Showing its age well
THE GOOD
  • Engaging to drive
  • Quality interior
  • Good fuel economy
THE BAD
  • Compromised passenger, cargo capacity
  • Finicky infotainment
  • Flinty and noisy ride

Introduced in 2016, the subcompact Mazda CX-3 crossover continues to endear us with its perky, fun-to-drive personality.

Five years on, we test the top 2021 Mazda CX-3 GT that, at $33,200 before tax, has this stylish pip-squeak bristling with all the tech Mazda can throw at it.

Styling: 9/10

Now into its fifth year, the Mazda CX-3 still looks current, rocking a rakish profile, artistically sculpted flanks, long hood, and short overhangs. It’s a tidy and well-resolved design, and looks especially good here in this new-for-2021 non-metallic Polymetal Grey Metallic paint ($200). The GT is the only CX-3 variant to ride on 18-inch wheels (16-inch wheels are standard). The GT’s other visual clues include full LED lighting and extra chrome accents on the lower grille and side sills.

Safety: 8/10

Standard safety kit for the 2021 Mazda CX-3 includes automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and a back-up camera that’s legally mandated. Stepping up to the GT bestows auto-levelling LED headlights, adaptive cruise that works in stop-and-go traffic, lane-departure warning, automatic high-beam headlights, traffic sign recognition, and a head-up display.

The lane-departure warning alerts you to excessive wandering via a subtle “rumble-strip” sound emitted from either the right or left speakers. The adaptive cruise is well calibrated, and generally works with seamless accuracy.

The 2020 Mazda CX-3 got a five-star rating from the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and a Top Safety Pick+ from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Practicality: 6.5/10

Yes, this is a subcompact crossover, so we can’t expect copious passenger and cargo space, but the CX-3 is arguably the tightest in its class. Its 467/1,147 L of cargo capacity pales when looking at the Honda HR-V’s 657/1,631 L. The CX-3’s back-seat room is also very tight. At a smidge under six feet tall, I could just “sit behind myself,” and travelling back there would be under protest. For kids and smaller adults, the space is acceptable but nothing more.

There’s a bin between the front seats that doubles as a cupholder – but it’s not very good at it and isn’t shaped well to support cups and cans. Additionally, the CX-3 is showing its age by the size of the smartphone tray; it will fit an iPhone 8 but nothing larger.

Folding down the seatbacks is easy from either the side doors or the hatch, and while they don’t fold completely flat it’s close.

User Friendliness: 7.5/10

The Mazda CX-3 GT presents no quirks or foibles when it comes to driving. Forward visibility is good for front occupants, and all the controls are well placed. A traditional gear selector on the console eliminates any guesswork, and to the left is a toggle switch for selecting the sport mode that calls up a more aggressive shift map.

It’s the infotainment interface that gives the CX-3 trouble. This is Mazda’s old-gen system, and while it gets kudos for having a BMW iDrive-like control knob for navigation functions, even simple tasks such as selecting entertainment source or radio tuning require too much knob-twirling and menu selection.

The CX-3’s instrument binnacle brags a large central speedometer, but sadly it is not back-lit, and the dim and dated digital displays flanking the speedo look to be from another era – the blinking VCR era. Thankfully, the little Mazda generally responds accurately to voice activation requests.

Features: 8.5/10

The CX-3 GT comes with a comprehensive arsenal of safety equipment and driver aids. It also gets navigation, a heated steering wheel, an impressively rich seven-speaker audio system, Android Auto, and (new for 2021) wireless Apple CarPlay. The GT’s cabin is dressed up with leather, grey faux-suede door inserts and dash panel, satin chrome accents, and vent bezels with groovy red inner rings. It’s a well-crafted and upscale-feeling environment.

The driver’s seat is 10-way power-adjustable and gets two memory settings. Overhead is a small (by modern standards) sunroof.

Power: 7.5/10

Despite the 2.0L naturally aspirated four-cylinder posting some of the best output figures in the segment (148 hp, 146 lb-ft of torque), the CX-3 doesn’t feel particularly fleet, requiring some coaxing from the right Reebok to get things really rolling. Around town this GT felt plenty frisky, but highway merging and passing requires some planning. Still, the engine does not object to a bit of thrashing, eagerly meting out the power and making a nice snarl while doing so. Again, this is all part of the little Mazda’s balanced equation.

Comfort: 7/10

Seat comfort for the front occupants is good, but rear legroom in the CX-3 is mighty tight. Additionally, the high window sills and raked roofline make the rear quarters feel even more claustrophobic. While the GT’s 18-inch wheel upgrade adds to sportiness in both looks and handling, they deliver a pretty flinty ride, and the cabin is inundated with plenty of engine and road noise.

Driving Feel: 8.5/10

If you like driving, you’ll thoroughly enjoy the CX-3. The driving position is spot-on, and the electrically assisted steering delivers feel and feedback that eludes many other manufacturers. The CX-3 dives into bends with glee and shows fine balance and body control. Mazda touts its torque-vectoring system that, on turn-in, imperceptibly reduces engine torque, transferring some load to the front wheels which quickens steering response.

The six-speed automatic transmission works smoothly and smartly, delivering quick kick-down and rapid response to paddle shifter inputs, making the latter activity quite enjoyable. Enthusiasts might bemoan the fact that there is no manual transmission available with the GT (only with the base front-wheel-drive GX), but in reality Mazda wouldn’t sell enough stir-your-own GTs to make it worth their while.

Fuel Economy: 8/10

SkyActiv is the name Mazda has given to its overarching engineering solution of finding fuel efficiency through reduced weight, lean drivetrains, and aerodynamics. It’s no false promise. This tester returned 7.7 L/100 km, which is pretty good for an all-wheel-drive crossover that goads you into hitting the on-ramps with extra gusto every time. The official fuel figures for the 2021 Mazda CX-3 GT are 8.6 L/100 km city, 7.4 highway, and 8.1 combined. It takes regular-grade fuel.

Value: 7.5/10

While the 2021 Mazda CX-3 starts at $21,450 for the base front-drive GX, this top trim commands almost $10,000 more. But for that money, you’re not wanting for much when it comes to safety systems, driver aids, and feature count. Overall, this wee crossover exudes an overarching feel of quality, right from the paint to its interior to its unique and clever engineering.

The Verdict

While the Mazda CX-3 ends its run in the American market this year, Mazda Canada is keeping this fun-to-drive subcompact ute on the menu for at least another year. Indeed, we Canadians show small hatches a whole lot more love than our neighbours to the south, but that doesn’t hide the fact that the CX-3, which is based on the old Mazda2 platform, is really showing its age – mainly with its dim last-gen instrument cluster and lack of sound insulation. But conversely, the CX-3 is beautifully constructed and shows an elemental lightness-of-being that, as a hallmark of Mazda, almost harks back to a simpler time.

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 2.0L   Model Tested 2021 Mazda CX-3 GT
Engine Cylinders I4   Base Price $31,250
Peak Horsepower 148 @ 6,000 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 146 lb-ft @ 2,800 rpm   Destination Fee $1,950
Fuel Economy 8.6 / 7.4 / 8.1 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $33,500
Cargo Space 467/1,147 L seats up/down  
Optional Equipment
$200 – Polymetal Grey Metallic Paint, $200