Mazda shoppers might be understandably confused these days.
The charming ads — the ones where the kid whispered “ZOOM ZOOM” at the end — have been replaced by a generic “Feel Alive” lifestyle campaign that might as well be selling you tennis shoes.
And the brand’s latest, four-digit CX-30 SUV is an alphanumeric migraine that doesn’t fit in the brand’s simple, single-digit sedan lineup (Mazda 3,6) or the three-digit SUV silo (CX-3, CX-5, CX-9). Earth to marketing department.
But there’s nothing confusing about the way the CX-30 subcompact SUV drives, looks and feels.
Simply put — and simple is a repeated, positive theme here — this is the best performance subcompact on the market today. Period. So good, in fact, that its comparison set is not the usual mainstream competitors, but luxury subcompacts costing at least $10,000 more.
Based on the same platform as the sensational Mazda 3 compact hatchback, you will know the CX-30 is different the moment you grip its fat steering wheel and fling it into a corner. Poised and balanced, it’s more hot-hatch compact than hatchback ute.
Its 186 horses are best in the mainstream market, as is the buttery six-speed transmission it’s married to. A few years back, I sampled the CX-30’s bigger brother, the compact CX-5, against its upscale peers — Audi Q5, Lexus NX, Mercedes GLC — and nothing could dance with it on road. Only a subcompact BMW X1 — a size down in class, but priced in the CX-5’s $40,000 neighborhood — bested it.
Now comes the subcompact CX-30, priced a whopping $15,000 under the premium BMW X1, and I suspect it’s the X1’s match through the twisties. This is the type of subcompact SUV that Volkswagen should make off its superb Golf platform — or that Ford should cook up from its Focus sedan. But they haven’t.
VW offers nothing in its class, while Ford’s cramped EcoSport entry is a boxy eggbeater. One of the hottest aisles in autodom, mainstream subcompacts boast a variety of toys like the off-roady Subaru Crosstrek, rugged Jeep Renegade, roomy Honda HR-V and funky Kia Soul.
Now it’s got a toned $23,000 athlete.
But the CX-30 is much more than a fun-to-drive SUV (as refreshing as that is to say). Its simple, timeless design will wear well. It’s no Mazda 3 hatch (the most beautiful compact car ever penned), largely because designers felt compelled to lard the CX-30 with black body-cladding to give it SUV cred. That may protect its fenders from the rare off-road event, but it dulls Mazda’s knife-edge good looks next to full steel-body stallions like the BMW X1.
Still, it’s a looker in Soul Red, and if the cladding bugs you, match it with a darker color like Gunmetal Gray. The simple elegance continues inside with a sweeping horizontal design familiar to the Mazda 3 hatchback — and to BMW and Tesla.
Like Tesla, its broad dash lines are efficient and uncluttered. Like BMW, the instrument and infotainment screen are driver-focused — the result of fussy engineers obsessed with keeping drivers’ eyes glued to the road.
Over the spaghetti roads of southern California’s Cuyamaca Mountains, everything I needed was close. The screen navigation (Apple CarPlay and Android Auto standard) is high on the dash. The deft, multi-way remote rotary-controller (just like BMW) is at my elbow. The i-Activsense surround-view (like Tesla) is in the instrument cluster to monitor cars around me.
More awkward than the CX-30’s four-digit detour from Mazda’s naming convention (imagine if Audi built a crossover between the Q3 and Q5 called the Q30 — huh?) is its suggestion that it is a variant of Mazda’s entry-level subcompact SUV, the slow-selling CX-3.
Yet, the CX-30 is more CX-5 than CX-3. Marketing has its reasons for not calling it a CX-4 in the U.S. (because a different car is called CX-4 in the Chinese market), but they are unconvincing.
Based on a same platform as the Mazda 3 hatchback (not the CX-3), the CX-30 nevertheless gains some room over the 3 thanks to its taller SUV dimensions. Cargo room is a useful 20 cubic feet and swallows four carry-on suitcases. My 6-foot-5 frame fit in the second row thanks to clever scalloping in the front seatback and roof liner.
I conversed with my 4-foot-11 drive partner with ease from the back quarters thanks to better than BMW X1 interior quiet. And despite our body differences, we both found the seating ergonomics excellent.
The CX-30 bristles with such clever human details, typical of those fussy Mazda engineers. Consider:
—The rear hatch opening punches a big hole in back for better loading.
—Engineers tuned the car’s ride to mimic the 5 mm head bob of a human walking.
—Owners can monitor their car via a phone app.
—Stereo subwoofers are packed in the car’s corners — just as you would in your house for better sound clarity.
—Take a corner too fast when in adaptive cruise-control, and the car will automatically sense the high G-loads and slow mid-corner.
—The exquisite sculpting of the side panels always reflects an S-curve. Zoom zoom.
Standard features include adaptive cruise-control, automatic high beams and other items that you’ll have to pay extra for on a BMW X1.
Such standardization also aids simplicity. In an online-buying age when millennials expect efficiency, the Mazda CX-3 configuration page is blessedly easy, with four trim options — each building on the last. My favorite Preferred trim (heated, power seats) can be had for $28,645.
Such obsession with detail exposes the odd flaw. A black wheel option would better complement the black cladding. Voice recognition is poor. The car’s athletic nature screams for a second engine option like Mazda’s 2.5-liter turbo.
What to do? The black wheels can be bought used off a Mazda 3. Voice recognition is excellent if you plug in Apple CarPlay/Android Auto. And that turbo-4 terror with 250 ponies and whopping 310 pound-feet of torque? I’m betting sales of the CX-30 will be so strong that they will allow Mazda to offer another trim (just like they’ve done with the Mazda CX-5, which can be had for less than $40,000 with a BMW-beating turbo-4).
And when that day arrives, maybe they’ll have figured out how to call it CX-4.
2020 Mazda CX-30
Vehicle type: Front engine, front- and all-wheel drive, 5-passenger subcompact SUV
Price: $22,945 including $1,045 destination charge ($31,240 AWD Premium as tested)
Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder
Power: 186 horsepower, 186 pound-feet torque
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.2 seconds (Car and Driver est.); top speed, 123 mph (est.)
Weight: 3,408 pounds (as tested)
Fuel economy: EPA est. 24 city/31 highway/26 combined (AWD)
Highs: Sharp handling; premium interior
Lows: Heavy black cladding; turbo-4 engine option, please
Overall: 4 stars