2020 Mazda CX-3 Review: When is Crossover a Coffee Table?

2020 Mazda CX-3 Review: When is Crossover a Coffee Table?

The Mazda CX-3 is the Ikea Lack coffee tables of cars.

I don’t need to link to the Lack coffee table. You know what it looks like. Big square legs, an open shelf sitting about halfway between the tabletop and the floor, a single, unbroken color dominates the whole table. You’ve owned this table and if you haven’t your kids have. I currently own this table. It looks fine on its own four legs, but in the catalog, where you can see its $30 price tag, it looks amazing.

But we all slowly move away from the Lack, its name a synecdoche for the state of the life of the person who owns it. It’s cheap, it’s small, the materials are crappy, but it does its job well and it looks pretty good doing it. That’s the Mazda CX-3.

The CX-3 offers a well-damn-if-that’s-all-they’re-charging-I’ll-take-it appeal whose seams start to show before too long. But what are seams when you’ve got money in your wallet? It is among the smallest crossovers in its segments but also the most pleasant. It demonstrates a commitment to quality that is undermined by a commitment to a low MSRP but that holds up long enough for its owners to live through a lease term. 

2020 Mazda CX-3 Review: When is Crossover a Coffee Table?

the author’s Lack coffee table, spotted in the wild

Mazda is a fun company to write about because it often makes interesting decisions that turn familiar materials into unexpected things. The CX-3 is a prime example of that. Every carmaker wants to have a compact SUV because SUVs are wildly popular right now and inexpensive things never go out of style.

SEE ALSO: 2021 Kia Seltos vs 2020 Mazda CX-3 vs 2020 Toyota C-HR Comparison


If you’ll allow me to veer off into another, unrelated metaphor for a moment, I’d ask you to think of car making like creating a character a new video game. The base price of a car determining how many stat points automakers can use. The cheaper the car, the fewer points they can invest, so most automakers will min-max their smaller cars—that is to say, they’ll maximize space and technology, at the expense of materials quality and on-road performance. There’s a good reason that they do this: it sells. It makes a lot of sense to invest in stats for cars that are, essentially appliances. I say that without judgment, people gotta move, and small crossovers make sense.

But Mazda is smaller than most other brands these days. It’s a small automaker trying to make it in a big world and that allows it to sneak into little niches. Right now, the niche it’s trying to sneak into is the premium space. So the question for the CX-3 is what if they made a cheap car fancy? Rather than min-maxing their build they’ve gone for a more balanced approach that allows the fanciness quotient to rise.

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The Fanciness Quotient

2020 Mazda CX-3 Review: When is Crossover a Coffee Table?

That means a small crossover that actually looks kind of nice, rather than just looking like a cement-flavored jellybean. It comes in dark, tasteful colors that remind you of the deep blue of sea storms on the Chesapeake Bay, the dark red of a powerful lipstick, or the off-white of elegant card stock. A tasteful chrome surround for the grille alerts you to the CX-3’s fanciness and the sharp creases at the end of the hood let you know that this is a design-focused vehicle. That’s a focus that continues inside.

SEE ALSO: 2019 Mazda3 Review: We Drive the AWD Model, Hatch and Sedan

The front seats are large and the leather upholstery fine. My press car—among the more expensive examples of the model—even had faux-suede on the dash and door-cards. It was in a boring color, but Alcantara is something I can’t remember ever seeing in a (non-sports) car that costs less than 50 grand. All the buttons look and feel nice, too, and I much prefer having a scroll wheel to operate my infotainment screen. Thanks to the CX-3’s scroll wheel, controls are closer to hand so I don’t have to lean forward to operate anything and as a Mazda rep once argued to me, it means that the screen can be operated without looking away from the road—the theory being that you have to look at a screen to touch because there’s no physical way to know where a button is

Mind you, if you’re a monster and you have opinions that differ from mine, then you can also touch the screen—which does all of the usual screen things like media, navigation, communications, and so on.

Things Fall Apart

2020 Mazda CX-3 Review: When is Crossover a Coffee Table?

I also like the Bose speakers. It’s a feature that made me ooooh when I first got into the CX-3 and that does sound pretty good when you’re parked. Here’s the problem with trying to do fancy on the cheap, though. While the Bose speakers work perfectly well, the $22,000 starting price and the size of the car means that Mazda can’t afford to put as much insulation in the CX-3 as it could in, say, the CX-9. That means that no matter how good the speakers are, they’re drowned out by wind and road noise when you’re on the highway. Maybe there’s a different, softer tire that could help make it quieter, but the point remains that this car is at odds with itself.

The infotainment screen, too, is a bit of a disappointment when you measure it against the competition. Although it’s competent, it’s also quite small at 7.0 inches and doesn’t really have all that many whiz-bang features. The front seats, though nice, encroached on the rear passengers’ legroom aggressively.

There is, on the other hand, the question of the ride, which is firm and will damped, as you’d expect from Mazda. I found this odd at first, since this is the farthest thing from a sports car I can imagine. Why would you want a firm ride in a compact crossover? Just go for as soft and comfy as possible and admit that no one is auto crossing a crossover. But highway driving really lets this chassis shine. It feels much more confident at speed than its competition and on most suburban roads, you’ll be just as comfortable as in anything else.

2020 Mazda CX-3 Review: When is Crossover a Coffee Table?

So, great! It’s a nice cruiser, but remember that it’s also quite loud inside and has a sewing machine of an inline-four making 146 hp and sounding none-too-pleased being called into service. Its transmission also does it a disservice. I found it frustratingly to forever be in the wrong gear, and when it did decide to shift into the right one, the change was harsh and clunky.

On their own, any of those faults would be fine, but taken together, they undermine the quality of the drive, flying in the face of all the hard work the chassis engineers did to make it so well-sorted.

Teeny tiny

Finally, there’s the issue of space. This doesn’t fit into my fancy but cheap narrative, but the CX-3 is so small that it can’t be omitted for reasons of narrative streamlining. The CX-3 is very, very small. So small that items of small furniture that would fit into my own Ford Fiesta—a car that I selected for its smallness—did not fit into the CX-3. The back seats are cramped, the trunk is tiny, and that’s a problem for a compact crossover. It quite literally has less cargo space than the car it’s based on.

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2020 Mazda CX-3 Review: When is Crossover a Coffee Table?

Verdict: 2020 Mazda CX-3 Review

But you can file this into the category of “important to note, but not a dealbreaker.” That’s where most of the CX-3’s faults fall, to be honest. And it goes back to that thing about making interesting choices. These faults feel like conscious decisions made in pursuit of a cabin that feels impressive when you step into it, a speaker system to wow your friends, and a ride that feels more confident and stable than just about anything else in its class.

It’s Ikea furniture. Made cheaply, but designed well. It serves a purpose and looks good doing it, but you make sacrifices along the way. It belongs to a class of appliances, though. Compact crossovers are cars for people who need transportation now while they’re waiting to get into something fancier. The CX-3 accomplishes that and looks good doing it. So why should it matter that it’s also kind of cheap? It is cheap.

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