No question, the Mazda CX-3 and Toyota CH-R are big players in a small sandpit.
These Japanese heavyweight brands each have a primed product and the marketing muscle to mount an assailable sales attack on the small SUV segment in Australia.
For two years the CX-3 has pushed others aside, its volume continuing to rise while 12-plus classmates have fallen and only three others have gained ground this year.
The top-selling Mazda is overdue for real competition, then, and it comes in the form of this plucky Toyota that matches its rival’s petrol-engined front- and all-wheel drive range, almost entirely mirrors its pricing, adds on-paper specification and technology, and thrusts forward with sharp styling. Oh, and it wears the ‘big T’ badge on its snout.
Sorry, other small SUV classmates – there is a new big boss in the kids’ playground.
Mazda CX-3 Akari AWD ($35,290 plus on-road costs)
Toyota CH-R Koba AWD ($35,290 plus on-road costs)
Toyota has no answer to the $19,990 (plus on-road costs) Neo or even the $22,390 (plus orc) Maxx that make up 80 per cent of CX-3 sales, according to Mazda. Conversely, with the CH-R, its maker reckons $27K-plus is where the sales action is.
The $26,990 (plus orc) CH-R six-speed manual is therefore the same price as the CX-3 sTouring. The $28,990 (plus orc) automatic continuously-variable transmission (CVT) is the same price as its rival’s optional six-speed auto. And optioning all-wheel drive (AWD) instead of front-wheel drive adds a further $2000 … to both, of course.
Likewise, the auto-only $33,290 (plus orc) CH-R Koba is the same price as the equivalent CX-3 Akari, and both are tested here in AWD form for $35,290 (plus orc).
The Koba gets front sensors, active cruise control, lane-keep assistance, all-speed autonomous emergency braking (AEB), a driver’s knee airbag, colour trip computer display, dual-zone climate control, heated front seats, and electric driver lumbar support over its rival. The Akari? It only counters with a sunroof and head-up display.
If you can live without leather trim, front seat heating, keyless auto-entry, power lumbar support and vanity mirror illumination inside, as well as LED headlights and larger 18-inch wheels (versus 17s), then just save $4300 and buy the base CH-R.
In camp Mazda the sTouring is also better value than the Akari, because for that same saving it retains 18s, part-leather, keyless auto-entry and a sunroof missing from the Toyota. Then again, low-speed AEB, a blind-spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert becomes a $1030 option package. They’re all included in every CH-R.
Just look at the pictures, though: the CX-3 and CH-R are more similar in name than size. The former is 85mm shorter from tip-to-toe than the latter, as well as being 30mm narrower and with a roofline 15mm lower.
The size difference is, if anything, even more magnified in each rear quarters.
The Akari offers about the same amount of back-seat legroom as a similarly priced Mazda3 SP25 GT hatchback, while the bench itself is perched higher to avoid the crimping of knees, particularly for tall passengers.
However, airy back visibility is the only area in which it eclipses the Koba, which seems to have been modelled off a bat cave as a result of a bulky C-pillar design. Otherwise, the Toyota offers plusher seat support, greater legroom and headroom, and more storage space including a bottleholder in each back door.
Boot space is about even for length and depth, but the tape measure found a sizeable 100mm floor-width deficit that also means losing that volume in height. Consequently, the claims are 377 litres versus 264L – the latter smallest in class.
The choice is clear if passenger and luggage space are most important when selecting a small SUV, and inside it forms the greatest split between these two. However, if a small SUV will mostly only have the driver on board, then the Mazda has parking prowess on its side, plus a couple of extra features up front.
The Toyota’s across-the-range 6.1-inch touchscreen looks like an afterthought, and it is. Europe scores an integrated 8.0-inch screen, but we instead make do with a plain unit that works decently but will hardly enthral a switched-on millennial crowd. The USB port mounted on the unit itself – leaving a cord dangling down past the airvents and climate controls – is woeful and digital radio isn’t to be found.
The CX-3 Maxx, sTouring and Akari all share a superior 7.0-inch screen with the brand’s smarter MZD-Connect software. Operated via an intuitive rotary dial flanked with shortcut buttons at speed, the nav is easy to use and the Pandora internet music streaming app can be used wirelessly – in its rival, a whole separate ToyotaLink app needs to be downloaded first, then a smartphone plugged in via USB.
Although digital radio is likewise unavailable, although along with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto functionality it will be added to the MZD-Connect system soon.
While Toyota has fewer connectivity answers, its six-speaker audio system is demonstrably superior to the Mazda unit – and right there the catching-up effort ends for the latter contender.
The CH-R feels a little ‘mini Lexus’ inside. From the moment it unlocks and its mirrors electrically swing outwards to shine a ‘Toyota CH-R’ puddle light onto the ground, there is a real sense of occasion here missing from virtually every small SUV rival.
Quality leather trim wraps the snug front seats, soft mood lighting drops from corners of the cabin, and textured-plastic door trims are nice, different and unusual. The steering wheel audio and cruise buttons are as tactile as the climate controls, while subtle trim finishes and soft-touch plastics abound.
The CX-3 is almost entirely based on the Mazda2, and while the design is funky right down to the knurled-silver-look tachometer cluster and single-zone climate controls, it feels either two generations behind or one segment adrift of its rival here.
Leather that feels more like vinyl, hard plastics everywhere and a complete absence of a centre console storage bin – whereas the Toyota offers a huge, lidded cavity – rounds off a decent-sized loss for the Mazda inside.
