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2016 Mazda CX-3 GT

By Bill Howard

The subcompact SUV segment is booming. Of the many new cars on the market, the 2016 Mazda CX-3, a five-door subcompact crossover SUV based on the Mazda2 sedan, is the newest and sleekest of the bunch, and the most fun to drive. The tech offerings are very good on the top GT trim line, the Mazda CX-3 GT, which we reviewed, but only so-so below that. The CX-3 drives well, offers a full suite of driver assists, and offers great fuel economy. It trumps the Honda HR-V in every category except backseat roominess and cargo capacity, and is a very solid choice among subcompact SUVs.

Price and Trim Lines
The Mazda CX-3 comes in three trim lines. The Sport model starts at $20,840 with shipping, the mid-grade Touring trim starts at $22,090, and the base version of the leather-trimmed GT starts at $25,870.

Every CX-3 has front-wheel drive, and includes remote keyless entry, push button start, a rear camera, and the Mazda Connect infotainment system. You can add Mazda's i-Activ AWD system for $1,250 to each trim line, and upgrade the Touring and GT trims with the $1,410 Technology package and the $1,920 i-ActivSense package. The all-wheel drive CX-3 GT with i-ActivSense and the aptly named Soul Red paint is the priciest possible configuration at $29,340, and the model we tested.

The Touring trim adds blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, advanced keyless entry (proximity unlock), heated leatherette seats with cloth inserts, a center armrest, two USB ports, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter at the base level. The Technology package is really a comfort and music option that adds a decent size moonroof, a cargo cover, and satellite and HD radio.

The high-end CX-3 GT includes the Technology package option, plus a HUD-like active driving display, navigation, steerable LED headlamps (also LED fog lamps, daytime running lights, and tail lights), a seven-speaker Bose stereo system, paddle shifters, and leather-and-suede two-tone seats that look like big saddle shoes. The i-ActivSense Package adds adaptive cruise control, Smart City Brake Support, Smart Brake Support, Lane Departure Warning, automatic high beam control, rain-sensing wipers, and auto on/off headlamps.

The single engine/transmission choice is a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder option that offers both 146-hp and 146 lb-ft of torque with a six-speed automatic transmission called SkyActiv-Drive. Amazingly, the engine has a 13.0:1 compression ratio, yet runs on regular fuel. Preliminary ratings have the Mazda CX-3 at a best-in-class 29/35/31mpg city/highway/combined for front-wheel drive, and 27/32/29mpg with the i-Activ AWD system.

Performance and Capacity
Mazda's slogan is "zoom zoom," so it's no surprise that the CX-3 handles well. Driving twisty canyon roads like Mulholland Highway outside Los Angeles, both the front-drive and AWD models are in their element. To move 2,900 pounds with 146 horsepower takes a heavy foot on the throttle, and that means engine noise under hard acceleration, though the car is relatively quiet otherwise. The CX-3 goes from 0-60mph in around 8 seconds, which is slow for a sporty car, but not bad for a subcompact crossover SUV.

Backseat room is fair, but others, like the new Honda HR-V, provide more space. If it's just two people in the vehicle, you'll have plenty of room for a weekend or week-long trek, especially with the nice cabin appointments on the Grand Touring.

Active Safety Assistance
The subcompact buying segment includes young couples on their way up, urbanites who need more than Uber, college kids with rich parents, and Millennials and Boomers scaling back but still interested in the tech and safety features of their previous rides. Here, Mazda nailed it. Adaptive cruise control on the CX-3 worked well, although it only covers the range of 19-90mph; in commuting environments with highway stop-and-go, full-range ACC would be better.

Mazda partly fills that gap below 19mph with Smart City Brake Support (SCBS), along with Smart Brake Support (SBS). SBS uses radar to track vehicles up to 650 feet ahead and slow down, or if necessary, stop the car if the gap closes too suddenly. SCBS uses a windshield-mounted laser to track the car ahead in the range of 3-19mph; if the gap closes suddenly and the driver doesn't brake or steer away, the car pre-charges the brakes, then cuts the throttle and applies the brakes. It should eliminate or minimize the effect of a low-speed collision.

Blind Spot Warning and Lane Departure Warning work similarly to most other models, meaning a warning light and a beep rather than a steering wheel or seat vibration. For LDW, when our test car reached the lane marking, it emitted a powerful low-frequency rumble from the speakers. Mazda says it emulates the lane-marker rumble. If you're an audiophile, you'll say it sounds like a blown loudspeaker that can only buzz. Mazda allows you to switch to a traditional beeping sound, but we'd prefer the option of switching to steering wheel vibration.

Mazda, like Mini, uses a small head-up display in the form of a plastic reflector atop the instrument cluster that rotates into position when the car starts up. This HUD is called the Active Driving Display, and it shows speed and cruise control settings. For most CX-3 drivers, the line formed by the rear edge of the hood cuts across the middle of the ADD. It's also uncertain how the system will hold up if someone tries to manually retract it, or drops a tablet on the dash, but it would probably break.

Mazda Connect
Mazda Connect works well, though it isn't our favorite infotainment system. You can use the 7-inch touch screen or the iDrive-like control wheel and function buttons on the console. Navigation gets the job done, but quick typists may have to wait a fraction of a second between each key press. There is no split screen (except upcoming turns), so you can't see both navigation and music at the same time. You can control phone-based apps like Pandora, Aha, and Stitcher, but there's no word on backwards compatibility with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto (though Mazda has announced future support for those systems).

In a nice touch, Mazda Connect is wired to allow dealer installation of the navigation system if your CX-3 doesn't come with it, an upgrade Mazda says will cost about $400. Mazda also offers a remote start system controlled by your iOS or Android smartphone with a $500 module and a $65-yearly subscription fee after getting the first year free.

Should I Buy the CX-3?
There's a lot of competition in the subcompact SUV segment, including the Honda HR-V (which is basically a bigger Honda Fit$20,925.00 at TrueCar), the Buick Encore$26,534.00 at TrueCar, and we'd also add the Mazda3$27,290.00 at TrueCar, among a number of others. Of these, the Honda HR-V is the most direct opponent to the CX-3. The HR-V is taller, wider, longer, and does a better job hauling cargo with its Magic Fold second-row seats. However, the CX-3 handles better, gets better fuel economy, and Mazda offers a wider selection of driver assist features. If you're looking for a subcompact SUV, either car is a very solid option.