Mazda CX-3 Limited: Shaping up against Subaru foe

Thought that the blending of two competitor cars would create an almost perfect One came to the fore when trialling the Subaru XV Premium and Mazda CX3 Limited.


BIG automotive industry news of recent time that potentially passed quietly in New Zealand was the confirmation of a marriage of sorts between Toyota and Mazda.

It’s an interesting union. Toyota, of course, is the biggest name in car-building, but is still not a technology leader except, perhaps, for expertise in devising cost-effective hybrid drivetrains.

Mazda, though quite small, has reached high with SkyActiv, a truly landmark drivetrain programme that, ironically, seeks to show there’s still plenty of life left in non-battery-assisted methodology.

Anyway, as of a couple of weeks ago, they’ve formed an alliance. Toyota has a five percent share of its Hiroshima foe. The two are build a $1.6 billion assembly plant in the United States. They will also work together on electric vehicles and perhaps Toyota will start to gain access to the SkyActiv skunkworks.

Anyway, what’s important with this story is to remember that Mazda is not Toyota’s first Japanese bride.

The global giant also has a similar association with another small wonder brand, Subaru. The best fruit of this is, of course, the Toyota 86 which is otherwise the Subaru BRZ. Toyota likes to call the 86 one of their own, but let’s remember two brands in the world that build their reputations around horizontally-opposed engines. One being Porsche. The other not being Toyota.

Moving on … at the moment the common link between all three is Toyota. But imagine what might be possible were the two small brands to form a cabal. As things stand, the chances of that are total fantasy, but it was nonetheless a ‘what if’ something I did give thought to when considering the cars on test here.

Compact sports utility vehicles are hugely popular. The Mazda CX-3 has been one of the category’s stronger sellers to date; the just released mid-life facelift for this car is very likely to keep it on the boil. Meantime, Subaru is making a real push to compete at the top with a second-generation XV that, aside from still looking like the previous one, is a much smarter proposition this time around.

They’re both strong contenders in their own right. But time at the wheel of each in their premium presentations had me wondering whether you could get an even better single offering from blending the best elements of both. Just a thought.

Let’s start with the wholly new car.

Subaru XV Premium.

CAR brands are aware that the market cannot get enough of SUVs. They’re also aware that SUV buyers more than most appear to be willing to pay for top-spec models.

Which conceivably means that Subaru New Zealand could have been quite within its rights to have maintained the new XV at the same price as the preceding car.

They didn’t of course … instead, both the entry and Premium edition (tested here) have become significantly cheaper, reducing on average by $3000; even though they have also become better-equipped.

It’s a madness we wish would affect more brands. Certainly, it’s one that will do this one no ill; SMZ boss Wal Dumper is pretty certain that the best-selling model of the moment, the Outback which captures just over 50 percent of the marque’s annual volume, will be out-paced by the XV in a year from now.

All in all, then, a bright future is forecast. And it’s easy to understand the confidence. The XV holds some key ace cards. Regardless that it is now relatively inexpensive, it still stands out as being amongst the biggest in the small SUV class and also one of the best equipped. Also, it’s a Subaru; meaning it comes from a brand that really understands what SUVs and crossovers are about. Regard of how soft their owner lifestyles, they need to be tough, practical and robust. And there’s no negotiation about all-wheel-drive. If you don’t want this, you need look elsewhere.

I like this attitude. I like the new XV, too, a lot more than I did the old one. Not just because it is far better finished and furnished, but because it also feels a lot more complete in respect to how it operates.

Best address the biggest ‘yes but’ now. Even though Lineartronic is the best kind of constantly variable transmission, if you don’t enjoy CVTs then it’s hard to see how this one is not going to change your mindset. On the one hand, it’s exceptionally smooth and mostly fuss free – there’s little of the slipping clutch sensation that blights some other CVTs. On the other, even with a manual mode, it’s just not a particularly communicative device and also one that, you sense, that makes the engine feel lazy.

Before getting to that, though, let’s give a hand to Subaru for a more kit for less cash approach so compelling that it should surely shame other brands into resetting their own price/provision policies. The entry Sport is now so well outfitted that it actually threatens to overshadow the $5000-dearer Premium on test. Is this $39,990 offer over-egged when standard specification includes a rear-view camera as standard, and the brand’s well-received Eyesight technology, incorporating adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist and lane departure warning, has also been added?

