars today is about as hot as I imagine toasters were at the beginning of the 20th century; everyone just needs those four extra inches of ground clearance, and you’re not going to be that family without crispy bread, are you?

Not to be left out, Mazda has introduced its 2016 CX-3 to slot beneath the CX-5 crossover and duke it out with rivals like the Chevrolet Trax, Fiat 500X, Honda HR-V, Nissan Juke, Jeep Renegade, Buick Encore, Kia Soul … you get the idea. With a long list of options for the subcompact crossover consumer (call them SCCs if you must), the CX-3 is poised to be one of the most important models in Mazda’s range – success is a must for the company.

Style among the tame

As we might expect from the Mazda angle of attack, the CX-3 is distinguished from the herd by a compliant chassis, light body, and nimble handling characteristics. If you’re a fan of Mazda’s Kodo design language, you’ll immediately be drawn to the CX-3’s wind-swept looks that strike an even better pose than the handsome CX-5. Both the headlights and taillights are narrower than those on its larger sibling and the blacked-out C-pillar — the body support structure over the rear wheels — adds a styling flare that most of its competitors lack.

While lower-level trims make do with 16-inch steel wheels, the Grand Touring package’s 10-spoke, 18-inch units — the largest in the segment — add another layer of aesthetic appeal. The short front and rear overhangs, long hood, and high belt line make the CX-3 appear to squat low, ready to pounce on lesser subcompacts. In Soul Red, the CX-3 is pleasantly eye-catching among a sea of more modestly-styled rivals.

The short front and rear overhangs, long hood, and high belt line make the CX-3 appear to squat low — ready to pounce on lesser subcompacts.

Inside, the cabin mirrors the new Mazda3 with a floating 7.0-inch infotainment display, brushed aluminum touches, a multi-function steering wheel, and an otherwise clean dash. Mazda’s optional Bose audio system with seven speakers delivers high-quality sound. Mazda uses soft-touch materials throughout the cabin, attractive contrast-stitching on the seats and dash, and high-quality buttons and knobs. The multi-colored leather surfaces in the Grand Touring spec add dimensionality to the cabin, while the red accents inject sportiness to Touring and Sport trims.

Driver information is displayed differently depending on trim level. Sub-Grand Touring trims have a more traditional speedometer and tachometer layout while the GT trim integrates the two by centralizing the tachometer and transitioning the speedometer to a digital readout. Unfortunately, the digital screen is difficult to read with any amount of light in the cabin. The rear seats are tight and full-size adults won’t stay happy sitting back there long, but for shorter trips or children, they get the job done. The front seats, by comparison, are remarkably comfortable and supportive, even after hours of seat time. Cargo capacity is enough for running errands or taking a mini vacation, but if you expect to need more space, the CX-5 will suit you better.

Handling prowess

To understand how the CX-3 drives, keep in mind that it is based on the 2016 Mazda 2’s SkyActiv platform, meaning a light-but-taught structure made mostly of high-strength steel. While the CX-3 hasn’t received crash test ratings, Mazda estimates it will receive top marks. Up front are MacPherson struts, while in back the CX-3 uses a torsion-beam axle, a move the automaker says was for weight and space-saving purposes. Speaking of which, the front-wheel drive CX-3 weighs 2,809 pounds and the all-wheel drive spec adds about 150 pounds. Those figures are at the low end of its segment.

On the twisty roads of Malibu, California, the CX-3 offers an engaging and well-balanced driving experience that sides far more on the hatchback end its genetic make-up than its stilted “crossover” characteristics. Steering is light but direct and the CX-3’s ride is comfortable while cruising. Both the standard front-wheel drive and optional all-wheel drive systems lend themselves to predictable handling with mitigated understeer that’s more than sufficient for daily driving duties. All CX-3’s are equipped with a Sport mode as well, which significantly sharpens throttle response and steering feedback. More important, when driving more aggressively, the Sport mode holds gears much longer and even downshifts with enthusiasm under hard braking.

Powering all versions of the 2016 CX-3 is a SkyActiv-G 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine making 146 horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque — what I would consider “just enough” power. The engine is mated to a six-speed automatic with optional paddle shifters. Don’t expect to be blown away by the powertrain’s potency, though. “Just enough” means the CX-3 gets up to speed with a healthy amount of low-end torque, but the CX-3 is sorely outgunned when lined up against the turbocharged Nissan Juke. That said, outright power has never been one of Mazda’s core traits, and the CX-3’s outstanding handling does a lot to counter-balance any output inefficiencies. One positive side effect of the CX-3’s somewhat underwhelming state of tune is greater fuel efficiency. Mazda estimates the 2016 CX-3 will achieve 29 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway in front-wheel drive trim or 27/32 mpg when fitted with all-wheel drive.

Trim Levels

The 2016 Mazda CX-3 Sport starts at $19,960 and features air conditioning, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, and premium cloth seats. Also included is cruise control, power windows, power locks, and a 60/40 split folding rear seat. On the technology side, the CX-3 sport comes standard with a rearview camera, Bluetooth connectivity, and a Mazda Connect infotainment system with a 7.0-inch display. All-wheel drive is available at all trim levels for an additional $1,250.

