Shape shifters - Dave Moore | Daily News

15 April 2015
Dave Moore  | Daily News

When you look at the fourwheeled boxes normally foisted upon us as crossovers and SUV, Mazda's newcomer seems almost voluptuous by comparison, says Dave Moore.

Mazda's new model offensive just doesn't stop.

On top of the M recently introduced Mazda2, extensive updates of its CX-5 and Mazda6 models, and the first full year of the C-segment Mazda 3 hatch and sedan line-up, the Hiroshima-based company has launched its gorgeous new CX-3, the carmaker's very first small SUV.

If being the prettiest model at the segment's party is not enough, the Mazda also fronts-up as the only offering in the sector with so many choices of power unit and drive train. Under its muscular Kodo-designed exterior the CX-3 is available right now in New Zealand in AWD or FWD forms, and with manual and automatic six-speed transmissions, as well as with a choice of 1.5-litre turbodiesel SkyActiv D turbodiesel or 2.0-litre SkyActiv G engines.

Many makers do not have diesel and petrol power, offer fewer transmission ratios and some don't even front-up with allwheel-drive. The Mazda does, and such choices, running through a slew of six models in three trim levels starting from less than $31,200 can't be matched by any other maker.

The model doesn't exactly scrimp on specification either, for as well as Sat Nav and alloy wheels, every CX-3 offers MZD Connect, the company's simple, easy-to-use smartphone connectivity set-up and has its state-of-the-art i-ActivSense active safety technology available.

It could be said that the CX-3 is the CX-5's little brother, but the newer, smaller car does so much more with the Kodo soul of motion design theme. We suspect that the CX-3 will have more influence on the next generation of the larger crossover at full redesign time than it has itself taken from that model.

It's easy to say that the car is set to tackle the Juke, EcoSport and Trax models already in the segment, but the shape of its pleasingly-proportioned, muscular and family-familiar body (without being slavishly so) suggests that the only real competition this car is going to have is the Honda HR-V which is still months away.

Where many of the lightweight SUVs out there seem to be what their title suggests, lightweight, one of the first things you notice about the CX-3 is its meaty steering heft and excellent range of seat and wheel adjustments.

While the seating up front has a generously tall hip-point for easy access and egress, the seating position is contrived to sit you 'into' the seat rather than balance you 'on' it.

It's a pleasant feeling and after spending some time in the Mazda2 recently from which most of the CX-3's dash furniture comes, my hands and fingers found all the controls easily and I required no more familiarisation than that. Seated high, but not too high and snugly enough to have a secure, well-cosseted driving position, the CX-3's feel-good factor is palpable.

Mazda explains that the front seats are set quite some distance apart so that rear passengers can more easily interact with the people in the 'mum and dad' positions. The rear bench's base is higher-set than the front buckets' and is shaped and belted for up to three. And while you could be forgiven for thinking that the tapered roofline might interrupt overhead space, my 1.88 metre frame had no problem.

The cloth and leather used in the cabin, even the white hide option (before your Levi's stain it) feels and looks good and with an info screen that has ipad levels of tactility, you never get the impression that this is a junior version of anything else, it's what it is, just segment smaller.

The driving experience reflects the solid maturity of those first impressions. It responds as if it is a tallish sports hatch, with a biddable, neutral chassis that does a fine job of deferring understeer and which passes over holes, rills and bumps with all the authority of the larger CX-5.

There's not a skerrick of bumpsteer and while the all-wheeldrive version of the car felt a touch more planted at the rear in driving rain as we coursed through Hamilton's and Cambridge's myriad roundabouts, both versions of the car are tidy, well-balanced handlers. After several hours at the wheel, the twinge-free exit proves that the driving position was as good as that first impression suggested it should be.

Compared with the larger CX5, the load area is possibly the most disappointing part of the CX3, but against its same-sized peers it's about average. Small to medium dogs will find the accommodation more than adequate and as a bonus, the tapered glasshouse affords a small, but effective window so Fido can see out of the side of the vehicle as well as through the hatch glass. The luggage shelf is easy to detach and stow and there's additional space for hideaway items under the hatch floor.

A big question for potential CX-3 owners is whether it should be a diesel or petrol buy.

The 1.5-litre diesel unit has a lot going for it, including the fact that even when cold it's a quiet unit, and it scampers along in traffic very willingly with the factory rating it as being able to return up to 4.5L/100km. It's no rocketship, however, but it's a relaxed 100kmh cruiser and its mid-range delivers fuss-free overtaking unless you're a in a real hurry.

That's where the familiar SkyActiv petrol unit comes in. It already makes a fine fist of propelling the Mazda 3, Mazda6 and CX-5, and in the CX-3 it's more of the same. However, with a consumption score of 6.1l/100 km (FWD) or 6.7l/100 km (AWD), the petrol unit isn't exactly a gas guzzler, and from our calculations it would be a coin-toss as to which is more suitable cost-wise over a three-year 60,000km ownership plan. The diesel would just about take it, but we have to say that neither would be a disappointing experience.

We like this car. It scores a bullseye in the fastest-growing segment in the car business with looks, handling and pricing that will make it the yardstick as new models in the form of SsangYong's Tivoli, the Honda HR-V and an as yet unnamed Toyota product come through.

But they'll have to be generous with their equipment. In New Zealand even the cheapest CX-3 GLX comes with loads of standard gear: alloy wheels, air conditioning, a reversing camera, six-speaker AM/FM MP3, ipod compatible sound system, front, side and curtain SRS airbags, cruise control, Hill Launch Assist and ABS Brakes with EBD and EBA, all come as standard.

The GSX also comes with MZD Connect, and optional satellite navigation.

GSX models make that satellite navigation standard as well as larger-diameter alloy wheels, climate air, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, rear parking sensors, keyless entry, automatic wipers and light. leatherette-leather covered gearshift, handbrake lever and steering wheel.

For flagship or Limited CX-3s, the seating gets black or optional white leather, halogen headlamps are standard, as as are LED daytime running lights, lane departure warning, and smart citybrake support, while the sound system gets seven speakers.

The new Mazda's six-model line-up is spread through logical steps covering a range of $11,400, starting at a compelling $31,195 for the front-wheel-drive CX-3 2.0-litre SkyActiv petrol GLX and topping-out at $42,595 for the allthe-fruit 1.5-litre SkyActiv turbodiesel Limited model. Every New Zealand CX-3 takes a sixspeed automatic transmission, unlike Australia, which offers low-specification manual Neo models.

BT-50 commercialcare disclaimer

** is also available to new BT-50 owners where every scheduled service completed by Mazda specialist technicians for a 3 year/100,000km term (whichever wherever occurs first) will cost no more than $200 (incl. GST) per service for models built after 1 November 2012. *** 3,350kg applies to earlier models.

* whichever occurs first