06 Dec 2018

Honda HR-V RS v Mazda CX-3 sTouring Comparison Test

Small SUV shakedown
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Expectation and reality collide more than ever in this comparison test.

History dictates that the Honda HR-V RS is the small SUV pick for cabin space and quality, while the smaller Mazda CX-3 sTouring is the obvious choice for dynamics and fun.

Each facelifted model has arrived in Australia at about the same time, however, and both clearly and directly target their predecessors’ flaws. They largely succeed, too, though given that, this comparison will focus on which SUV has flourished the most.

Honda has delivered this new, sportier HR-V RS model grade with quicker steering and overhauled suspension, aimed at addressing the average handling of the pre-facelifted models, and which continue in non-RS grades (VTi, VTi-S and VTi-LX).

Meanwhile the master of handling, Mazda, has gifted its CX-3 sTouring (and all model grades) a suspension retune to make it comfier, it has increased sound deadening to make it quieter, and given it a new lower dash with greater storage.

Both of these upper-middle model grades cost either side of $30,000 with similar engines, standard equipment, and identical five-year/unlimited kilometre warranties.

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TESTED

Model: Honda HR-V RS ($31,990 plus on-road costs)

Drivetrain: 105kW/172Nm 1.8-litre petrol 4cyl, automatic continuously-variable transmission

Fuel use claimed: 6.7L/100km Tested: 8.8L/100km

 

Model: Mazda CX-3 sTouring ($29,790 plus on-road costs)

Drivetrain: 110kW/195Nm 2.0-litre petrol 4cyl, six-speed automatic

Fuel use claimed: 6.3L/100km Tested: 9.3L/100km

OVERVIEW

As before, the HR-V only offers front-wheel drive, a single petrol four-cylinder engine and an automatic continuously-variable transmission (CVT) in its range. Asking $4000 more than a one-step-down VTi-S, this RS costs $31,990 (plus orc) and adds 18-inch alloy wheels (up from 17s), a piano-black bodykit, alloy pedals, auto on/off wipers, steering wheel-mounted paddleshifters and leather with heated front seats.

That’s in addition to variable gear-ratio steering, which reduces the number of turns lock-to-lock from 2.8 in other model grades to 2.4 here, and according to its maker, “unique damper and spring rates to deliver a more rewarding drive with flatter cornering, greater control and a more stable ride.” More like its rival, then, it seems.

The CX-3 continues to offer greater choice, however. This sTouring can be bought with a six-speed manual gearbox from $27,790 plus on-road costs, or the six-speed auto tested here at $29,790 (plus orc). And although front-wheel drive is tested here, all-wheel drive adds $2000 – to then cost just $200 less than a front-drive HR-V RS.

Unlike RS, the sTouring lacks leather and seat heating, though it uniquely adds an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, front parking sensors, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto mirroring, a digital radio, head-up display and voice control. And best not forget the Mazda’s $2200 price advantage, while matching its rival with 18s, cruise control, auto on/off headlights, satellite navigation and autonomous emergency braking (AEB).

There’s further food for thought, too, because if you can stomach a manual, the front-drive flagship CX-3 Akari is, at $32,790 (plus orc), more closely priced to this Honda. In fact, for just $800 more it matches the HR-V RS with leather and heated seats, while uniquely adding electrically adjustable front seats, an electric sunroof, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning and a 360-degree monitor. Food, indeed…

THE INTERIOR

Despite both models being technically classified as small SUVs, there is a size difference here in the Honda’s favour, and it helps to offset the Mazda’s value win.

The HR-V is 4.4 metres long, 1.8m wide and 1.6m tall, whereas the CX-3 measures 4.3m long, 1.75m wide and 1.5m tall. Without rounding, there’s an 8.5 centimetre difference in length, 2.5cm between them for width and 7cm in height, which is a lot.

But not as much as the difference inside. The RS gets a 437-litre boot and, owing to a fuel tank positioned under the front seats, a class-leading level of rear legroom backed by a bench that folds up against the backrest to provide more luggage room.

The sTouring gets a comparatively measly 264L boot, though the space – with a split floor – is more usable than that number suggests. It’s impressively deep and near-perfectly square, though its rival is just obviously longer and taller.

There’s no rear-seat theatrics with the smaller small SUV, and again clearly less headroom and legroom, but in this case best not only judge it by what the tape measure reads – it’s unique with a fold-down armrest and cupholders, plus both seat base and backrest are very much at least as cushy and comfortable as its rival.

