2016 Mazda CX-3 Review - Nomenclature, Be Damned

Mark Stevenson
by Mark Stevenson

2016 Mazda CX-3 Grand Touring AWD (U.S.)/GT AWD (Canada)

2.0-liter SKYACTIV DOHC I-4, direct injection, dual S-VT (146 horsepower @ 6,000 rpm; 146 lbs-ft of torque @ 2,800 rpm)

6-speed SKYACTIV-Drive automatic w/ Sport mode and paddle shifters

27 city/32 highway/29 combined (EPA Rating, MPG)

30 mpg on the camping-gear-laden test cycle, 80 percent highway (Observed, MPG)

Tested Options: i-ACTIVSENSE Safety Package (U.S.)/Technology Package (Canada), i-ACTIV all-wheel drive (U.S., AWD is standard on GT trim in Canada)

Base Price:

$20,840* (U.S.)/$22,680* (Canada)

As Tested Price:

$29,040* (U.S.)/$32,490* (Canada)

* All prices include $880 destination fee (U.S.) or $1,995 destination fee, PDI and A/C tax (Canada).

For as long as I can remember, my parents always had two vehicles while I was growing up. The first one I can vividly remember was the precursor to GM’s dreaded Cavalier and Cobalt, a 1987 Chevrolet Chevette, with an interior as roomy as any compact you can buy today. The second conveyance in our driveway was a 1992 Suzuki Sidekick, Jay Green in color, and rugged as my father needed for his job traversing Cape Breton Island’s vast spaghetti network of logging roads.

In the early 1990s, the Chevette ended with a bang. As I laid on a bed at my grandmother’s apartment, attempting as much as a young child would to get to sleep (translation: not trying at all), I was startled by tire squealing, a loud bang, silence, then more tire squealing. The Chevette had been dispatched by a freshly licensed 16-year-old driving a Hyundai Pony and fueled by Vitamin O. Write-off total: approximately $500 — for both cars.

The Chevette, now off to the scrapyard, was replaced by a Pontiac Firefly five-door, known for its economical three-cylinder engine outputting double-digit horsepower whilst solidly achieving double-digit miles per gallon halfway to the centripulcate. As a daily runabout, it was solid, economical, and — with its wagon-esque virtues — incredibly versatile.

Back then, my parents were about the same age I am now. They were the last of the Baby Boomers and in the 1990s faced what many Millennials face today. My parents were done with school and working on budding careers and a growing family inside their newly acquired home. There are some key differences between them and me however: I have one extra dog (for a total of two), lack children and I don’t own a home.

It’s in this context that my girlfriend and I headed out on one of my family’s favorite pastimes from when I was a child — a weekend camping trip — in the millennial-focused 2016 Mazda CX-3.

Before we get to the driving, let’s talk about what actually is a CX-3 because the nomenclature is, I think, incredibly confusing to consumers. Also, I think it’s one of the reasons why Mazda is having a hard time making inroads in the U.S. market despite fostering some of the best products in the industry.

The CX-3 is a Mazda2 in drag and not a jacked up Mazda3. A jacked up Mazda3 is called a CX-5, which is kind of related to the Mazda5 so few people bought in the U.S. that Mazda killed it off. The Mazda6 is built on its own G platform derivative, dubbed GJ, and is fairly unrelated to everything else. The CX-9 is a Ford.

With that out of the way …


Shapely lines and a flowing beltline make the CX-3 one of the most stylish options in the sub-compact car segment. I say this because whenever we stopped along our journey to and from the campsite, there was always at least one person — if not multiple — checking out the car. And I mean really staring at it. The CX-3 turns heads without voyeurs wearing a horrified but quizzical “what the hell is that thing?” facial expression usually reserved for the Aztek and Nissan Juke.

Up front, the CX-3 wears the same updated design language as the refreshed Mazda6 and CX-5, which is a slightly angrier yet more refined version of Mazda’s KODO design DNA. The large grille has presence, even if it’s slightly ruined by its license plate soul patch. The chrome grille surrounding meets elegantly with the squinting headlights much like its brethren, and thank you Mazda for making use of LED technology without turning your headlamps into Audi knock-offs.

