One of the hottest automotive market niches is also one of the newest, subcompact crossovers - small SUVs that are easy to drive in cities and can be ordered with all-wheel-drive. They get great gas mileage and, when equipped with AWD, are easy to drive on narrow mountain trails. One of the best is the 2017 Mazda CX-3, which is now in its second year of production.
One of the hottest automotive market niches is also one of the newest, subcompact crossovers — small SUVs that are easy to drive in cities and can be ordered with all-wheel-drive. They get great gas mileage and, when equipped with AWD, are easy to drive on narrow mountain trails.
One of the best is the 2017 Mazda CX-3, which is now in its second year of production. It competes with the equally new Honda HR-V and two related vehicles that can be ordered with serious off-road packages, the Jeep Renegade and Fiat 500X.
But as I was putting the CX-3 through its paces recently, it stuck me that the subcompact crossover craze isn't a completely new thing. In the 1980s, there was a sudden wave of subcompact cars that could be ordered with AWD produced by different manufacturers, too. They included the Subaru Justy and Mazda 323 GTX hatchbacks, and the Toyota Tercel and Honda Civic wagons.
Much of their appeal was the same as now — good mileage and admittedly more limited off-road capabilities. But, like now, each vehicle had its own personality, with the Justy and Tercel being very basic, the Civic being more sophisticated, and the Mazda, which was turbocharged, being the sportiest.
Fast forward to now and the Mazda is still the sportiest. Although its standard 2.0-liter inline four cylinder engine is not turbocharged, the CX-3 has been given the company's SKYACTIV treatment that reduces as much weight as possible to save gas, which also gives it a nimble feel. The swoopy KODO Soul of Motion is also the sportiest of the lot, with lines that flow gracefully up from the large grill and low air dam to the integrated spoiler on the top of the rear hatch.
The interior is equally sophisticated for such an affordable small vehicle, with all gauges and controls oriented toward the driver and a simple, unobstructed dash ahead of the front seat passenger. The materials are all high quality, creating a refined feel at a price point well below the more upscale Buick Encore subcompact crossover.
On the road, the 2017 CX-3 feels fast on its feet. Although the engine only produces 146 horsepower, it revs freely and the genuine six-speed automatic transmission is much more responsive than the typical continuously variable transmissions that many manufacturers are going with these days. There's also a sport mode and two manual shift options for those that want even more performance.
Our fully-loaded Grand Touring edition came with all the bells and whistles, include a suite of safety systems that featured blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert and an i-Activsense package that included such advanced technologies as a forward collision mitigation system with automatic braking.
Like all subcompacts, rear seat room and cargo space are limited, making them better suited for singles or couples without even small children. Of course, like most other companies, Mazda is prepared to accommodate larger families with two other crossovers, the five-passenger midsize CX-5 and the three-row CX-9, which was completely redesigned and given the SKYACTIV treatment for 2017.
If a subcompact crossover is on your shopping list, test drives of different models are always recommended, but the 2017 Mazda CX-3 should be right at the top.
2017 Mazda CX-3
Base price: $19,960
Price as tested: $28,810
Type: Subcompact crossover SUV
Engine: 2.0-liter inline 4 (146 hp, 146 lbs-ft)
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
EPA estimated mileage: 27/32
Overall length: 168.3 inches
Curb weight: 2,809 to 2,952 pounds
Final assembly: Hiroshima, Japan