For accommodating everything from passengers to potplants to pushbikes, though, the Honda HR-V remains clearly the roomier and smarter choice, as it has been for the last four years. There is a catch, though, and it’s one for its rival to pounce on.

If outright dimensions aren’t everything – and many small SUV buyers won’t have the space obsession of a family-focused medium SUV – then the Mazda CX-3 strides back into contention up front.

The facelifted model’s new lower console, now finally with a lidded storage bin, extra cupholders and/or bottle holders (because they’re adjustable), plus leather-look soft-padded transmission tunnel trim, boosts the ambience of the sTouring considerably.

It’s still more than a bit Mazda2 light car in its design, and the hard upper-dash plastics are unimpressive for this pricetag. The RS is little different in terms of materials, though soft-touch trim covers more surroundings – from doors to handles – and there’s extra storage including a big glovebox and a tray beneath the console.

Where the Honda really flunks out is in terms of technology. Its aftermarket-looking 7.0-inch touchscreen may have nav, and even an HDMI port, but it’s among the least impressive units to look at or to use. Grainy graphics, patchy response rates, unintuitive menus and clicky side controls are simply poor, and not just for this price.

Despite offering no fewer than three 12-volt power outlets throughout the cabin – up front, behind and in the boot – there’s just one unit-mounted USB port and it leaves a cord dangling down from the system past the climate controls.

Meanwhile, Mazda responds with two low-mounted USB ports, connecting to newly added Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, while there’s a digital radio and ‘one shot’ voice control for the nav – all three features of which are missing from its rival. The touchscreen is the same size, but it looks far better, and alternatively a driver can use the rotary dial flanked by shortcut buttons, mounted on the centre console.

There’s also a standard head-up display with speed-limit-sign recognition and nav data in the sTouring, whereas the Honda even lacks a digital speedometer.

The infotainment contrast between them is starker than the size difference, though given this deficit and high pricetag, the RS should arguably score more equipment from the flagship $34,590 (plus orc) VTi-LX – including a rear armrest, auto-dimming rear-view mirror and front parking sensors to match its rival, as well as a panoramic sunroof and electrically adjustable driver’s seat as infotainment compensation…

ON THE ROAD

While Honda’s bigger SUV gets a smaller 105kW/172Nm 1.8-litre petrol four-cylinder, its littler rival is both 95kg lighter and it gets a larger 110kW/195Nm 2.0-litre engine.

That’s the snapshot that confronts the driver on the road, however just as the CX-3’s smaller cabin doesn’t start and end with a statistical summary, nor does the HR-V’s dynamic performance begin and finish with such figures – at least not for this RS.

That’s because power and torque hasn’t changed, for either rival with this most recent facelift. Yet the way this sporty-ish HR-V steers, rides and handles is almost a revelation for a model range that starts ordinarily, then gets worse with big wheels.

Navigating through city backstreets is a delight, owing to quick and tight steering that ensures a driver never needs to cross arms through 90-degree turns.

The carry-over tune of the VTi-LX crashes, bangs, jolts and floats around on 17-inch wheels more than this RS does on low-profile 18s. Clearly there’s more sophisticated, not just sportier, springs and dampers at play here. The result is excellent body control and firmly disciplined ride quality that never becomes harsh.

Through country-road corners, this Honda has finally become a more agile, if not energetic, partner for its driver. Bodyroll is kept well in check and the grip levels from the Yokohama Advan tyres is decent, affording this SUV a fairly flat, neutral stance.

Meanwhile, the CX-3 sTouring does suffer a little more from the impact of its 18s, thumping about to a greater degree around town. Its softer suspension also then causes a little extra body movement, including at least a couple of times crunching over speed humps that left its rival unfazed. The steering is a little slower, too.

Beyond those points, though, the revised chassis now generally keeps the body more level than it has in the past, leaving us to ponder just how fantastic this tune would be in the one-rung-down CX-3 Maxx Sport on broader 16-inch tyres. Unlike its rival, there’s no specific steering or suspension tune for the sTouring, to be clear.

The more you drive the Mazda, and the further out from the suburbs you travel, the more you appreciate its extra dynamic depth compared with the simple-but-sure Honda. Best not be afraid of its additional bodyroll, because this chassis relies less on sticky tyres plus firm springs and dampers to impress.

