Tons of style but short on space
THE GOOD
  • Styling inside and out
  • Right amount of engine output
  • Enjoyable to drive
THE BAD
  • No touchscreen
  • Limited space in the back
  • Expensive GT trim
2021 Mazda CX-30 Review and Video

When it comes to building small crossovers, there are generally two routes an automaker can take.

The first – and most common – direction is to develop a model that’s mechanically similar to something else in the lineup but looks distinctive and different, like the Honda HR-V and the Fit from which it spawned. Another approach is to take a compact car, slap a taller suspension underneath, and call it something new like Subaru did with the Impreza-based Crosstrek.

The 2021 Mazda CX-30 forges its own path somewhere between those two traditional ones, bearing a striking resemblance to the brand’s compact hatchback but with just enough differences to create some separation between them. Unfortunately, that doesn’t translate into any additional space in this stylish subcompact crossover.

Styling: 10/10

It’s impossible to ignore the striking nature of Mazda’s design language, with flowing lines and perfect proportions on everything from the sporty MX-5 RF to the three-row CX-9. That trend continues with the subcompact CX-30, which casual observers will notice looks an awful lot like a Mazda3 Sport that’s been covered in body cladding. There’s not much separating them dimensionally either, though the CX-30 is slightly shorter from bumper to bumper. A keen eye will also find differences in the shapes of their back doors, while the CX-30 isn’t quite as bulbous behind them thanks to the relocation of the rear quarter glass onto the body itself.

It’s equally as fashionable inside, particularly when done up in top GT trim. Mazda’s been chasing something of an untapped space in the market between mainstream and premium brands in recent years, and the look and feel of this cabin is the perfect showcase. Swathes of black and brown leather cloak the seats and other surfaces (white leather is also offered for those brave enough to choose it), while the dash wraps onto the doors to provide a subtle touch of class.

Features: 9/10

Amenities in the top trim also help in its mission to attract attention away from premium offerings, though it’s not quite perfect. For example, while the driver’s seat features a programmable memory function, a luxury segment staple, the front seats aren’t ventilated. The rear seats aren’t heated either, though that omission is forgivable considering the CX-30’s cramped rear quarters (more on that later).

A height-programmable power tailgate, panoramic sunroof, 12-speaker stereo, and genuine leather upholstery help set the top trim apart from the others, though both models beneath it are reasonably well equipped, too. Heated front seats, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, keyless entry with push-button start, and alloy wheels are all standard fare, while the GS trim adds stuff like a heated steering wheel, dual-zone automatic climate control, and air vents on the back of the centre console (those are in addition to the ones under the front seats that come in the base model).

Safety: 7/10

Unfortunately, Mazda’s quickly losing ground to the competition when it comes to standard advanced safety equipment. Blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert is the only feature that’s included on all three trims; the rest is only offered on GS and GT models. With brands like Honda and Toyota in particular making a push to include robust safety suites in every vehicle they sell, it’s up to automakers like Mazda to follow suit or fall behind.

The GS trim is where the bulk of the advanced safety gear enters the fray. There’s automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection in the front, lane-keep assist, and adaptive cruise control that works in stop-and-go traffic. Moving up to the top GT trim adds reverse automatic braking – though it doesn’t feature pedestrian detection – and a nifty traffic sign recognition feature that shows speed limit and other information, as well as a head-up display.

Value: 8/10

The relationship the CX-30 shares with its small hatchback sibling means there’s competition not just with other crossovers on the market but also within the Mazda lineup. That’s especially true considering the Mazda3 can be optioned with all-wheel drive, too, making it one of only two small cars to offer four-corner traction (all-wheel drive is standard on the Subaru Impreza).

A base version starts at $26,600 with freight and fees but before tax – that’s for a front-wheel-drive example with an automatic transmission; adding all-wheel drive to the mix is another $1,500. Then there’s the GS model that’s priced at $29,400 before tax, or $30,900 with all-wheel traction. Finally, the CX-30 GT is a $35,900 proposition. All three trims are competitively priced against similar entries from brands like Honda, Nissan, or Subaru, though the top trim is a touch on the expensive side. And then there’s that pesky problem of what sits across the showroom.