At its side, the CX-3 welcomes you with the aforementioned high, flowing beltline and lots of dark plastic cladding to support its rough-and-tumble marketing message. At this trim, there’s even a nice chrome runner to give the CX-3 a more upmarket appearance. All in all, the plastic and chrome say, “Yes, I can do some light off-roading … ” while its pregnant-mouse grown clearance qualify the statement with, ” … but I’d rather not today.” Wheels on this Grand Touring model measure in at 18 inches and fill the wheel wells gracefully. Base model CX-3s come fitted with 16-inch shoes that are much more restrained in their design but are a bit more sophisticated and less trendy.

Much like the Mazda3, there is more metal than glass at the rear of the CX-3. Thankfully, the car comes with a standard backup camera to compensate for the lack of rearward visibility.

As a package, the CX-3 is the sharpest of numbers in an increasingly crowded, increasingly competitive segment.


At first, the CX-3’s interior looks like standard Mazda fare, which is good. However, you will notice one omission when you try to use the stereo … that doesn’t exist; instead of a head unit, you are presented a CD slot on the dash (why did they even bother?) along with knobs in the center console for audio operation through Mazda’s infotainment system (more on that later). The only physical tracking buttons are on the steering wheel. There are no controls on the dash at all save the CD slot’s eject button. The arrangement is definitely something you’ll need to get used to; I found myself reaching toward the dash all week long to either change a track to adjust the volume, only to realize I’m an idiot again and again before performing the task at hand through the steering wheel controls or center console knobs.

Other gripes: there is no center console cubby or armrest — console- or seat-mounted — in the CX-3. On long drives, that’s irritating when wanting to steer from the bottom of the wheel, but space is a premium in a millennial mobile.

On the other end of the spectrum, the seats are some of the nicest I’ve seen, touched and sat in in any car less than $30,000. They are beautiful to look at, hug well, and despite there firmness are still comfortable for weekend-long journeying.


Just like the Mazda3, the iPad-on-dash display is present in the CX-3. Love it or hate it, it’s there — and it’s standard equipment. The 7-inch Mazda Connect display is clear and crisp to the eye and still manages to arrange information and functions in a way that’s logically sound when driving. However, the way the HMI Commander Switch interacts with the screen sometimes feels backwards. You navigate options usually by turning the knob, and when you do the highlighted option is sometimes the opposite of what you meant to pick. Maybe this is my issue.

While you may decry my lack of audio-specific impressions on new cars, the fact is I am fairly tone deaf, so my impressions won’t matter. The stereo sounded clear to me. Your musical mileage may vary.

The navigation, on the other hand, is something I feel fully qualified to, well, qualify. It’s dead simple to use and the visual presentation is excellent. Digging into the menus can be slightly confusing, but once you do it once or twice you’re good to go.

Yet, I still don’t understand Mazda’s aversion to letting someone use the touchscreen in motion. Yes, I understand the safety argument, but what about passengers? Why should they be locked out of using the touchscreen functionality? Also, if you are in motion 99 percent of the time you’re in the car, why even bother with having a touchscreen at all? Either unlock the screen and let me use it or get rid of it altogether. Please.


Here’s another item that further confuses consumers into thinking the CX-3 is based on the Mazda3. Underhood is the same exact SKYACTIV-G 2-liter engine as its sedan and hatchback stablemates. Yet, unlike the Mazda3, the CX-3 is not available with the optional 2.5-liter SKYACTIV mill.

The 146 horsepower and 146 pounds-feet of torque doesn’t make the CX-3 slow by any stretch, and down low the 2-liter is great for the stoplight drag race. On the highway, the SKYACTIV four does show its one flaw, though, and that’s its lack of passing power. When you are traveling on two-lane secondary roads and need to pass an RV piloted by 78-year-old tourists from Connecticut, you really need to pick your moment. Compounding the pain: The issue could be remedied with a manual gearbox, which isn’t an option in North America. Instead, we are saddled with a six-speed automatic as the only transmission offered, unlike other parts of the world.

Now, there’s nothing especially wrong with that six-speed auto. Actually, for an automatic, it’s quite good. Shifts are smooth, as is getting away from a stop. Shifting with the paddles is (gasp!) fun! Sport mode, which holds back shifts just a tad bit longer, won’t get you going any quicker at full trot. However, it isn’t as aggressive as some other sport transmission tuning I’ve experienced in the past, and it actually makes the experience more than bearable.