Well, it pays to bear in mind that while the Sport’s cloth trim could well proof more hardy than the top car’s leather, and its front chairs are also more comfortable, those looking for a fulsome accident-avoidance envelope and more luxury might still find better value with the more expensive choice. It is also the first Subaru to feature lane keep assist and reverse automatic braking (this being part of the so-called Subaru Vision Assist suite which also includes blind spot monitoring, high beam assist, lane change assist and rear cross traffic alert). It also has a sunroof (meh!), in-built sat nav, a powered front seat plus some neat ingredients such as a reversing aid that auto-stops the car if it senses it might hit something solid.

Then again, if the base car is all your dollar can stretch too, it also does a good job: Apple Carplay/Android Auto (that’ll undertake nav), dual zone air, adaptive cruise, seven airbags and roof rails. And the same 17-inch wheels and 225/60 R17 tyres as the flagship.

The core ingredient of having all-wheel-drive all of the time is an assurance further brightened by new features; an active torque vectoring that offers improved steering response and better turn-in into corners plus there’s the X-Mode function that, when engaged under 40kmh can detect tyre slip, even when turning, and incorporates hill descent and vehicle dynamics to deliver assured roadholding on loose surfaces. It’s not really a full-out off-road mode as one that you’ll find handy when tripping over sand, snow and other loose stuff, but certainly a feature you might have cause to be grateful for when venturing away from seal. In respect to that, take note that while it runs on seal-tuned tyres, XV has an excellent 220mm ground clearance.

That’s just 5mm less than a Toyota Landcruiser's and it’s quite light.

Its talents are broad enough to make it a confident drive on every road surface you can think of; the excellent grip, good balance and low centre of gravity ensure a more engagingly involved experience than many small SUVs provide.

That’s not just down to the all-paw attitude. It now sits atop the Subaru Global Platform architecture that’ll eventually underpin everything from the WRX, to the Forester, Outback and Legacy.

Far more rigid than the previous platform, the new underpinning allows for the pluses of a tighter driving feel and a bigger cabin, while also delivering huge improvements for weight reduction and crash worthiness – reflected by it gaining a top-drawer five star ANCAP crash test score.

The 2.0-litre engine also gets a new lease on life with direct fuel injection, yet the actual optimal outputs - 115kW of power and 196Nm of torque – have not changed. Neither has the claimed optimal fuel economy Subaru still citing 7.0 litres per 100km, though this seems a bit of a reach. Even though it now has a start-stop function to keep down wasted burn, and is pulling relatively low revs at 100kmh, the car is obviously prone to taking the odd sneaky swig, given our test average was a more sobering 9.1 L/100km.

The bigger issue though is the amount of oomph. Is this engine enough for the car? The torque is delivered across a flatter curve than previously, so straight away it seems a touch more muscular and less prone to un-necessary reviness, which is always good when there’s a CVT involved. It also sounds smoother, less hoarse, than the outgoing car’s engine.

And yet … well, there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of grunt and, if anything, the way the drivetrain behaves exacerbates that. I like a relaxed feel .. but only if there’s genuine muscularity behind it. With this set-up, you often feel there just isn’t.

The Forester’s 2.5-litre would be just the ticket, except it’s pretty much at the end of its production cycle. Subaru Japan has acknowledged the chassis could easily cope with more grunt but, frustratingly, also says there are no plans to implement it. Same goes for the transmission choice.

In isolation and even when compared to others of its own kind, Subaru’s CVT feels okay. But we drove it back to back with the CX-3 and, well, all agreed the Mazda box is just better; the performance is more electric but the box itself is quite engaging. That’s not a word you can use with CVT. Even though it offers a stepped speed control and a seven-speed manual mode, Lineartronic doesn’t have a show of replicating a proper gear change. And there’s no sense of any particular benefit from ‘holding’ it in a ‘gear’.

What saves it from floundering is the chassis, which is excellent. Basically, the XV is a wagonised jacked-up Impreza, a car I really admire. As such, it shouldn’t really surprise that it also carries impressive speed through a bend. The suspension makes some noise, but it does a good job of soaking up mid-corner bumps too so cornering quickly is a safe exercise.

XV’s exterior look hasn’t changed much in general ethos, but the differences in detailing are huge; it just seems less gawky, now. The real treat is the interior. Thankfully, there’s no ‘same again’ within the cabin. The previous XV was dire in its interior execution: It looked cheap and chintzy.

This time all the hard, scratchy plastics that did the previous effort no favours have been binned for the same premium, soft-touch materials that did the world of good to the Impreza. Attention to ergonomics and detail has also massively improved. It’s simply much more welcoming and easier to abide.

