In the still booming world of crossover vehicles, automakers have gone from a one-size-fits-all approach to a small, medium and large strategy.
Two car companies with fresh offerings in the crossover or CUV market are Mazda and Hyundai. In Mazda’s case, the Japanese automaker has produced its first entry in the small crossover segment, with the CX-3, while Hyundai has completely redesigned its Tucson, a midsized CUV in an effort to re-energize its U.S. sales.
The small CUV segment is especially popular with consumers currently and Mazda estimates the sector will climb from around 118,000 annual sales currently to 458,000 by 2017.
What makes the CX-3 stand out from the crowd is the attention to design, with a sleek, sporty body that still offers plenty of practical elements that buyers require. As such, the CX-3 fits well in Mazda’s overall model lineup, which now has a consistent and pleasing design family quality that was not fully implemented a few years ago.
The CX-3 was created to be more than simply a mini CX-5, which in itself has been a big hit for Mazda in the midsize CUV sector. Ten inches shorter than the CX-5, the newcomer has its own visual identity, aimed, says Ken Saward, design manager, at “progressive customers with trend setting lifestyles.” Compared to rivals such as Honda’s HR-V and Nissan’s Juke, the CX-3 sets its cabin further rearward, creating more rear headroom for occupants, Saward notes. The car’s sporty character is accentuated by 18-inch wheels, the largest in its class, short overhangs front and rear and a blacked-out rearmost roof pillar to give a stretched appearance.
Along with its design, the CX-3 also echoes the dynamic qualities of other new Mazda models. In this regard, the car emphasizes crisp steering, firm handling and delivers a more responsive driving experience than most rivals.
An attractively finished and well-equipped interior distinguishes the CX-3, which is powered by a 2.0-liter, 146-hp four-cylinder engine (shared with the CX-5). All-wheel drive is optional and CX-3 prices range from $19,960 to $28,160. The premium for all-wheel drive, a feature likely to appeal to Michigan buyers, is $1,250.
For its part Hyundai is still two years away from having a small CUV entry. Right now it is concentrating on launching a brand new version of its Tucson midsize crossover contender, which had fallen behind in a fiercely competitive segment.
The 2016 Tucson model comes at an important time for the Korean brand, because, as the company’s U.S. chief, Dave Zuchowski acknowledges, Hyundai’s relatively weak CUV lineup has hurt overall sales. “Our stagnation in the U.S. market has been due to the swing from cars to trucks and CUVs,” says Zuchowski. “We sell 80 percent sedans in a market that is only 50 percent sedans.”
In re-designing the Tucson, Hyundai has lengthened the wheelbase to improve ride quality. The stiffened body is also 3 inches longer and an inch wider and rides on optional, larger 19-inch wheels. The overall effect is a roomier vehicle with improved handling. Two engines, a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder and a 2.0-liter four-cylinder are offered.
The most noticeable changes can be found inside the new Tucson, which now offers a panoramic sunroof, a lowered cargo floor, hands-free tailgate operation and a host of safety features, including lane departure warning, automatic emergency braking, blind spot detection and rear cross-traffic alert. In a segment first, the Tucson also provides ventilated front seats.
Providing an impressive equipment list for the money (the 2016 Tucson starts at $22,700) is a typical Hyundai tactic and, coupled with functional and mechanical improvements, should put this midsized CUV back in the fight with the competition.
John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at email@example.com.