2016 Mazda CX-3

WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. — When Shakespeare posed the question, “What is in a name?” he could have had the all-new Mazda CX-3 in mind. You see, in terms of size and handling, it’s a crossover in name only. Mazda’s 3 sedan is seven inches longer and nearly three inches wider than the CX-3. Mazda suits — well, most of them don’t wear suits — tell us that the CX-3 really has more in common with the Mazda2 than the 3. In the long run, though, does it really matter? Nah.

If you want to cowboy it up around your posse at the golf course or bowling alley, you can certainly get away with calling CX-3 a crossover. But, other than the availability of the $1,250 AWD option, the CX-3 looks and behaves more like a 5-door hatchback than a crossover in virtually every way. Hey, that’s a check mark in the “plus” column as far as I am concerned. But, Mazda calls it a crossover; so, I will too.

Mazda’s “Kodo” design language ensures a level of familiarity across its lineup and is responsible for whatever similarities there are between the the larger CX-5 and the 2016 CX-3. In profile, both exhibit a long hood and rakish roof line. Both boast that aggressive, beefy grille. When I first saw the CX-3 in the flesh, it didn’t look like a $20,000 vehicle. It looked more like the scale model of a $50,000 full-size crossover.

Despite being significantly shorter than the 3 sedan, the CX-3 delivers roughly the same amount of cargo space and rear-seat legroom as the sedan, which is to say, not a whole lot. So, someone on the hunt for the utility often associated with a crossover, may not find Mazda’s newest entry as useful as some others. A sub-six-foot adult, though, will be fine in the backseat as long as someone of similar stature is in the front seat as well.

Size may not matter, however. Someone looking for a pint-size crossover infused with Mazda’s “zoom-zoom” DNA, will be smitten with the CX-3. It’s more fun to drive than any crossover should be.

CX-3 is the fifth vehicle (including the redesigned Miata) within Mazda’s lineup incorporating its Skyactiv technologies to reduce weight and improve engine efficiency while increasing fuel economy. Go comes from a 146-horsepower 2-liter four-cylinder engine. With close to 3,000 pounds for this engine to motivate, the CX-3 is no sprinter; however, it steps off briskly enough when the light goes green.

Mazda engineers resisted the temptation to put a CVT in charge of funneling engine output to the wheels as some competitors have done with their small CUVs. Instead a six-speed automatic manages the shifting. To keep this crossover moving, the small four-banger stays pretty busy. The tachometer needle spends much of its time in the higher reaches of the rpm band.

With the flip of a switch, drivers may activate a “Sport” mode that retards upshifting until even farther up the rpm range than normal. I found it more annoying than sporty. After a few city blocks in Sport mode, I switched it back to normal. On the mountain roads, however, Sport mode did help get into and out of the curves a bit more aggressively.

Impressive fuel economy is the primary benefit of the Skyactiv technology, and the CX-3 delivers it. Government estimates put mileage at 29 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway for front-wheel-drive versions. Opting for AWD drops both measures by a couple of mpg to 27 mpg city and 32 highway.

Mazda put us on some fairly gnarly roads in our drive of the CX-3. The steering was sharp and quick. Tossing it around the mountain twists and turns was fun. It remained well planted and stable. It’s not a sports car by any stretch of the imagination, but its low center of gravity and stiff chassis give it car-like agility.

Just as with the exterior styling, the interior design and craftsmanship would be right at home in a crossover costing thousands more. Overall the interior lines are rather simple. Where designers put their effort is in the variety of well coordinated colors and materials. Although the layout is quite tidy, the cabin is upscale. Many functions can be controlled through a single interface dial mounted on the center console with its seven-inch infotainment touch screen higher up on the dashboard.

Every CX-3 comes with full power accessories, air conditioning, cruise control, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel with redundant audio controls, 60/40 split-folding rear seat, trip computer, Bluetooth connectivity, a rearview camera and a six-speaker audio system with iPod interface.

The price as tested here — $26,910 — is for the top-of-the-line Grand Touring grade, building on the Sport and Touring trims below it. Base price is $19,960

There is a lot of competition in the sub-compact CUV segment, but for fans of Mazda’s Skyactiv, fun-to-drive approach, the CX-3 is exactly what the doctor ordered.

— Russ Heaps