An increase in total boot space - maximum luggage capacity with the rear seats folded increases by 24-litres to 1240-litres (the boot opening is also wider and more accessible, and the length of the boot has been extended) – will be welcomed, but there’s benefit within the people part of the cabin, too.

Just like the Impreza, it feels wider, roomier, airier and altogether less cramped. It achieves a much better driving position, because in addition to having reach and rake adjust on the steering column and a chunky chair with decent bolstering, the seat itself has more fore-after movement. The second-row bench is also better-suited for adults or children, but the centre-rear seatbelt arrangement is still silly. Why can’t Subaru be like other brands and figure out a way to integrate a middle belt as part of the seat?

The seats fold down in a 60:40 manner to expand boot space; something you’ll need to do because the capacity is a measly 310 litres. Dog owners will look at the space in dismay; but the time you got a partition in it’d be a cell for even a medium-sized pooch. The load space has quite a high floor, which is part of the reason the boot isn’t any bigger than its predecessor in terms of volume, but the boot opening is larger, which makes loading things in a little easier.

The Impreza’s instrument binnacle is pretty much shared, with attention drawn to the significantly improved centre console user interface including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto on a large eight-inch touchscreen. It’s a delight to use. Some of the other switchgear, though, is a bit of a mess. There’s a prize for those who can immediately find the off-switch for the lane-keep assist. Give up? It’s up on the same roof pad as the controls for the interior lights and sunroof switch.

There is another display on top of the dashboard with running information, and if you activate the new X Mode off-road setting, it’ll even show you a diagram of what your wheels are doing, and the degree of incline or decline you’re on. This screen also shows a speed sign of the speed limit of the road you’re travelling on. Or, rather, it attempts to. There were several occasions when, hundreds of metres into a 100kmh zone, the car still reckoned we should be doing 50. More of a worry, it got it wrong the other way around as well. I don’t think this will wash as an excuse with the police …

The EyeSight camera’s integration into XV reminds that the sensor set is hardly small. Tall drivers will find themselves looking around it. That’s a small quibble, of course, given that it’s an excellent, potentially life-saving technology that operates beautifully.

Being bigger than the norm for its category and more serious, in respect to the versatility of having more ground clearance than most category contenders and a proper four-wheel drive system, the XV does make a distinctive an interesting alternative. It could do with more power, though, and you wonder how better it would also be with an actual gearbox.

Mazda CX-3 Limited


When launching XV, Subaru reminded the market was saturated with a diversity of softer crossovers, including quite a few that avail mainly – and sometimes wholly – in front drive. It then made a more pointed comment about XV standing out in that crowd by virtue of being “a real SUV, capable of far more than a trip down the road to get your nails done.”

Ouch, right? Those fighting words could have been directly aimed at this CX-3 on test; a Limited petrol front-drive, it’s pretty much as Chic ST as you can go.

Meaning it’s pretty much in tune with the times; lots of fruit, an engine type that has become increasingly preferable due to public distaste for diesel in this category (or, rather, for RUCs) and realisation that, for many, the attraction is more about off-road look than ability.

Actually, not sure about that last bit. When you’re paying just over $40 large for a compact that’s on the small size, dimensionally-speaking, you might expect it to have everything. Including the stuff that you might, or might not, have use for. And, as someone living in a rural area, I think I’d still prefer all-wheel-drive as a ‘just-in-case’. But with the CX3’s mid-life revision now having diminished the AWD option, to get this I’d now theoretically have to drop down a grade, to the GLX. I could probably do that – that spec’s still pretty solid.

So, in fact, is the CX-3. The original was one of the stars of the fast-rising compact category and this replacement should keep that flame burning.

While the car sits in an expensive zone, it at least can offer a healthy amount of standard equipment to offset the spend, including adaptive LED headlights (and LED running and tail lights), leather trim with suede inserts, power front seats with memory function, an electric sunroof, front and rear parking sensors, along with lane departure warning, a colour head-up display, climate control, keyless entry with push-button start, driver attention monitor, and traffic sign recognition.

Other features include blind-spot monitoring, a rear-view camera, a 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment screen with rotary controller, satellite navigation, digital radio, along with Bluetooth phone and audio streaming. It’s a lapse that a setup that looks and feels high end still lacks Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality.

It’s a great looker. It’s brilliant that only minor changes have been made to the exterior. The CX-3 burst onto the scene in late 2014, but the Kodo design language works especially well for a very compact crossover body; simply, the car still looks as sexy as ever in Limited format, which adds extra body adornments and outfits with 18-inch wheels.

