By: Denis Droppa

Johannesburg - The only constant is change. Ask cellphone makers Nokia and Blackberry. One day you’re the market leader and the next you’re little more than a footnote.

The car market is a little less brand fickle than the cellphone business and the marques that sold well a decade ago are generally still the ones doing well today, but the type of vehicle we buy gets a major shake up every now and then.

SUVs have become a staple on our roads ever since someone had the bright idea to roll a family car and offroader into one. Another eureka moment came with the realisation that a lot of SUV owners don’t go offroading, they just like sitting high up. Enter the compact SUV, or crossover as they’re more readily called – which are slightly higher off the road than a regular car but are still compact and easy to drive, and nowhere near as difficult to park as their larger counterparts.

From a segment that didn’t exist a few years ago, crossovers have become the fastest growing sector in the motor industry.

To this ever-growing mix was recently added Mazda’s new CX-3, the Japanese firm’s rival to crossovers like the VW Cross Polo, Nissan Juke, Opel Mokka and many others.

BIG CABIN, SMALL BOOT

Based on the same platform as the Mazda2 hatch, the CX-3 blends a dashing design with a slightly raised 155mm ride height and a cabin that’ll comfortably swallow a family. For its relatively small size the car has a back seat that’s spacious enough for a pair of adults, but this has been achieved at the cost of one of the smallest boots in its category at 264 litres. The rear seats flip down flat for storing larger objects, however, and if you push the front passenger seat all the way forward you’ll even manage to squeeze a mountain bike in there.

The CX-3 an attractive little car with a touch of modern glamour, much like everything that’s being churned out by Mazda’s stylists these days. The interior’s also a pleasing mix of classy appeal and uncluttered minimalism, and a reach- and tilt-adjustable steering column makes it easy to find a comfortable driving position.

GOOD VALUE

Interestingly we were given the entry-level CX-3 Active version to test, rather than the feature-stuffed upper-spec models that motor companies usually send us in a bid to impress, but the equipment levels aren’t half bad for the competitive R254 900 pricetag.

It lacks fancier items like automatic headlights, leather seats, a full colour touchscreen, climate control, and self-activating windscreen wipers – which are variously available in the more expensive CX-3 Dynamic and Individual derivatives – but the Active’s spec sheet certainly doesn’t leave you feeling deprived. Standard fare still includes power windows, manual aircon, cruise control, 16” alloy wheels, a four-speaker audio system with Bluetooth and USB pairing, and a trip computer. The seats are cloth covered but the material seems of a decent quality, and safety levels are generous with ABS brakes and four airbags.

MORE POWER THAN RIVALS

The CX-3 range is available with a single engine, a normally-aspirated 2-litre petrol with outputs of 115kW and 204Nm, feeding the front wheels through a six-speed manual or six-speed auto gearbox.

It makes for great bang for the buck. Scroll to the comparison list at the end of this test and you’ll see the Mazda’s more powerful than its competitors, most of which are also more expensive.

Without delivering any hot hatch thrills, it’s a fairly easygoing power delivery. The Mazda moves off the mark with acceptable gusto and happily cruises up hills at the national speed limit, with Mazda quoting a respectable 202km/h top speed figure. The 2-litre engine becomes quite vocal at higher rpm, however, and doesn’t have the refinement of some of its rivals.

In normal town/freeway driving our manual test-car delivered a decently economical 7.4 litres per 100km fuel consumption figure, not terribly far removed from the factory quoted 6.5 litres.

DRIVES LIKE A HATCH

The CX-3 is isn’t being billed as any kind of offroader as it has only front-wheel-drive. The road manners are typically hatchback-like: nice and neat and confidence-inspiring, with no top-heavy feel to suggest that it rides slightly higher than a regular car.

High-profile 215/60 tyres ensure that the term crossover isn’t a totally empty promise, and rough gravel roads are within this Mazda’s capabilities. On dirt the ride is a tad firm though, and the suspension’s clearly set up more for road than gravel use.

As part of an aggressive strategy to entice buyers back to the brand, Mazda offers an unlimited-distance warranty on its vehicles.

This three-year guarantee comes with a three-year service plan and roadside assistance.

VERDICT

It’s easy to get crossed-up with all the crossovers competing for your wallet these days, and in many cases it comes down to a subjective brand or styling preference. But the Mazda CX-3 stands out for its superior power output and very competitive price. If you can live with the smaller than average boot, it’s the bargain buy of its league.

MAZDA CX-3 VS ITS RIVALS

Mazda CX-3 2.0 Active

115kW/204Nm - boot 264 litres - R254 900

Ford Ecosport 1.0T Trend

92kW/170Nm - boot 362 litres - R261 900

Honda HRV 1.5 Comfort

88kW/145Nm - boot 393 litres - R313 100

Kia Soul 1.6 Start

91kW/152Nm - boot 354 litres - R284 995

Nissan Juke 1.2T Acenta

85kW/190Nm - boot 354 litres - R279 900

Opel Mokka 1.4 Turbo Enjoy

103kW/200Nm - boot 356 litres - R307 500

Peugeot 2008 1.6 Active

88kW/160Nm - boot 360 litres - R268 900

Renault Captur 1.2T Dynamique auto

88W/190Nm - boot 377 litres - R292 900

VW Cross Polo 1.2 TSI

81kW/175Nm - boot 280 litres- R263 200