REVIEW: CX-30 brings Mazda3 fun to crossover crowd

Not so long ago, you couldn’t move for seeing a Mazda3 hatchback parked on the street or driving by.

Canada’s most popular compact car was the Civic hatchback, but there was still plenty of competition from the sporty little Mazda hatch, which had a little more personality than the Honda.

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But since then, the automotive landscape has been giving up hatchbacks in general, turning towards crossovers for their higher ride height and theoretical greater practicality. It’s a rising tide that doesn’t raise all ships, as the alternative to buying a compact hatchback means forgoing a compact sedan or hatch entirely. In Mazda’s lineup, that means the CX-5 crossover, a family-sized machine, has become its mainstay vehicle. The CX-3, the smallest crossover the company offers, is a little on the small side, so it’s a big jump up to the ‘5. And, even though the current Mazda3 is the best it’s ever been, that means customers have been shopping elsewhere.

Enter the CX-30, which is essentially a Mazda3 crossover. It’s not any bigger than the ‘3, just taller, and priced about the same. If you’d rather have a lower hatchback for slightly sharper handling, stick with the ‘3. If, however, you’re in the market for a crossover that’s right-sized, with a bit of that Mazda driving charm, then the CX-30 is new best bet.

Design

Over the past couple of years, Mazda’s design language has become the one to beat in the market. While other manufacturers have gone for quantity over quality, especially with faux grille material, Mazda has created a slippery shape that works best on sedans like the Mazda6.

For the CX-30, a little bit of a raised ride height hasn’t hurt the effect at all. Thin LED headlights and taillights anchor a restrained-looking front and rear, with the sides of the car smoothly polished. There aren’t too many angles on the CX-30, and it looks very sharp in a standout colour like the deep red that’s available. Eighteen-inch wheels are standard on mid-level models and above.

Even with a bit of black plastic cladding around the wheel wells to toughen up the stance, the CX-30 looks designed for an urban environment, not a gravel road. Since that’s the place it’ll spend most of its time, that’s not really a drawback. It looks sharp.

Environment

Not much bigger than the Mazda3 on the inside, the CX-30 isn’t something you’ll buy for more space, but rather for the ease of getting in and out of that higher ride height. However, it is more airy in the rear seats, especially compared to the ‘3 hatchback, which has small rear glass.

Everything about the switchgear and instrumentation in the CX-30 has been toned down to be very conventional, and there are no touchscreens. Instead, you get a rotary controller that handles most functions. After a little bit of a learning curve, you can use this without glancing away from the road.

Mazda has also upgraded their vehicles with Apple CarPlay, which is what most owners use for connecting to their smartphones. It’s easy to use, even with Mazda’s proprietary rotary controller.

Beyond that, the CX-30’s interior is comfortable yet also very nicely put together. There’s just enough interior storage, but seems designed to be attractive rather than practical first. As with the exterior, it’s a polished effort.

Performance

Mazda offers turbocharged engines in its larger crossovers, but not in the CX-30. Here, there’s a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine that makes 186 horsepower and 186 foot-pounds of torque, with a six-speed automatic transmission. All-wheel drive is optional.

There aren’t many tricks here, but what Mazda does offer is a well-tuned driving experience that is so close to the Mazda3 hatchback that most drivers won’t notice any drawback of the greater ride-height. The four-cylinder engine must be stirred up a little for best acceleration, but it’s more than up to the task when asked.

Further, because the CX-30 comes with a well-programmed six-speed automatic, the engine never drones, as sometimes happens with a Continuously Variable Transmission. In top gear, on the highway, the CX-30 is quiet and comfortable, and if you need to pass, the transmission shifts quickly.

Handling and road-holding are better than you’d expect, although come to mention it, that’s Mazda’s cachet. The CX-30 drives 95 per cent as well as the sportiest Mazda3 hatchback, and won’t disappoint anyone who grew up with a ‘3 in their driveway.

Turn-in is sharp, and body roll is well-damped. Overall grip is plentiful, and the CX-30 is really good fun on a backroad. It’s a crossover, yes, but there’s nothing boring about it.

Taken all together, the CX-30 handles all the practical considerations that a modern consumer is looking for, while still being just that little bit more lively to drive. That driving spirit is what made the ‘3 a winner in past years – it should work for the CX-30 too.

Features

At $23,950 to start, the CX-30 is only slightly more expensive than a Mazda3 Sport (the hatchback variant). My GT tester was a healthy $10,000 more expensive, at $33,850, although some of the options it contained were useful considerations like all-wheel drive. The base GS model gets a smaller 155 h.p. engine, and with Apple CarPlay as standard a mid-level CX-30 might be the best choice for power and practicality.

Fuel economy is very consistent, something that’s become a Mazda hallmark. Official figures for the GT all-wheel-drive variant are 9.5 litres/100 kilometres in the city and 7.4 l/100 km on the highway. In real world use, the CX-30 hit these figures easily.

Green light

Sharp handling; good looks; polished inside and out.

Stop sign

No huge advantage over a hatchback; chassis could handle a sportier variant.

The checkered flag

All the joy to drive that made people fall in love with the Mazda3, repackaged for today’s crossover-loving customers.

Competition

Toyota CH-R ($23,650): Smaller than the CX-30, the CH-R is Toyota’s answer to the youth market. It’s priced the same as the CX-30 to start, but the Mazda offers a bit more space, and can be optioned up more to just butt up against the RAV4.

The CH-R is small and a little tinny to drive, where the CX-30 is far more substantial. Toyota is betting that most customers looking for more space might consider the Corolla hatchback, which is a pretty great-driving little car. The CX-30, on the other hand, gives Mazda an offering in its lineup that even the larger manufacturers are missing currently. 

mcaleeronwheels@gmail.com

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