Once the automotive community grabs hold of a trend, there's no telling when it will stop. Case in point is the sudden influx of niche-filling junior-sized wagons. Enter the new Mazda CX-3.
Small boxes that offer all-wheel-drive are being targeted to singles, young couples and empty nesters alike, and for the same reasons. They're relatively inexpensive, a breeze to maneuver in congested urban and extra-urban environs, can navigate poor weather/ roads and can carry more gear than similarly sized small sedans or hatchbacks. And don't forget they can be nattily attired in fancy accouterments plus the latest in crash-mitigating safety technologies.
Wait a second, you might ask, doesn't Mazda already have the CX-5 small wagon? Certainly, however the CX-3 is more than 10 inches shorter, nearly three inches narrower and has five inches less distance between the front and rear wheels. This puts it in the same class as the Jeep Renegade, Chevrolet Trax, Buick Encore, Fiat 500X and its closest competitor, which is the new Honda HR-V. These vehicles represent the vanguard of a movement that shows no signs of flattening out anytime soon.
The CX-3 uses an all-new platform that it will share with the second-generation Mazda2 hatchback that's due out in early 2016. With a total weight ranging from 2,800-2,950 pounds, the CX-3 is significantly more svelte than its peers, save for the Honda HR-V.
Visually, the CX-3 shares commonality with the rest of Mazda's fleet (part of what the automaker calls its KODO styling), especially the elongated hood and abbreviated rear overhang. With a set of available 18-inch wheels bolted on (16-inchers are standard), the CX-3 looks almost menacing.
The CX-3's cabin purposely exudes a MX-5 (Miata) sports-car feel that's interrupted only by a pop-up-style touch-screen display. On the plus side, the straightforward control-panel layout includes a trio of oversized knobs and a dashboard gauge pod that's flanked by twin info screens. In back there's not an excess of leg or headroom for adult-sized passengers, although the doors are at least wide enough for easy entry and exit.
As for stowage area, the CX-3 is about as spacious as most of its peers, whether the split-fold back seat is in the upright position, or flattened. Note that the somewhat larger Honda HR-V is the pack leader in interior volume by a healthy margin.
Moving people and cargo is the job of a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers 146-horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque. It's uncommon for a non-turbocharged powerplant to produce that much twisting force, relative to horsepower, but Mazda's high-piston-compression "SkyActiv" design makes this possible. Fuel consumption is a respectable 29 mpg in the city and 35 on the highway for FWD versions.
The sole available transmission is a six-speed automatic with optional paddle shifters.
The on-demand all-wheel-drive system that's available on all trim levels is linked to the vehicle's anti-lock brakes, stability control and on-board ambient thermometer. It's designed to "predict" front-wheel slippage and divert power to the rear wheels. Due to the space needed for the rear differential, AWD models lose some of their stowage capacity.
At a base price of $20,000, including destination charges, the base Sport trim comes with most of the usual trimmings plus air conditioning, seven-inch touch-screen, push-button start and rearview camera.
The mid-grade Touring upgrades to alloy wheels (from steelies) and it adds heated front seats and an audio-system upgrade.
Along with 18-inch wheels, the top-banana Grand Touring gets a power moonroof, leather and faux suede seat covers, Bose audio package and additional active and passive safety equipment.
Ultimately the public's acceptance of the CX-3's style, utility and efficiency on a smaller scale will determine its success. But if first impressions count, it's well on its way.
What you should know: 2016 Mazda CX-3
Type: Four-door, front- /all-wheel-drive sub-compact wagon.
Engine (hp): 2.0-liter DOHC I4 (146)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic with optional paddle shifters.
Market position: The choices in small wagons, including basic and upscale versions are becoming increasingly numerous. Most, including the CX-3, have been around for only a short time and more are likely on the way.
Points: Styling is in line with other Mazda products, which is to say quite attractive; Engine output is modest, but it helps that curb weight is held to the 3,000-pound range; Honda HR-V still tops all others in cargo capacity; Luxury and safety extras make for a well turned-out vehicle; AWD a must-have in winter climates.
Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
MPG (city/hwy) 29/35 (FWD); Base price (incl. destination) $20,000 (est.)
Base price: $21,000
Buick-Encore-based unit isn't very long, but its tall shape makes it roomy.
Base price: $21,900
Spaciousness plus good fuel economy make this one worth checking out.
Base price: $20,000
Cool-looking wagon has turbo and non-turbo engine choices.