The first crossover I ever drove was a mid-2000s Mazda Tribute, a re-badged version of Ford’s Escape, in turn based on Mazda’s old 626 sedan (GF) platform. It was my mother’s first new car since 1991, and it was decidedly un-good. Now, if you want proof of how far Mazda has stepped up its game across the last 15 years, just drive the new CX-30.
Editor's Note: The Mazda CX-30 is now available in Australia, starting from $29,990.
Back when the Tribute was around, Mazda offered three sizes of sedan, two sports cars, a van, and a pickup. Now its lineup is two sedans, the MX-5, and four different sizes of crossover—with a fifth on the way. That’s the MX-30, Mazda’s first battery electric vehicle.
Mazda is looking for a sales success with the CX-30, trying to get its bite of the ever-increasing non-premium compact CUV segment. According to Mazda’s research the segment has grown from just 197,000 units in 2014 to nearly 800,000 units in 2019. The fifth-largest Japanese automaker would be foolish to not go after those buyers. So how will it make a name for itself in an increasingly packed segment? Attractive design and competent driving dynamics seem to be Mazda’s attack plan.
(Full disclosure: Mazda flew me to San Diego, provided a loaded CX-30 for me to drive out to Palm Springs, which is where they provided a flight home for me. It also put me up in fancy hotels and fed me fancy food.)
What Is It?
With the incredible segmentation of the new-car market, Mazda figured that it needed to add a third compact crossover to its lineup to split the difference between the CX-3 and CX-5. It splits hairs to more closely match the competition on interior and cargo capacity, while offering something slightly less expensive than a CX-5.
And Mazda isn’t the only automaker in the market making these micro-segment choices. The CX-30 is Mazda’s answer to the Jeep Compass, Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross, and Nissan Rogue Sport, while the CX-3 will continue to fight stuff like the Jeep Renegade, Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, and Nissan Kicks. Again, the crossover market is nuts right now.
Before we move on, let’s get this out of the way. It’s not called the CX-4 because Mazda already sells a CX-4 as a China-only model. And as the launch of the MX-30 has proven, Mazda will be continuing this double-digit theme in the future. Will it make sense? Outcome uncertain.
Specs That Matter
The CX-30 gets the specs pretty close to right off the rip. It all starts with a complete carry-over of the Mazda 3's 2.5-litre four Skyactiv-G engine and 6-speed automatic transmission. Perfectly serviceable units, both of them. Those are carried throughout the lineup, but the top-line premium package gets cylinder deactivation tech, and obviously the AWD models add two driven wheels.
Mazda wouldn’t give a definitive answer on if/when the super-efficient Skyactiv-X or diesel Skyactiv-D engines might make their way to the U.S. market. If/when they do, they’ll probably make it into the CX-30. A hybrid would also be welcome.
Standard features include a full suite of LED lighting on the outside, as well as a mostly passive lane-keep assist system, lane departure warning, radar cruise, auto braking, and a system that makes sure the driver is paying attention.
The updated i-activ all-wheel-drive system allows the system to completely de-couple for better fuel economy, but can still provide a larger percentage of torque to the rear wheels than the old system. It also bases wheel torque bias on a bunch of new inputs like weight transfer.
A new G Vectoring Control Plus system has been designed to interact in ways that humans react, managing wheel torque to each wheel at corner entrance, and lightly dragging the outside front brake on corner track out. I don’t really understand it, but it definitely works.
The FWD models get 25 MPG city and 33 highway, while the AWD models drop by 1 MPG each. This is pretty indicative of what I saw in real-world testing across a couple hundred miles.
There’s no official information on 0-60 times or top speeds, but it’s quick enough and fast enough for every day driving. 186 horses and 186 lb-ft of torque are welcome additions to the compact crossover market. That’s pretty close to the sweet spot for this car, I think.
An Important Note On Infotainment
Touchscreens suck super hard. No matter where they are placed, you’re taking your eyes off the road to not only select the thing you want, but then you have to look at your finger as it pushes the button because there is nothing tactile or selectable about a touch button. And, because the screen has to be close enough for both driver and passenger to touch it, it is very far away from your line of sight, which increases the time it takes to look away and to refocus on the road. Half the time you aren’t even sure you pressed it because some automotive-grade touch screens are still laggy as hell.
Mazda fixed this by putting the screen high and far enough away that you literally can’t touch it, but it’s much closer to your line of sight.
Cognitive psychologist George A. Miller once determined that humans can only recall seven things from short term memory—plus or minus two—at a time. (Ever wonder why telephone numbers are seven digits?) Mazda, perhaps unsurprisingly, limits the screen to showing no more than seven bits of information, like radio stations, sat nav destinations, and phone contacts, on the screen at a time.
The engineers assured us that it wouldn’t be the easiest system to learn in an hour or two, but testing proved that most owners began to prefer this style of hard button and scroll wheel system to a touch screen after learning it inside and out, about three weeks into ownership. It took me about fifteen seconds to prefer this to a touch screen (or a system like Acura’s touch pad).
If it’s safer (and it seems to be) and easier (and it feels that way) then we should definitely all be using this method in all cars. For sure.
From a design standpoint Mazda is killing it. The CX-30 keeps pretty true to Mazda’s Kodo design language, which has always been a good look for them. The front of this vehicle particularly appeals to me. Mazda calls this “beauty by subtraction” simplifying and removing unnecessary design features. The back is also quite good. I love the design of the vehicle’s lighting fixtures, particularly.
