PRODUCT PLANNERS FOR THE SUZUKI VITARA S TURBO could be accused of placing tracing paper over the specifications of the popular Mazda CX-3 sTouring.
While even their badging sounds similar, both Japanese-branded small SUVs are also of near-identical size. They also offer similar power for similar money and a near mirror-imaged features list, right down to standard partial leather trim.
They also each attempt to be funky and practical. In fact, it is only upon closer inspection it becomes clear that Suzuki has taken a slightly different approach to Mazda.
The new kid on the block, the Vitara S Turbo, is Hungarian-built and its Continental tyres and small turbocharged engine evoke a distinctly European flavour. The CX-3 looks lower and sportier, with a larger non-turbo engine leading the charge.
So which of this $30,000-plus pair is best around town, on the freeway and out in the country?
Mazda CX-3 Akari ($35,290 plus on-road costs)
- 109kW/192Nm 2.0 litre petrol 4cyl | 6sp automatic
- Fuel use claimed: 6.7 l/100km | tested: 8.5 l/100km
Suzuki Vitara S Turbo ($32,990 plus on-road costs)
- 103kW/220Nm 1.4 litre turbo-petrol 4cyl | 6sp automatic
- Fuel use claimed: 6.2 l/100km | tested: 8.2 l/100km
Although it starts from $28,990 plus on-road costs in front-wheel-drive guise, the $32,990 (plus orc) all-wheel-drive version is the Vitara S Turbo we’re testing here.
Suzuki’s pricing manages to split the difference between the all-wheel-drive Mazda equivalents, the $30,990 (plus orc) CX-3 sTouring and $35,290 (plus orc) CX-3 Akari.
We were given the more expensive Akari to test, however if you shut the sunroof, switch off the head-up display and deactivate the blind-spot monitor, auto high-beam, lane departure warning and autonomous emergency braking (AEB) functions, you basically have the cheaper sTouring.
To keep things fair, and most closely aligned on price and features, that’s exactly what we did.
Both get LED headlights, foglights, alloy wheels (17-inch Suzuki, 18-inch Mazda), keyless auto-entry with push-button start, partial leather trim, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, single-zone climate control, cruise control and a bright touchscreen with modern connectivity options.
Power ranges between 103kW (Vitara) and 109kW (CX-3), while official fuel consumption shifts between 6.2 litres per 100 kilometres (Suzuki) and 6.7 l/100km (Mazda). It really is that close, at least on paper…
From outside, both the Vitara S Turbo and CX-3 look funky and sporty, but each in different ways. Move around to the side, and their profiles are markedly different and immediately hint at differences inside.
The boxier Suzuki stands taller, its rear roofline less swoopy than the Mazda’s. True to form, this means rear occupants sit higher, with greater headroom in particular.
However the CX-3’s back seat is cushier and there’s still room for legs to drop down and under the front seats. (Due to the Akari’s sunroof, though, the head of this 178cm-tall tester brushed the rooflining; not such an issue with the CX3 sTouring.)
Further rearward and the Vitara’s 375-litre boot capacity blitzes its rival’s 264-litre volume, although they are similarly deep, square and usable in the real world. This is one instance where the on-paper difference isn’t as sizeable as expected.
Neither rear seat does anything particularly outstanding from a practicality point of view, with each backrest folding down, but no more.
We started out back because that is where these two differ most significantly.
But up front, depending on what you’re looking for in a small SUV, they differ to a lesser degree.
Mazda has aimed for what it tags as a ‘just right’ driving position. It essentially means one that is lower than an SUV but higher than a hatchback. It works a treat, at least for this tester, and the front seats are as snug as the forward vision is expansive.
The Suzuki has a higher, SUV-like driving position. Many will love it, and both the airy cabin and superb over-the-shoulder vision eclipse its rival’s efforts. As with the rear seat, though, the front chairs aren’t quite as cosy.
There’s divergence again in terms of the quality appearance of the dashboard, with the Vitara’s hard and shiny plastics appearing very cheap even compared with the five-year-old, circa-$15,000 Swift hatchback.
The CX-3 uses hard plastics, but they are less shiny and scratchy. Where its rival places a hefty slab of coloured plastic across its dashboard, both the sTouring and Akari feature a more subtle stitched leather-look dash strip and chrome flanks.
Meanwhile, this pair are more difficult to separate when it comes to smartphone pairing options because both infotainment systems are excellent.
Suzuki offers Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity that ‘mirrors’ smartphone apps onto its high-resolution touchscreen when the phone is connected via USB. It works brilliantly, but, unlike some cars, the Vitara also gets integrated sat-nav that won’t chew up your data allowance.
Mazda misses CarPlay/AA functions but its infotainment system has the more intuitive interface, with touchscreen capability at standstill or accessible via a centre console-mounted rotary dial (and shortcut buttons when on the move).
As with its rival, the CX-3 gets Pandora internet radio functionality but it exclusively can be used via Bluetooth audio streaming where the S Turbo requires a USB connection.
It’s worth keeping in mind that neither vehicle is superbly equipped for $30,000-plus relative to similarly priced small hatchbacks, however.
For example a $32,990 (plus orc) Volkswagen Golf 110TSI Highline has an even larger 380-litre boot, full leather trim, dual-zone climate control, CarPlay/AA and is both quicker and more frugal on paper.