The interior did ask for some extra attention, so it’s good that it gets a new steering wheel - inspired by the one used in the MX-5 sports car - and new-look instruments.

The Limited models come with new full colour Active Driving Display with improved resolution and readability and the front seats have power seat adjustment included with a two-position memory function. There’ve been a myriad of small touches that also lift the ambience; an example being that the housing for the MZD Connect screen has been upgraded to piano black.

The cabin features quite an appealing mix of soft-touch materials and harder plastics, but it’s a pity there's still no centre armrest provided for front occupants.

All CX-3 models also now have Mazda's G-Vectoring Control, which delivers unified control over steering and chassis systems by finely controlling engine torque based on steering and acceleration inputs. The result is improved handling and ride comfort.

The model's electric power steering has been re-tuned to provide feedback once the steering wheel is turned giving more precise control and more natural operation. Adjustments to the front and reverse dampers have enhanced driving stability and body roll characteristics.

Improvements to noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH) have been achieved through changes to the engine mount and the use of better materials and insulation.

From a safety perspective, the range picks up many of the i-Activesense technologies seen in the new Mazda3 and Mazda6 that are designed to assist in recognising hazards, avoiding crashes and reducing the severity of unavoidable accidents. Advanced Smart City Brake Support – Forward (Advanced SCBS-F), Smart City Brake Support – Reverse (SCBS-R) and Traffic Sign Recognition (TSR) all come in, plus the Limited also delivers Mazda Radar Cruise Control (MRCC), Smart City Brake Support (SBS) and Driver Attention Alert (DAA). The only glaring omission from the acronym-rich safety feature focus is adaptive cruise control, despite rivals like the Toyota C-HR featuring the technology as standard across the range.

All Mazda CX-3 models also come equipped with six airbags, autonomous emergency braking (AEB) in both forward and reverse with pedestrian detection, and ISOFIX child seat mounts for the two outboard rear seats.

Hauling this additional kit is no concern; the CX-3 continues to be a perky performer. Like XV, it uses a 2.0L direct injection naturally aspirated engine, and while outputs aren’t quite as strong at109kW/192Nm, the Mazda is lighter and its powertrain always feels zestier. It’s not one of those engines that require a boot hard in all the time; one attractive aspect of SkyActiv is the enhanced flexibility. Peak torque comes in at a low, almost six cylinder-like 2800rpm. It feels pretty zippy around town, and though that punch does drop away a little at highway speeds, overall it does the job just fine. It’s also quite thrifty, which is just as well, given that the CX-3’s 44-litre tank is one of the smallest in class.

Certainly, I’m a big fan of the six-speed auto. It provisions intuitive shifts with a snappy flair that is in keeping with the car’s cheeky persona and does a pretty good job of keeping you in the power band when you need it then coasting once you're at speed.

The extra sound proofing does a good job keeping mechanical and wind noise at bay, but is less successful at countering road surface-induced roar, a bugbear since day dot. It’s not really a tyre issue here, more to do with how Mazda has tuned the suspension; it’s certainly one of the firmer-riding compact SUVs. As much I like a sporty feel, I’d prefer the XV’s relaxed fluidity to the CX-3’s formula, which while damped well enough that it doesn't crash over larger bumps, is nonetheless far from cosseting, with a jitteriness that might prove wearying for some.

The advantage of having such a suspension tune, however, is that the CX-3 feels truly darty through corners and expresses little body roll. It also feels very planted and stable at higher speeds, making the Mazda feel bigger than it actually is.

In regard to actual physical dimension, of course, the CX-3 just doesn’t size up well with the Subaru. The shrinks compact dimensions (and tight steering) that make it so handy when zipping around town also constrain its ability to be a useful family choice.

While front occupants are treated to plenty of room and a slick dashboard design, rear passengers will struggle to find adequate space, particularly in terms of legroom, and the cargo space is teensy, with just 254 litres with the rear seats in place. That’s much less than most rivals can offer. If you carry a lot of stuff often, expect to either run the CX-3 with the back seats folded down (which more than quadruples the space) or look elsewhere.


Here we have two chic and well-kitted cars that are easily liked. The fallibilities are obvious: With the Subaru, it’s mainly that the drivetrain feels a bit undercooked. The Mazda, of course, has that side of things nailed; it just needs to upsize a fraction and embrace some additional technology features – all of which the XV already has.

In a perfect world, I’d want the best of both. An XV with the Mazda’s SkyActiv mechanicals and perhaps some of CX-3 driving elan, but without the ripply ride, would be a heck of a thing, I’d suggest.