Ordinarily at an auto show, we're left to gaze upon the shiny sheet metal and hazard a guess as to how it might drive. By a stroke of luck – a happenstance meeting on the Angeles Crest Highway – I might just have a pretty good idea of how this little terrier handles.
Mark it on your calendar - the compact crossover wars are hitting their full swing. We've had the Honda HR-V already, and here's Mazda's answer to it, the CX-3. From what we hear, Toyota won't be far behind to join early entries like the Chevy Trax, Mitsubishi RVR and Subaru XV Crosstrek. As you'd expect, it's a sub-CX-5 machine that's a little smaller, a little lighter, and a little bit more nimble.
First of all, it looks great. These are the optional 18-inch alloys, which will come with 215-series tires, and their machined-face look blends well with the chunky blacked-out wheel wells (we'll have to wait to see whether the base model pulls it off as well). The floating-look roof has the same slippery shape as the hatchback version of the Mazda3, and the long nose – a packaging requirement of the 4-2-1 SkyActiv exhaust header - gives the CX-3 a pouncing look.
Dimensionally, this compact crossover is ten percent smaller than the CX-5 in height and length, but only five percent narrower and shorter in wheelbase. It's got a punchy, slope-nosed look, and joins the rest of the Mazda range in being among the more attractive machines on offer. At least until a mandatory front license plate gets stuck on there.
The interior looks almost identical to that of the Mazda3, and so gets the big centre tachometer and available head-up display you can option on that car. Just like the '3, the infotainment looks a bit like an iPad tacked to the dash, but we've found Mazda's HMI (Human Machine Interface) on-board technology easy to use before, and this should be no different.
Seating is tight, and made tighter for five by a interesting seating layout that squeezes together the rear passengers by a few inches. Mazda claims that this actually makes it easier for rear passengers to see out, and to talk with those riding up front. A quick eyeball of the rear space indicates that fitting child seats might be better suited to the larger CX-5, and the trunk space is reasonable yet tight. It's much like the regular Mazda3, just lifted and with more body cladding.
If it helps cut down on motion sickness, then that's a very good thing indeed. Last week, I came across a camouflaged CX-3 undergoing testing on the Angeles Crest Highway, accompanied by a gaggle of CX-5s filled with engineers. We looped around to snag a picture, but the taped-up little crossover scarpered, and my co-driver couldn't quite catch up. Sure, some of that was down to the Mazda guru's intimate knowledge of the California canyon roads, but did I mention we were in a Porsche 911 GTS? The CX-3 just scooted on ahead, and finally disappeared down Big Tujunga canyon.
It's not the power. Under the hood, the CX-3 gets the same 2.0L high-compression four-cylinder that you get in base models of the Mazda3 and CX-5. It comes with their six-speed automatic transmission as standard, and all-wheel drive is optional. There's no indication a stick-shift will be available in the Canadian market. You do get paddle shifters, though.
So, a little conjecture: Just as the CX-5 was launched at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and then proceeded to actually impress more than a few hardened attendees, including a notoriously gruff racing driver I know, this new CX-3 is going to be the business in the corners. It won't make big speed, but it'll carry it through the corners, and it'll do so without breaking the bank at the pumps either, if the performance of other SkyActiv engines is anything to go by.
This is an important car for Mazda, important enough that President and CEO Masamichi Kogai has arrived at his first North American auto show. There's talk of Mazda positioning themselves as an aspirational brand, and while the badge doesn't carry the weight of a premium manufacturer, the design and the equipment just might. Certainly it's enough to go toe-to-toe with VW.
It looks like Mazda's got a hit on their hands here, combining good looks, a modicum of practicality, and inexpensive running costs. Throw in their new unlimited-mileage warranty, and it's all down to what the pricing will look like.