ON THE ROAD
To be fair to this small SUV duo, the likes of a Golf hatch doesn’t offer all-wheel-drive (AWD) capability for this price. Part of the reason we chose to compare the AWD models is to answer this question: does AWD add anything to the experience?
In the Mazda’s case, choosing it over front-wheel-drive (FWD) adds $2000 to the price; in the Suzuki’s case it’s a hefty $4000. Their systems – and the ethos behind them – differ significantly.
The Vitara S Turbo is the only model to score a ‘lock’ button to fix drive 50:50 front/rear when heading onto slippery surfaces such as sand. The CX-3 has no such option, but instead prioritises FWD then adds power to the rear wheels when it detects it’s required.
On paper, the Mazda system seems inferior, but the company uses ‘proactive’ software that proves outstanding, both on the tarmac and off it.
Basically, a number of sensors take in data to predict when drive should go to the rear wheels – when windscreen wipers are on, it notes that it must be raining; or when the steering wheel is aggressively turned at speed, a sensor relays that back to the system.
We’ve tested it on snow and ice, and it simply ‘works’.
In the latter case, when turning into a sharp bend then getting quickly on the throttle, the Mazda finds traction and neutralises potential understeer perfectly. On the same tight corner the Suzuki understeers under power (pushes wide) as the front wheels scrabble for traction.
The Vitara S Turbo however wears bush-friendly tyres and its 185mm ground clearance is 30mm above that of its rival. If the odd weekend escape off the bitumen is frequently on the agenda, it’s the small SUV we’d pick.
However the CX-3 Akari offers an added, unexpected dimension to its dynamics in all-wheel-drive guise compared with the front-wheel-drive version previously tested.
We had wondered why this ‘ceramic’ coloured test car felt so much smoother on urban lumps and bumps than the FWD car tested weeks before. This is despite both wearing low-profile 19-inch tyres.
As it turns out the AWD CX-3 models also have a more sophisticated rear suspension than the cheaper FWD models, adding extra linkages to the basic torsion beam set-up. It works a treat, with a plusher feel responding to larger bumps.
The Suzuki’s ride quality almost mirrors the Mazda’s. It can thump over really big bumps but is generally smooth and adept, and quieter and less restless on the freeway.
Whatever the conditions, the ‘Booster Jet’ 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine in the Vitara S Turbo is an outstanding engine.
With 103kW at 5500rpm and 220Nm between 1500rpm and 4000rpm, it is relaxed and refined, yet zingy and sweet. It’s helped by being installed in a small SUV that weighs 1235kg; no heavier than a Golf hatch.
The CX-3 is almost 100kg weightier at 1332kg, and yet its 2.0-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine produces less torque (192Nm) higher in the rev range (2800rpm).
At any digit on the tachometer the engine is noisier than its rival, but particularly on the freeway where the automatic transmission needs to kick back gears far more frequently to the detriment of refinement and economy.
While the CX-3’s overall performance is a match for the Vitara S Turbo, at full throttle the Mazda has to be stretched out to 6000rpm to find its peak 109kW of power. The response is lusty, and is matched by a throaty engine bark, but it’s not as sweet as the Vitara S Turbo.
Interestingly, on the freeway the Suzuki’s trip computer fuel consumption readout fell to 5.5 l/100km where the Mazda refused to go below 6.3 l/100km.
But over the following mountain climb and urban crawl, the gap narrowed to 8.3 l/100km versus 8.5 l/100km respectively, indicating the CX-3 (which can also run regular unleaded versus its rival’s premium) remains more frugal when working hard.
Both models here get a six-speed auto, but only in the company of the Mazda could the Suzuki’s be rated anything less than excellent. It’s smooth, swift and serene, yet not sporty like the CX-3’s, which has a Sport mode that is flawless and gels ideally with the superb steering and dynamics.
Ah, steering. Where the Mazda’s is at once fluent and connected, Suzuki still has some work to do eliminating the ‘sticky patch’ on-centre that makes freeway driving less relaxed that it should be as it demands little corrections to keep it straight.
And where the CX-3 chassis is properly poised, the Vitara’s merely solid dynamics wilt at the point where its rival shines.
There is nothing between them for servicing or warranty either – both have below-average 10,000km intervals where 15,000km is normal; and both get three-year warranties where five years is the new benchmark.
Ultimately, lining them up for price (and features), we would pick a CX-3 sTouring over the otherwise identical CX-3 Akari, then option (for $1030) a safety package comprising automatic emergency braking (AEB) and a blind-spot monitor, neither of which are available in the Vitara S Turbo.
Doing this will leave $970 in your back pocket compared with the Suzuki; and right there, with the Mazda, you have a four-star-rated small SUV. (The dearer Akari loses half-a-star… unless you really want a head-up display and sunroof.)
The ideal situation would be to combine the Vitara’s refined and punchy engine with the CX-3’s surprisingly gifted all-wheel-drive chassis and more upmarket interior.
However unless maximum rear headroom, boot space and mild off-roading are the priorities, the louder but dearer Mazda CX-3 Akari still manages to trace a finer small SUV outline.
- Mazda CX-3 Akari – 3.5 stars
- (Mazda CX-3 sTouring (with safety package) – 4.0 stars)
- Suzuki Vitara S Turbo – 3.5 stars
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