DO YOU REALLY NEED FOUR-WHEEL-DRIVE IN A COMPACT SUV, OR IS FRONT-WHEEL-DRIVE JUST FINE?
And, for that matter, if you are looking for a little luxury and a higher-end feature list, might you be just as well served with a pocket-sized contender – like the leather-timmed, up-specced 2016 Mazda CX-3 Akari – rather than a larger, heavier SUV?
Where once the worth of a luxury vehicle was measured in the enormity of its road footprint, the compact 4.28-metre-long CX-3 actually stops 18cm short of the Mazda3 small hatchback.
However, the equipment level the sporty, sun-roofed CX-3 Akari model provides for $33,290 (plus on-road costs) will embarrass many more-expensive larger SUVs.
So, if you want stylish appointments in an SUV package, and don’t really need to surround yourself with two-tonnes of metal, the Mazda CX-3 Akari might just fit the bill. It certainly oozes appeal.
Vehicle Style: Small SUV
Price: $33,290 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 109kW/192Nm 2.0 litre 4cyl petrol | 6sp automatic
Fuel Economy claimed: 6.1 l/100km | tested: 9.8 l/100km
In the first quarter of 2016, the CX-3 notched up 4527 sales, making it the top seller in its segment. So it is popular.
It comes in no less than 14 variants; the Akari model sitting at the top of the CX-3 tree.
The six-speed automatic Akari in 2WD configuration tested here costs $33,290 (plus), being $2000 more than the Akari with six-speed manual transmission. It is also available with all-wheel-drive for another $2000 on top of that.
Or, you could choose the optional 1.5-litre turbo-diesel four-cylinder engine (adding $2400, available both in 2WD and 4WD configurations).
- Standard equipment: leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearknob, climate control air-conditioning, cruise control, head-up display, electric sunroof, power windows and mirrors, keyless auto-entry and push-button start, multi-function trip computer, auto on/off headlights and wipers
- Infotainment: 7.0in touchscreen with Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, USB/AUX inputs, and Pandora/Stitcher/Aha internet apps connectivity
- Options fitted: none
- Cargo volume: 264 litres minimum, 1174 litres maximum
If you're faced with a sea of CX-3s, you can pick the flagship Akari from its standard sunroof, adding to the 18-inch alloy wheels and LED headlights/foglights standard in the mid-spec sTouring that is $4300 cheaper.
Open the Akari’s doors, and there’s a well laid-out cockpit with welcoming leather/suede trim to greet you.
There are also brushed alloy-look garnishes, a snazzy silver speedometer and tachometer cluster, and – also lifting the ambience – a swathe of leather-look trim across the dashboard. It doesn’t quite manage the smart but understated ‘luxury feel’ of the smaller among the premium German brands, but it is certainly nicely trimmed.
Seat heating is not available (although other flagship Mazda models have it standard), and adaptive cruise control also doesn’t feature. Single- rather than dual-zone climate control is another omission.
Some of the cabin plastics inside the CX-3 look and feel cheap, which is no surprise given that the basic design is modelled off the Mazda2 light hatchback range that starts from $14,990 (plus orc).
However, Mazda’s MZD-Connect system is a highlight. With high-resolution graphics, an intuitive interface accessed via either a touchscreen at standstill, or a rotary dial mounted on the lower console and flanked with ‘shortcut’ buttons; it is a cinch to master.
The sat-nav is excellent and the Pandora/Aha internet app connectivity functions are a boon, providing smartphone-based music streaming on the run.
There is another feature missing though: a premium audio system. Usually flagship Mazda models come with Bose speakers and subwoofer, but here there are only six standard speakers shared with other models in the range.
Standard active safety equipment, however, is impressive, featuring a blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert and low-speed autonomous emergency braking (AEB).
However, it might be noted that those features are available as a $1030 option on the CX-3 sTouring that is $4300 cheaper.
When that model is optioned with the safety package, the extra $3270 asked to get to the model we’re testing here buys a sunroof, part-leather, automatic up/down high-beam function and lane departure warning. (Might the sTouring, then, be the better option.)
In terms of space, the CX-3 is adequate.