With little differentiation between their interior dimensions, the Mazda3 Sport provides the same kind of limited practicality but with far better driving dynamics and value than the CX-30. Take the base GX model with the same automatic transmission – its pre-tax price of $24,650 undercuts the CX-30 by a couple grand. The same goes for the GS model with or without all-wheel drive, which rings in at $27,350 and $29,350, respectively. It’s only the GT trims that get close to pricing parity, although the Mazda3 still undercuts its sibling by $850.

Power: 9/10

The pricing predicament becomes more problematic when looking at their mechanical parts. Under their hoods the CX-30 and Mazda3 hatch are all but indistinguishable, with only the transmission choices varying between the two. Base models get their power from a 2.0L engine putting out 155 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque, while GS and GT trims add a half-litre of displacement and a healthy dose of additional output. (A CX-30 Turbo model is also on its way, spinning up 250 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque for those requiring even more giddy-up.)

The 2.5L four-cylinder motivating the GT model tested cranks out 186 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque – more than most in the segment, and enough to give the CX-30 some honest-to-goodness grunt for a crossover of this kind. Get on the gas pedal and the little CUV will happily demonstrate one of its greatest strengths, dashing away from a standing start with a naturally aspirated urgency that’s rare in this class.

Credit the six-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive system for the effective way in which usable output makes it to the pavement in a hurry. For even more perkiness, the switch-activated sport mode holds gears to stay in the meaty part of the powerband, while paddle shifters provide some extra engagement.

Fuel Economy: 7/10

Since drive mode selection manipulates the transmission and nothing more, there’s no eco setting, though perhaps there should be. Fuel consumption isn’t exactly a measure the CX-30 can hang its hat on, and that goes for either engine offered (and, presumably, the forthcoming turbo motor, too). According to Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), the smaller of the two engines should return a combined 8.6 L/100 km when driving all four wheels – only slightly better than the 2.5L’s 8.9 L/100 km combined estimate. (With the GT trim’s cylinder deactivation, consumption supposedly drops to the same 8.6 L/100 km as the smaller engine.)

There certainly are worse ratings out there – the all-wheel drive Ford EcoSport burns a combined 9.2 L/100 km, while the Jeep Renegade sucks back as much as 9.9 L/100 km, to name a couple – but considering its slight stature it’s reasonable to expect better from one of Mazda’s newest models. A week-long test saw the CX-30 remain close to what NRCan’s fuel consumption guide suggests, with a final tally of 8.7 L/100 km over nearly 500 km split fairly evenly between city streets and the highway.

Practicality: 7/10

Despite the existence of the smaller CX-3 in the Mazda lineup, the CX-30 wouldn’t be described as spacious. By the numbers there’s 572 L behind the back seats and 1,280 L with them folded, neither of which are enough to put this near the top of the class when it comes to moving stuff. Worse still, the trunk area is rather narrow and wasn’t able to accommodate Pattie, autoTRADER.ca’s cargo-measuring pedal car, with the tailgate shut. It’s not the first crossover of its kind to fail this primitive test, nor will it be the last, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless. That’s particularly true considering the even smaller Nissan Kicks was able to fit the tin riding toy behind its hatch with ease.

The rear seats suffer a similar fate, feeling rather cramped. Again, it’s not alone here, but shoppers considering this for a family of growing children should ensure it’s up to challenge both now and into the future before zeroing in on a decision. While the openings themselves are somewhat small, both back doors open almost a full 90 degrees, which is handy when loading little ones into car seats or climbing into the back to help with a stubborn buckle. Those doors are about the only way the CX-30 outduels the Mazda3 hatch, with the two nearly identical inside – for better or for worse.

The front half of the cabin is clearly the CX-30’s priority, with a pleasant amount of space for driver and passenger. Headroom is barely sufficient for your author’s 6-foot-3 frame, though cabin width is such that it feels more like it’s based on a midsize car than a compact one (to its credit, the Mazda3 feels the same way). This is achieved through low-slung seats – fear not; they are height-adjustable – that provide a sense of command and control from behind the wheel.

User Friendliness: 7/10

Mazda’s engineers will happily wax poetic about all the time that goes into crafting the perfect driving position, though in fairness they’ve earned the right to do so. While most automakers might spend time fine-tuning a sports car’s seats but skip doing so in a crossover, the same level of care and attention that’s paid to the MX-5 also goes into the CX-30.