On our mostly highway-limited trip, the Mazda CX-3 clocked in just above its combined EPA rating of 29 mpg.

The @mazdausa / @mazdacanada CX-3 is absolutely packed with our camping gear. Not even enough room for an extra breath.

A photo posted by Mark Stevenson (@motoalamark) on Aug 9, 2015 at 7:36am PDT


Let’s quickly get a few things out of the way so we can talk about what’s truly important about the CX-3.

  • The ride is good, though has typical Mazda firmness built in for that “sporty” feeling.
  • The seating position is great, a good mix of slightly raised without feeling you’re driving a truck or more conventional SUV.
  • Overall, it’s a great car.

Yet, as a non-car loving consumer, you might think the CX-3 is a jacked up Mazda3, and I am sure Mazda is banking on it.

“Why would I spend $18,945 on a Mazda3 when I can spend $1,000 more and get a crossover based on the same car?” those millennials might ponder to themselves.

Meanwhile, buyers are unknowingly spending $4,000-5,000 over that mythical Mazda2 that doesn’t exist in the U.S. market, taking their new CX-3 home assuming it has the same interior space as the Mazda3, then wondering why Rover keeps hitting his cone-shaped golden retriever head repeatedly on the dome light. It’s at this point the Mazda CX-3 buyer realizes they’ve been had and it’s too damn late.

It’s a good thing we decided to leave the dogs at home.

Let me be crystal clear here: The CX-3 costs more than the Mazda3, and for that extra $1,000 you get 1) less utility, 2) less choice (no manual), and 3) optional all-wheel drive that isn’t meant for off-roading.

My parents, those millennials of yesteryear, had it right. Two vehicles served as solutions to two different problems. The Firefly was a stellar little runabout. The Sidekick was great for my dad’s work and also provided a spacious enough interior to go camping with three meatbags and an additional furry meatbag. The CX-3 tries to solve both while being completely successful at neither.

Fortunately it isn’t a matter of the car itself being bad and Mazda can fix it all by just calling it what it is. Rename the CX-3 the CX-2 or Mazda2 CrossVenza or whatever. But CX-3? Truth in advertising — or in nomenclature — this Mazda is not.

Mark Stevenson
Mark Stevenson

More by Mark Stevenson

Join the conversation
2 of 132 comments
  • JLGOLDEN JLGOLDEN on Aug 24, 2015

    We looked at all of the new Mazdas this weekend, just for fun. The CX-3 really impressed me with its stance and overall visual appeal. Then there's the lovely interior, which looks and feels very high quality, especially when compared back to back with a Trax or HR-V.

  • Carlisimo Carlisimo on Aug 26, 2015

    "Let me be crystal clear here: The CX-3 costs more than the Mazda3, and for that extra $1,000 you get 1) less utility, 2) less choice (no manual)..." About that "choice" - in theory it's true, but I'm trying to buy a Mazda3 2.5L MT (yes, really) and there aren't any within 250 miles of here. I was hoping for a red one, but at this point I'll be lucky to find a 2.0L MT. There are 6 of those out of 614 Mazda3 on dealer lots within 250 miles, and 5 of them are an ugly shade of gray. There's a dark blue one without any of the options I wanted. I'll consider it, but at this point I might not want to pay new car money and just get a 10-year old who-knows-what.

  • Dave Has to be Indy 500. Many more leaders and front passes than NASCAR, and Monaco is unwatchable with the inability to pass on that circuit.
  • Jeff How did the discussion get from an article about a 56 billion dollar pay package for Elon Musk to a proposal to charge a per mile tax on EVs in California or paying increase registration on vehicles to make up for lost gas tax revenue? I thought such a discussion would better fit Matt's Gas Wars series.
  • Master Baiter Both people who bought ID.4s will be interested in this post.
  • Urlik Not a single memorable thing happened in the big three races this weekend IMHO.
  • Ajla If Goodyear makes rain tires that allow NASCAR to race in damp conditions at longer ovals (other that at Daytona and Talladega) then I promise to purchase at least four new sets of Goodyear tires in my remaining life.