Its front seats are narrow but decently supportive, and the rear bench is perched quite high to allow longer legs to drop to the floor without crimping. Yet still-decent headroom remains and footroom under the front seats is fine.
The lack of air-vents for rear passengers, though, is a major gripe for a small family car.
Boot space is also tiny, at just 264 litres. Two-tier flexibility is available, thanks to an adjustable boot floor, and the space is quite square which is ideal for many items.
However there simply isn’t enough of it. This Mazda certainly focuses on style over space.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 109kW/192Nm 2.0 petrol inline four
- Transmission: 6-speed automatic, FWD
- Suspension: MacPherson strut front, torsion bar rear
- Brakes: ventilated front and solid rear discs
- Steering: electrically assisted mechanical steering, 10.6m
- Towing capacity: 640kg (unbraked), 1200kg (braked)
The Mazda CX-3 is frisky and fun on-road. This Japanese brand knows how to make its small cars feel nimble and spirited, and the immediate response of the 2.0-litre engine and snappy shifts of the automatic give the CX-3 a nicely sporty feel.
The 2.0 litre SkyActiv engine has no trouble moving the little Maz along; it is both quick off the line and equally eager when overtaking.
The steering is light and sharp, and the way the CX-3 changes direction through round-a-bouts or on narrow roads is impressive. Quite simply, it is a joy to drive.
All this, of course, might also be said of others in a model range that starts in the ‘low 20s’. The trouble with the Akari (and sTouring) that ride on low-profile 18-inch wheels is that the ride is inferior compared with cheaper Neo and Maxx models with 16-inch wheels (and shod with tyres with larger, higher profile sidewalls).
Particularly on coarse-chip surfaces, the wide low-profile rubber on the Akari makes a bit of a racket at speed, and it can be intrusive and annoying. And, along with an engine that is not terribly well-damped for buzzes and vibrations, overall refinement is lacking.
The low-profile rims also create a jittery, bumpy connection with the road that is absent from the cheaper models in the range.
Sure, in handling terms, the wider rubber gives this little Mazda laser-like turn-in grip on a tight set of corners, and, with the revs up, lots of ‘poke’ when accelerating to the next.
The surface must be smooth, though, because the chassis is otherwise tripped up over bumpy roads, punctuated by the flashing dashboard light of the panicked electronic stability control (ESC) system.
And 2WD or 4WD? At speed on a dry road, except for the greater willingness of the tail to shift (and tighten the line) in the front-wheel-drive model, you’d barely pick them apart. Of course, that story changes in wet slippery conditions where the 4WD comes into its own and can be driven more quickly – without compromising safety – before the traction control intervenes.
If you head regularly to the snow, or face lots of muddy slippery roads, then perhaps it’s the 4WD for you. In most conditions though, the front-wheel-drive Akari is all but indistinguishable.
So, on-road, it’s a mixed bag. The CX-3 Akari is certainly fun, but it also lacks finesse.
ANCAP rating: 5-Stars - this model scored 36.44 out of 37 possible points.
Safety features: Six airbags including dual-front, front-side, and full-length curtain ABS, ESC, rear parking sensors, reverse-view camera, blind-spot monitor, lane departure alert, rear cross-traffic alert, low-speed autonomous emergency braking
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
The new Vitara Turbo is a hoot to drive, and, in fact, a very convincing contender.
Fiat’s 500X closely challenges the CX-3 for a ‘style’ award in this class, the HR-V is the space master, while the Captur and (popular) ASX don’t really excel anywhere.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
The Mazda CX-3 is at its best in sub-$25,000 Maxx specification, and solid ‘four-star’ buying.
Given that the Maxx model makes up 55 percent of all sales, buyers would seem to agree. If you want a bit of bling, then look to the sTouring – it will still give you change from $30,000.
Although the Akari remains a likeable and dynamic small SUV, and adds some impressive active safety technology to the mix, in our view it is not the pick of the CX-3 range.
Of course, if you want part-leather trim and a sunroof then it remains a decent choice, and this front-wheel-drive automatic is stronger value than the AWD auto and diesel auto versions.
Even considering its price, the CX-3 Akari is an solid small SUV offering, but it needs more equipment and increased refinement to properly deliver luxury in a concentrate.
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