When was the last time you were really surprised by a car’s driver interface? For me it was getting behind the wheel of the CX-30 for the first time. Within a minute of pulling out of the parking lot I noticed perhaps the best pedal feel on the market today mixed with incredibly communicative and responsive steering.
The very first thing I wrote in my notebook during this drive was “smaller and less expensive Macan?” which should really tell you a lot about this car. It immediately impressed.
As Mazda’s highly-nerdy engineer Dave Coleman explained to me, the brake pedal operation was simplified to use just calf muscles instead of weaker shin muscles. The pedal operation is a short push, but a stiff one with more effort required than usual. It feels positive and progressive without the long soft pedal most cars are known for. It’s difficult to explain, but it’s really good.
The steering is good, but it’s not sports car good. I’m sure Mazda would want me to say it’s got MX-5-inspired steering or something, but I won’t go quite that far. It’s very good for a crossover, and about on par with your average sporty sedan. This was largely accomplished by softening the tires and reducing suspension bushing deflection.
There were lots of little engineering tweaks that none of us will ever think about, but conspire to deliver a taut and predictable driving experience. Even hustling the thing through some delightful SoCal mountain roads it felt ready for the next challenge.
Interior noise at 60 miles per hour is really good. It’s incredibly quiet for its segment and its price point. Mazda did a great job here.
Likewise the interior quality looks and feels quite nice. The dash top is rubbery, but the touch points are nice.
Visually the CX-30 sort of falls apart in the profile view where the thick plastic cladding and too-empty wheel wells make the optional 18s look entirely too small for the car. I can’t imagine what the standard 16s look like! That said, it’s still a far sight better looking than Toyota’s C-HR or Honda’s HR-V.
I am a larger than average human at 6'2" with a 42" waist. A widebody model you might say. I realise that this car wasn’t built with me in mind, but it is all kinds of too cramped for my comfort. Three things really made it difficult for me to see living with every day, including ingress, headroom, and knee room.
In order to drive comfortably, I had to sit with the driver’s seat pushed pretty much as far back as it would go, which puts the seating surface behind the B-pillar. I frequently caught the rubber door seal on the pillar with my left hip and the steering wheel with my right buttock trying to get in. Not ideal, but if you’re smaller than me (most of you are) it’s probably fine.
Headroom was an issue for me as well, but ironically not in the driver’s seat. I’m pretty much all torso, so my head was in the roof in the passenger seat and the rear seats. Unlike the power-adjust driver seat, the passenger’s seat only has fore-and-aft adjustment, not up and down. With the driver’s seat at its lowest position I had plenty of headroom. Not so in the right seat. I could slouch and be ok for a few hours in the passenger seat, but the rears were just tight all around.
The real sticking point for me in the driver’s seat was the room for my legs. For some reason the centre console is too wide and I find my right leg wants to occupy the same space as it does. On the flip side, my left leg had a constant impact with the door arm rest (which juts out several inches from the door) at the knee. I had plenty of room in the foot box, but my knees were impinged.
Folding the seats down in the back may require moving the front seats forward, as pictured above. A minor annoyance, but it certainly is one.
Final gripe? When closing either of the front doors with more force than necessary, but not much beyond average, the metal flexes in a way that sounds like shaking a cookie sheet. A high pitched metallic twang that doesn’t imbue a sense of quality.
It’s unlikely that you’ll find a bigger CUV sceptic than me, and it’s very rare that a compact ute does anything to impress me. As I walked away from Mazda’s new CX-30 I felt like there was finally a little hatch on stilts that delivered a good combination of ride compliance and sporty handling.
Compared to anything else in this segment at a reasonable price point the CX-30 brings the horsepower you really want and injects a bit of that typical Mazda DNA into the handling. It’s rare to find a CUV with driving dynamics that encourage you to push it on winding roads. You’d be hard pressed to find a more engaging crossover this side of Porsche’s pretty-damn-good Macan.
Don’t get me wrong, the CX-30 isn’t a Macan competitor. It isn’t as powerful as a Macan, nor does it have the material quality of the $75,000 base price Porsche, but its steering feel is remarkably close, and its brake pedal feel is better.
If it weren’t for a few ergonomic missteps which you narrowbody folks might be able to overlook, the CX-30 would have been an instant champion in this segment. It really delivers. It’s got more space than the CX-3 and is dynamically superior to the CX-5. Is it the Goldilocks option of the Mazda lineup?
I’d still rather have the Mazda 3 AWD. If you need a smidge more ground clearance for your regular everyday drive, but still want something that can dynamically dice with your driving skills on a fun twisty road and don’t have the cash to drop on a $75,000 base model Porsche with a VW GTI engine, the CX-30 is your move.
Drives better than it has a right to, intuitive user interface, aesthetically pleasant for a compact CUV
Massive wheel gaps, not enough headroom for taller drivers, you can tell where costs were cut
If you want a good-handling CUV this is the one to get, but it doesn’t do anything better than an AWD Mazda 3.
186 HP • 186 LB-FT
Weight 1.46 tonnes / 1.52 tonnes (AWD)
Price $29,990 starting • $US30,645 ($45,497) as tested