Have you considered the Mazda 3? That's the first question we have for anyone interested in the 2020 Mazda CX-30. The CX-30 has barely more interior room and no more or cargo space than a Mazda 3 hatchback, and it can't match the fuel economy of the 3. But we get it. You want to sit high above the unwashed. You don't know what you're missing, snob.
We'd also accept: It's easier to get in and out of the CX-30. But that's it, really. We've got no beef with the CX-30, it's just that we love the 3. It's won multiple 10Best awards over the years, and it treads the line between sportiness and refinement in a way few others in the compact-car space can match. The good news is that the CX-30 does all those things too because, at its core, it's a lifted 3. We don't think that the Mazda 3 needed lifting, but we are car people after all.
Mazda recognizes that the CX-30 is the shape and seating position that buyers currently want. By their projections, the CX-30 will outsell the 3 without eating into the sales of the larger CX-5. Driving it made us feel a little better about the shrinking car market, because the CX-30 drives like a 3 with a higher center of gravity. The 3's secure handling, firm ride, solid structure, and engine are all present and accounted for. While the extra height might dull its responses a little, the CX-30 isn't far off the mark. Driving it leaves the impression that someone liked the 3 enough to make the CX-30 operate like one.
Turbocharged engines are the norm in the CX-30's burgeoning segment, and as a result we've become accustomed to having a low-rpm rush of power. Maybe rush is the wrong word, but some thrust down low is the norm in this segment. As with the 3, the CX-30 is only available with a naturally aspirated inline-four engine. It's a relatively large four at 2.5 liters, but without a turbo it has to spin to 4000 rpm to find meaningful torque. This 186-hp engine doesn't make the 3 a powerhouse, and in the heavier CX-30 you're left working it pretty hard when you're forced onto a short freeway entrance ramp.
When you do work it hard, the big four doesn't raise its voice in a rude manner. And perhaps the biggest differentiator between the CX-30 and the anonymous potato-shaped crossovers it competes with is that you get a six-speed automatic. There's even a normal shift lever between the seats—no push buttons, no guess-what-gear-you're-in toggle. While most of the class uses groan-worthy continuously variable automatic transmissions and even nine-speed automatics that often seem like they're juggling too many gears, the six-speed automatic in the Mazda has just enough ratios. It keeps the engine in its powerband when you're driving spiritedly, and it has a tall enough top gear to hush the engine at 80 mph while returning more than 30 mpg on the EPA's highway test.
Polished yet Compact
Mazda informs us that the CX-30 is the latest version of their Kodo design language that purports to be about the "soul of motion." The CX-30 looks like the rest of the Mazda showroom—clean, elegant, nicely proportioned (not a potato) with just the right amount of brightwork. The side cladding is a bit much, straying too far toward the hiking-boot side of the spectrum, but we like it. In back, the hatch opens to a low cargo floor, making it easier to load things. A quick word on Mazda's paint. On vehicles with metallic paint, Mazda chooses small metal flakes that give the car a glow rather than the bass-boat sparkle so popular with their competitors. It's nice.
Mazda's interior design matches the exterior. There's an elegant simplicity, and the materials in the places you look are excellent. The trend in interior design is to rethink and redesign things that have worked for decades. In the CX-30, the gauges are analog or digital versions of analog units, and they're large and easy to read. Instead of trying to be clever, the climate controls all have buttons and knobs that work the way you’d expect. Instead of throwing out what works, Mazda concentrated on making the buttons and knobs feel precise and expensive. Controlling the radio, settings, navigation, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functions all falls to the knob between the seats. An 8.8-inch screen sits atop the instrument panel. It's not a touchscreen, so don't try reaching for it. Redundant quick-access buttons flank the knob, and it all works well enough with a bit of familiarization.
Rear-seat occupants will have to be pretty familiar with each other because there's not a lot of space back there. At 104.5 inches, the wheelbase is nearly three inches shorter than the 3's. According to the specifications, the CX-30 has 1.2 more inches of rear-seat legroom, but even if it does, it's seriously tight back there. Overall, the high-roof CX-30 has one additional cubic foot of interior volume versus the 3. There's 20 cubic feet of cargo area, which is the same as the 3 hatchback but more than the CX-3.
That brings us to the smaller CX-3. It'll continue to be sold alongside the CX-30, but the CX-3 will be the value play. Perhaps you're wondering why the CX-30 isn't called the CX-4. We asked. Mazda told us that there's a different vehicle in the Chinese market called the CX-4. Since that wouldn't affect anyone outside of China, we can't imagine anyone would care, and the logic of going from 3 to 4 needs no explanation. The need for two vehicles in what's arguably the same segment also needs no explanation after you learn that the CX-3 and CX-30's segment has gone from selling 200,000 units in 2014 to just shy of 800,000 last year. Mazda sees this mushrooming segment as having enough space for two small SUVs. Pricing for the CX-30 opens just shy of $23,000 and creeps up to more than $30K if you hit every option box.
What we like about the CX-30 is that Mazda has made conscious decisions to avoid design for the sake of design. They've chosen tried and true solutions rather than reinventing what doesn't need to be reinvented. That's why there's a real shifter, gauges that look like gauges, and switchgear that's lovely to touch and easy to use. For a segment full of annoying mishegoss that gets in the way of driving, we found precious little to complain about here. Consider that a major win for the segment.