What might seem like overkill to some will be immediately recognized by those with even the slightest affinity for driving as a key difference-maker for Mazda. Simply put, it feels like a vehicle that was designed to be driven. The way the dash wraps onto the doors creates a cockpit-like atmosphere where all controls are well within reach of either front seat. That includes the console-mounted control that’s used to operate the infotainment system – a confounding line Mazda drew in the sand long ago and refuses to cross with at least a few of its products.

The safety-first principle on which the decision to avoid touchscreens is based is a respectable one, but it misses the mark in at least a couple of ways. Yes, it’s easy to operate the joystick-style rotary knob without looking; however, doing so requires deliberate, time-consuming inputs that are far more distracting than a simple tap-tap on a touchscreen. The other glaring issue is that neither Apple CarPlay nor Android Auto, both of which are standard, were designed to be operated this way. The lack of intuitiveness that comes with scrolling endlessly until the right feature is highlighted takes all the convenience out of either system.

Mazda’s infotainment interface is only barely better, but at least it was designed to be operated using the console controls and corresponding switchgear on the steering wheel. Still, it’s hard to imagine buying a brand-new crossover that seems intent on making it difficult to interact with a function so frequently used. That a sibling product like the Mazda CX-5 features a touchscreen makes the situation even more confounding.

Comfort: 7/10

Graciously, HVAC controls are as simple as they come, the dual-zone automatic system in this GT tester featuring a pair of temperature control dials and a bank of buttons between them. That’s also where the controls are found for the heated front seats and steering wheel. Unfortunately, the leather-shod seats in the top GT trim weren’t especially comfortable during testing, with narrow bolstering on the lower cushion leading to some leg pain after only a couple hours of driving.

Its suspension is another way the CX-30 differs from its Mazda3 sibling, with some serious side effects coming from its increased ride height. While it’s not necessarily uncomfortable, there’s a stiffness in the way this crossover manages itself over uneven surfaces. That rigidity gives the CX-30 the demeanour of a larger, purpose-built soft-roader, its steering rack and stilted suspension crashing and rattling over rough roads and curb cuts.

Driving Feel: 9/10

It’s certainly stiffer than most crossovers of its kind – and even the larger CX-5 – but few are as smooth on anything close to perfect pavement, the CX-30 rolling down the road with premium poise. Since the suspension’s not soft and sloppy, it also manages to offer satisfying driving dynamics, too.

Responsive and direct, it feels every bit the perky hatchback with which it shares its drivetrain. It’s as if the steering is – gasp! – actually connected to the front wheels, communicating exactly what’s happening beneath them, while throttle and brake inputs are responded to quickly and evenly. Anyone who gets even the slightest enjoyment out of driving will find what they’re looking for in the CX-30, making it rare amongst subcompact crossovers. In fact, the only model on the mainstream market that comes close is the smaller Hyundai Kona, and that would be best described as a distant second.

The Verdict

In reality, though, it doesn’t feel quite as dynamic as the Mazda3 Sport, and that’s a serious sticking point here. Because while it’s true that few crossovers come close to delivering driving pleasure on this level, it’s not as agile as the lower, leaner compact hatchback, which happens to be a bit cheaper while offering the same overall styling and space inside.

That last part is also a point of contention considering the CX-30’s size relative to other subcompact crossovers out there, including the CX-3 that sits beneath it in the Mazda lineup. In terms of overall footprint, it lands on the larger end of the spectrum alongside the likes of the Subaru Crosstrek or Nissan Qashqai but lacks the utility something its size should have.

Then again, it’s more stylish than anything else in the segment, has the right amount of power with the 2.5L engine under the hood, and is nicer to drive than most crossovers of its kind. If any of those land on your list of reasons to buy something like this then it’s worth taking the CX-30 for a test drive. But while you’re at it don’t forget about the Mazda3 Sport that’s sitting just across the showroom.

Tons of style but short on space 10/23/2020 9:00:00 AM

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 2.5L   Model Tested 2021 Mazda CX-30 GT
Engine Cylinders I4   Base Price $33,850
Peak Horsepower 186 hp @ 6,000 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 186 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm   Destination Fee $1,950
Fuel Economy 9.5 / 7.4 / 8.6 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $36,350
Cargo Space 572/1,280 L seats up/down  
Optional Equipment
$450 – Soul Red Crystal Metallic Paint, $450