Stab the brakes. Two quick paddle-downshifts. Rotate the tight, neutral chassis. Hear the tires squeal with pleasure as I explore the limits of all-wheel-drive adhesion, feeding them more juice around the 180-degree cloverleaf.
Ain’t trucks fun?
Well, no. Not until now with the brand new Mazda CX-3 sport ute, which was on the short list for 2016 North American Truck of the Year. Right next to the Nissan Titan, Toyota Tacoma and (ultimate winner) Volvo XC90. Maybe it’s time we NACTOY jurors rethought our categories. Welcome to the subcompact sport-utility class, the hottest, newest, funnest segment on the planet.
Part ute, part crossover, part hot hatch, subcompact SUVs are manufacturers’ latest attempt to slake customers thirst for riding high while still offering them the performance and styling that they desire. A tall order. Or short order, in the case of the CX-3.
The little Mazda debuts alongside subcompact brethren like the Jeep Renegade and Honda HR-V (Both were also up for truck of the year. I’ll wait while you stop laughing.), but it is waaaaay at the other side of the segment, vibe-wise. I took the Renegade off-roading last year on California’s’ State Park on 15-degree inclines, while the Honda wants to be your grocery-hauling appliance.
Not the CX-3.
Haul groceries in this sporty cart and you’ll break a few eggs. Honestly, my M-10 cloverleaf adventure came in the midst of a routine ride back from Novi when I suddenly got the urge to go all Lewis Hamilton on the Telegraph Road cloverleaf. Twice. I heard my laptop bag hurtle across the backseat and slap against the side door under G-loads. Phew. Good thing that wasn’t a Kroger bag or Mrs. Payne would have had my head (you don’t like scrambled eggs, hon?).
The CX-3 is a compact hatchback in disguise. Its hip-point is higher than Mazda’s terrific Mazda 3 compact car even as its ride height — 6.1 inches — is the same. Indeed, why buy a CX-3 when its Mazda 3 hatchback cousin is roomier, quicker and cheaper by a grand? Because Americans don’t want five-door vehicles called hatchbacks; they want five-door vehicles called crossovers. Mazda doesn’t even import its Mazda 2 hatch made in Mexico. (It’s actually rebadged as a Scion iM — and folks are screaming at Scion asking why they don’t have a hatch.)
More significant than semantics, however, is the CX-3 crossover comes with the all-wheel-drive option (unlike the Mazda 3 hatchback), which is as welcome in Detroit’s long winter months as the Mazda’s handling is come summer.
The only thing truly comparable to CX-3 is the Mercedes GLA that I drove last spring. Both look like they started as proper upright crossovers before someone squashed them in a giant panini maker. Both stand out in the gym. Both grip like a Rottweiler on a postman’s pant leg. But the Mazda is $12,000 cheaper, packs just as much AWD fun, while lagging the Mercedes in horsepower — 146 to 208.
Mazda’s play for your hard-earned dollars goes well beyond sophisticated handling and a fuel-sipping engine.
Inside and out, the CX-3 is a European-looking sexpot. Call it the CRXXX-3. Pouty mouth. Come-hither headlights. Sculpted hips. Significantly, the CX-3 is even curvier — jagged belt-line, hippier hips — than its 3 and 6 sedan siblings, giving it a dynamic presence despite its more upright stature. Clever.
You remember when it debuted at the Detroit auto show a year ago? You couldn’t take your eyes off it. That’s a truck?
The interior is a surprisingly nice place to be. Mazda translates its ZOOM ZOOM European handling to interior decor with Audi-like aviator climate vents, a pop-up infotainment screen and an array of decidedly un-European standard features like push-button start and automatic lights.
Sure, the screen comes with the annoying European rotary dial control located down by your hip so you have to take your eyes off the road to locate it. Happily, Mazda tries to help by adding touch features to the screen — though they cease working when the car is moving. Best to just use voice recognition — with which I had excellent, coherent conversations. Never had to take my hand off the wheel. That’s the 21st century way.
My GT-trimmed Mazda is also equipped with convenient features like two front USB ports, a 12-volt plug, heads-up display, adaptive wipers and headlights that swivel where you steer.
The CX-3 is so delightful that its shortcomings stand out: Leave the lights on and the car doesn’t remind you on exit. The cup holders are under the armrest. The tach dominates the instrument cluster with the speedometer a digital afterthought. And the rear-quarter blind spots are as big as Texas thanks to the CX-3’s racy, tapered rear styling. (I’m happy to report that blind-spot assist is available to help — another in the remarkable buffet of luxury options on a 20-grand compact car.)
Just as surprising, however, is the rear headroom. A 6-foot-5 roundball player like me may have to splay his knees to sit in the back, but he can do it sitting upright; try that in a compact sedan. Fold the rear seats flat; try that in a compact sedan. Of course, the hatchback Mazda 3 will give you that convenience plus 184 horsepower, but Americans don’t want ... we’ve been over this.
After my cloverleaf adventures, Mazda’s ZOOM ZOOM disappoints a bit. Mazda has invested a lot in its SkyActiv gas engine technology which delivers superb fuel economy but can be wanting in the torque department. Zero to 60 yawns by in over eight seconds. I yearned for a Ford Ecoboost turbo or VW turbo-diesel to get me out of the corners. I recently drove a mid-size Passat 4-cylinder turbo-diesel in Europe which managed 38 mpg and plenty of torque. The Mazda scored 30 mpg in our brief date, but I often found myself in the manual paddles to move along.
In spite of that, the CX-3 delivers.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
’16 Mazda CX-3
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front or all-wheel-drive, five-passenger sport utility
Price: $20,840 base ($27,670 AWD GT as tested)
Powerplant: 2-liter, dual overhead-cam 4-cylinder
Power: 146 horsepower, 146 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.1 seconds (Car & Driver)
Weight: 2,952 pounds (as tested)
Fuel economy: EPA 29 mpg city/35 mpg highway/31 mpg combined (FWD); EPA 27 mpg city/32 mpg highway/29 mpg combined (AWD)
Highs: Dynamic styling; Mazda car-like handling
Lows: Zero-60 in forever; why not a bigger, cheaper Mazda 3 hatch?