ON THE ROAD
Let’s not shuffle around the baby-sized elephant in the classroom: Mazda has in recent years been as renowned for delivering fine steering, ride and handling as much as Toyota most certainly has not.
However, the CH-R chief engineer’s surname is Koba and the bloke who has been given some sort of flagship nameplate homage also races cars at the Nurburgring. He took the platform of a Prius passenger car and lowered the centre of gravity for this, uhhh, high-riding SUV model. Apparently he even studied how Europe – the target continent for this car – likes their cars to handle. In short, they like them feisty.
Firstly, though, we rekindle memories with the CX-3. With a 70mm-shorter wheelbase and simpler torsion-beam rear suspension set-up, the 1332kg Akari is also 128kg lighter than its rival. To become as heavy as the Toyota, you would have to bring along two slender adults everywhere you go.
Mazda’s 2.0-litre non-turbo four-cylinder engine remains a willing, keen and energetic performer. With 109kW of power at 6000rpm and 192Nm of torque at 2800rpm, it delivers a fine mix of congested-traffic ease and dynamic-driving response.
The six-speed automatic is fantastic, intuitively snatching lower gears to give the engine a hand on hills and holding them without requiring the driver to add throttle. Effortless is the word. In Sport mode it almost always picks the right gear, even downshifting aggressively under brakes and intelligently guessing when to hold revs high through corners and when to let them drop. Again, it mostly gets it bang-on.
Steering response is an Akari highlight, thanks to consistent light-to-medium weighting and a great balance of initial sharpness and smooth progressiveness as lock is wound on and off.
It suits the diminutive dimensions and perky personality of the CX-3 ideally. While the Toyo tyres aren’t grippiest quartet around, the chassis of this little tike is a pearler. It’s agile and nimble, and adjustable either off the throttle (subtly bringing the rear-end around in tight corners) or on the gas where the AWD system can felt smooching the rear tyres into the tarmac on corner exit.
The Mazda’s steering and dynamics are as impressive, however, as its ride and refinement measures are not. The engine is loud, even coarse towards the upper end, while road roar permeates through the cabin over most surfaces. The suspension strikes a decent balance of comfort and control, but at really low speed it can thump and clunk, while on really rough roads it can feel both harsh and bouncy.
This is a small, fun but also quite immature and in some respects unresolved SUV.
Catchy Koba naming convention aside, nothing prepared us for the business-class upgrade of the CH-R. Again ‘mini Lexus’ immediately comes to mind in this SUV’s silken ride (even on 18s) and slick refinement measures.
The new 1.2-litre turbo four-cylinder only makes 85kW between 5200rpm and 5600rpm, and 185Nm from 1500rpm and 4000rpm. The performance should be more painful than it is, and partial thanks goes to one of the best CVTs around – it’s smooth and sure, without the ‘elastic band’ feel most versions of this auto provide, even subtly raising revs when heading downhill to provide slight engine braking.
It isn’t the most characterful-sounding engine, but the slightly grainy note is distant enough to be more likeable than its thrashy rival. And while the Sport mode isn’t as aggressive, the tipshifter manual mode mimics a proper auto with close-ratio ‘stepped’ gearing that is pretty much perfect for negotiating a twisty mountain pass.
Finally, this is a Toyota that encourages its driver to do so. While that Sport mode also changes steering response, this is one area where CH-R can’t beat CX-3. It takes selecting that mode to feel properly tight and connected on the centre position, whereas the standard mode can feel a bit loose when making freeway lane changes. The only difference is it adds a bit of resistance on-centre to help.
But the standard mode is brilliantly (and consistently) light for parking and weaving through city streets, while the firmness of Sport gels nicely when driving dynamically. The only point is, it needs two modes to match the Mazda’s superb single setting.
Otherwise, as with the drivetrain, ride and refinement measures, ‘polished’ is the word that leaps to mind when steering the Koba through corners. It is completely unfazed by mid-corner bumps and it resists bodyroll to an even greater degree than the Akari. It is just so planted and grippy, the latter thanks to terrific Bridgestone Potenza tyres.
The fact that Toyota fits quality tyres is indicative of its commitment to making cars that are practical and fun. Yes, it lacks the ultimate playfulness of a CX-3, but it’s a bit like comparing a serious-face Volkswagen Golf to a throw-it-around Mazda3. Even the electronic stability control (ESC) is neatly, passively tuned.
Add nicely developed lane-keep assistance and active cruise control to the mix, and the CH-R simply feels like it leaps two generations ahead of not only the Mazda here, but also its Corolla hatchback stablemate.
TMR VERDICT | Which is car is the big end of small town?
There is still something funky and lovable about the Mazda CX-3, but this smallest of small SUVs is certainly more convincing towards the lower end of its range. Its revvy engine and overtly dynamic chassis gel at, say, a $22K Maxx level and preferably with the six-speed manual.
However, the Akari lacks active safety technology, road refinement and drivetrain smoothness for the price.
The Toyota CH-R is simply the best vehicle the brand has produced since 2012’s 86. It would be fantastic if the engine was more powerful, because the chassis deserves it, while the style-before-visibility decision won’t please rear riders as much as the tacked-on infotainment doesn’t indulge millennials.
But otherwise this small SUV has the space, smoothness and semi-premium feel to please the average Corolla driver, with the fun, funk and finesse to greet everyone else. Such attributes can co-exist. If they do in other future Toyotas, then small-time sandpit bullying will almost certainly progress into gangland dominance over rivals.
Mazda CX-3 Akari AWD – 3.0 stars
Toyota CH-R Koba AWD – 4.0 stars