The CX-3 offers an engaging and well-balanced driving experience.

The CX-3 Touring will be positioned above the Sport at $21,960 and adds mirror-mounted turn signals, 16-inch alloy wheels, cloth/leatherette seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a center armrest, heated front seats, an upgraded six-speaker audio system, Advanced Keyless Entry, and more premium materials throughout the cabin.

At the top of the CX-3 range sits the $24,990 Grand Touring with a heaping pile of additional equipment, including a two-tone interior, LED headlights, LED fog lights, 18-inch alloy wheels, automatic climate control, GPS navigation, a Bose audio system, a power moonroof, and leather/lux suede upholstery. At an additional cost, Mazda includes its i-Activsense package with radar cruise control, lane-departure warning, automatic smart braking, and automatic headlights, high beams, and rain-sensing wipers. With every option checked, including all-wheel drive and i-Activesense, the CX-3 can run you $28,160.


Given the upscale interior, excellent driving dynamics, and fetching exterior styling, the 2016 Mazda CX-3 has all the markings of a class-leader in the explosive subcompact crossover segment. I fail to see why subcompact crossovers have such a magnetic attraction to this sector of the automotive industry, but if it gives automakers an opportunity to create more enticing models like the CX-3, I’ll bite my tongue and enjoy the ride.


  • One of the best looking vehicles in the segment
  • A light, agile chassis
  • Plenty of standard convenience features
  • Comfortable, supportive seats
  • Sport mode is genuinely “sporty”


  • Needs more mid-range power
  • Digital instrument screen is difficult to read
  • Buyers might miss Apple CarPlay/Android Auto
Product Review

The 2019 Porsche Macan S is a luxurious and quick SUV, but it's no road tripper

The roster of models challenging the Porsche Macan grows annually. The German firm updated its smallest, most affordable SUV with a new engine, more tech features, and subtle design tweaks to keep it looking fresh.

These winter-warrior cars will never leave you out in the cold

Snow can be an absolute pain if your vehicle isn't optimized to handle that sort of terrain. If brutal snowstorms are an annual part of your life, we recommend you pick up one of these winter-ready vehicles.

2019 Ford Ranger saves fuel without sacrificing towing capacity

The 2019 Ford Ranger marks Ford's long-awaited return to the midsize truck segment, which has seen a resurgence lately. But will being late to the party make Ford's job more difficult?
Product Review

Audi built an electric SUV for buyers who want gasoline-free to mean stress-free

We finally got to spend time behind the wheel of the electric 2019 Audi E-Tron bustling cities and arid desert of the United Arab Emirates to see how it compares with Jaguar and Tesla's competitors.

Take a friend stargazing at 202 mph in the 2019 McLaren 720S Spider

McLaren has introduced the 2019 720S Spider. As its name implies, it's a convertible variant of the 720S coupe. The company promises the Spider retains the coupe's dynamism and agility thanks in part to the widespread use of carbon fiber.

Gateway’s born-again Ford Bronco boasts classic style, 2018 muscle car power

Illinois-based Gateway Bronco has received a license from Ford to make brand-new examples of the first-generation Bronco. Every build starts with a Ford VIN and a donor vehicle, but Gateway upgrades every part of the car.

Bloodhound’s plan to build a 1,000-mph car has run out of gas

The Bloodhound supersonic car (SSC) project has officially shut down. The upside is you can now buy a 135,000-horsepower car powered by a jet engine and a cluster of rockets for $319,000.

Pininfarina Battista is a 1,900-horsepower, 250-mph electric supercar

The Pininfarina Battista will be the first production car from famed Italian design firm Pininfarina. Named after company founder Battista Pininfarina, it has a claimed 1,900 horsepower and a $2.5 million price tag.

Tesla could show the electric pickup Elon Musk is dying to build in 2019

Tesla has started designing its long-promised pickup truck. The yet-unnamed model will come with dual-motor all-wheel drive and lots of torque, plus it will be able to park itself.
Cars is helping Hyundai mine the artificial intelligence gold rush

In November 2018, Hyundai invested in a startup named We talked to the company's founder to learn more about what that means for consumers in the not-too-distant futures.
Emerging Tech

With this robotic garage, retrieving your car is like using a vending machine

Remembering where we parked our cars can be a real pain. But what if our cars came to find us, rather than the other way around? A new automated robot parking valet system aims to help.

Thinking of opting for a car with a diesel engine? Here's what you need to know

Modern diesel-powered models prove that it is possible to build a clean, efficient diesel engine without sacrificing performance. Here's what you need to know about diesel cars, and how they differ from gasoline-powered models.

Best Products of 2018

Our reception desk has so many brown boxes stacked up, it looks like a loading dock. We’re on a first-name basis with the UPS guy. We get new dishwashers more frequently than most people get new shoes. What we’re trying to say is: We…

2020 Toyota Supra caught hiding in a trailer without a shred of camouflage

Toyota's plan to once again lure enthusiasts into showrooms involves bringing back the Supra, one of its most emblematic nameplates. Here's what we know so far about the upcoming coupe, which Toyota is developing jointly with BMW.