It breathes with country roads, feeling lusher and lovelier, and its steering comes good with greater tactility and more consistent mid-weighting compared with its rival that is sharp but hollow, pointy but whimsical. There’s front-to-rear balance missing from the slightly more inert, if still impressive, HR-V.

Where they separate to a greater extent is in the bits that haven’t changed.

Mazda’s 2.0-litre is still a persistently loud and buzzy unit, but in the 1210kg CX-3 it’s just so responsive and gutsy, while the six-speed auto is a perfect ally – beautifully direct, immediately connected and more intuitive than almost every other gearbox. In Sport mode, too, it’s genuinely sportier than a dual-clutch ‘DSG’ in a Volkswagen Golf GTI. And yet again, there’s another layer of depth and sophistication…

The 1305kg HR-V is plainly slower, if a tad quieter. The engine is equally keen, and eager to rev to redline, but peak torque isn’t made until 4300rpm and there isn’t much of it. The auto CVT also works like a lightswitch – come off the throttle and the tachometer needle plummets to idle; step on the throttle and it slowly winds back up.

Sport mode merely holds revs higher, yet not really high enough or in any adaptive fashion like its rival, though the paddleshifters at least work adeptly in manual mode. All the paddle-slapping in the world, though, can’t deliver the power it sorely needs.

Despite starting with a higher combined-cycle fuel consumption sticker of 6.7 litres per 100 kilometres, however, the 1.8-litre returned 8.8L/100km on test, versus a 6.3L/100km sticker that then expanded to 9.3L/100km for its rival – though you can guess why that latter figure emerged. Oh yes, fun was had.

At least the improved sound deadening measures claimed by both manufacturers work a treat – neither is as raucous as before, although they’re hardly truly quiet. And the measures aren’t employed on HR-V VTi or VTi-S, only RS and VTi-LX, where in camp-Mazda the changes are for all model grades.

In other ways, though, for this price both fall down somewhat. Honda’s AEB only works to 32km/h whereas its rival will detect a collision and slam on the brakes at up to 80km/h. And why is a forward collision alert and lane-departure warning reserved for the HR-V VTi-LX? Likewise, the latter is reserved for the CX-3 Akari.

Mazda’s traditional blind-spot warning also holds its door-mounted light on for too long after passing side traffic and merging back into a lane, which is something we’ve noticed on other models from the brand.

Yet it’s preferable to the LaneWatch system of its rival, which mounts a camera on the passenger door mirror and beams grainy footage onto the touchscreen every time the left indicator is used. Technically the concept is fine, but at night it can become a blur of light not unlike watching the Sydney Harbour Bridge as midnight clicks over on New Year’s Eve.

We should point out that a Toyota C-HR gets AEB, active lane-keep assistance (not just warning) and adaptive cruise control standard on every model across the range.

Servicing, too, is every 10,000km for both where 15,000km is the new norm.

At least Mazda requires annual check-ups, at a more affordable cost of $1031 over three years/30,000km or $1845 across five years/50,000km. Honda, meanwhile, needs bi-annual servicing for a hefty $2109 over three years/60,000km.

TMR VERDICT

Despite recent facelifts, neither small SUV can quite reach for the stars and grab more than three-and-a-half of them.

As ever, the HR-V remains the pick for its superb space, perfect practicality and terrific trimmings, while the RS offers great steering, ride and agility to boot. If only that alluring blend was backed up by punchier performance, a smarter transmission, and most crucially more active safety technology and more modern infotainment.

The CX-3 snares the win here not because the sTouring is blindingly better than its rival, which has all but caught up in the dynamic (if not performance) stakes. The Honda arguably mixes space and urban agility in a more impressive way. But smallness is the Mazda’s only real ‘vice’ – and for many it won’t be. Meanwhile the littler contender’s far superior infotainment and active safety technology, smarter gearbox and stronger performance is all backed by sheer choice and affordability.

The smart money says to buy a $25,690 (plus orc) CX-3 Maxx Sport auto, which if anything will ride more smoothly while snaring most of this model grade’s equipment (minus part-leather, keyless auto-entry and head-up display). Or, alternatively, spend just $800 more than a HR-V RS and buy a manual CX-3 Akari, loaded to the hilt.

Either way, Mazda filters its improvements across a value-packed lineup brimming with buyer choice whereas Honda restricts the best of the HR-V’s changes to this pricey, ‘sporty’ grade. It’s the difference between winning and losing here.

Honda HR-V RS – 3.5 stars

Mazda CX-3 sTouring – 3.5 stars

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