Jim Bray's Car & Tech rants - publishing online exclusively since 1995

Mazda3 TurboMazda offers the high and low of driving pleasure with turbo CX-30 and Mazda3 sedan

By Jim Bray
July 29, 2021

Talk about a tough decision!

Which is better, the Mazda 3 or the Mazda CX-30? Both are mostly the same under the skin – or close enough anyway - and both are relatively inexpensive (comparatively, anyway) in their very competitive marketplaces.

And both are available with Mazda's terrific 2.5 litre turbo four engine and all wheel drive.

Click on the image to open a slideshow.

Which would you choose?

I guess it depends on whether you're a car or an SUV guy. I'm a car guy – actually I like hatchbacks and wagons because of their storage space and a bit of extra weight not on the front wheels – so I'd lean toward the 3 over the "taller 3" represented by the CX-30.

Then again, I absolutely hate the styling of the current 3 "Sport" hatchback, from the beginning of the C pillar back. It reminds me of one of the huge butted Shaak critters from Star Wars Episode II (the Clone one), when Anakin and Padme are falling in love on the planet Naboo.  

And it's enough to make me think of embracing the dark side of the force and opting for a damn SUV over a beloved sports wagon.

Still, as I say quite often, beauty is in the eye of the keyholder, and one person's huge ass is another's "yummy bummy", and the current 3 sedan is one of the nicest looking mainstream sedans I've seen. So what else is there about these two similar but different vehicles to love?

Just about everything!

Mazda's samples were an excellent apples-to-kinda-apples pair, both being top line trim levels wearing all wheel drive and featuring that turbo four first introduced on the CX-9 a couple of years back.  As far as features and technology are concerned, they're pretty much identical. So, at least as far as I'm concerned, it comes down to driving feel.

Let's start with the turbo four. Mazda's entry into the turbo four market isn't merely a way to replace a V6 with a turbo four – unless you're talking about the CX-9 and Mazda6, in which case you'd be right. But as far as the CX-5 and the 3 and the CX-30 are concerned, this turbo four is simply a major upgrade from the other four-cylinder engines available. And it's a peach!

Many turbos want you to burn premium fuel – which as of this writing is more expensive than gold bullion – but here, you don't. Oh, if you do, you'll be rewarded by even more horsepower and torque but – and I may be struck by lightning for saying this – there's more than enough power and torque on hand here from using regular fuel.

Here's how it stacks up: using 93 octane premium fuel gives you 250 horses @ 5,000 rpm and 320 lb.-ft. or torque @ 2,500 rpm. Save about a $100 per litre (okay, that's a slight exaggeration) by using regular, and you have to put up with a mere 227 horses @ 5,000 rpm and 310 torquey thingies @ 2,000 rpm.

Compare that with the base, two litre engine: 155 horses @ 6,000 rpm and 150 "torques" @ 4,000 rpm -  and the other optional 2.5 litre four banger's 186 horses @ 6,000 rpm and 186 "torques" @ 4,000 rpm and you can see just how much more robust the output from the turbo is. And, whoosh!, does it show!

How does that stack up against the competition? Well, the base Honda Civic puts out 158 horses @ 6500 and 138 lb.-ft. @ 4300 rpm (two litre four) and the Touring model is rated at 180 ponies and 177 torquies. There are "uber hot" versions, too, such as the Type R, but they're hardly mainstream and are more in spirit like the Mazdaspeed 3 that hasn't been around for a while. Unfortunately.

Or not. I remember the last Mazdaspeed 3 I drove had so much torque steer that when you tromped on the fun pedal you also held on for dear life as the car headed straight for the ditch (okay, some exaggeration here, too, but not much!).

This new 3, with the turbo four and all-wheel drive, however, feels like the spiritual successor of the Mazdaspeed 3, except that its all-wheel drive configuration keeps you straight and steady. It's absolutely wonderful.

It's also configured with more equipment than you might think possible at this level of the market, including stuff like:

  • 18-inch alloy wheels (black finish)
  • Bose premium sound system with 12-speakers
  • Adaptive Front-lighting System (AFS)
  • i-Activ AWD (all-wheel drive)
  • Automatic headlight levelling
  • Signature lighting on front and rear lights
  • Leather-trimmed upholstery
  • 10-way power-adjustable driver's seat (includes lumbar support)
  • Driver's seat memory function
  • Navigation system
  • SiriusXM Satellite Radio (complimentary 3-month trial subscription)
  • SiriusXM Traffic Plus and Travel Link services (complimentary 5-year trial subscription)
  • Traffic Sign Recognition System (TSR)
  • Auto-dimming door mirror (driver's side with memory seat function)
  • Chrome lower bumper inlet decoration
  • Gloss Black front grille
  • Increased diameter exhaust outlets
  • Exterior mirrors in Jet Black Mica

All this, for a price of about 33 grand! What's missing? Well, you can opt for a Premium package ($1700), which adds Smart Brake Support Rear (SBS-R), Smart Brake Support Rear Crossing (SBS-RC), front and rear parking sensors, windshield-projected colour Active Driving Display (ADD) (a head's up display, and a darn good one), front wiper de-icer, homeLink wireless control system, frameless rear view mirror, piano black front grille, 360 degree view monitor and traffic jam assist (TJA).

That's a lot of goodness for about 35 grand (plus the usual pounds of flesh via taxes, etc.).

Complaints? Well, you can't get a powered front passenger seat and my wife hated that. And I think the knob-based interface for the LCD screen could be a tad better – but on the other hand, I'd rather have it than a damn trackpad.

Mazda's sample wore the 100th anniversary trim level, so it was a bit more dear in price than the figures I've quoted above, but it's a limited edition model so you may have a better chance of getting the GT version I'm outlining here anyway. You don't really lose anything important with the GT and you can choose from more colours, etc.

That's the one I'd buy, anyway. It's a fantastic car and I'd own one before some premium vehicles costing tens of thousands of dollars more.  

Take all this goodness, jack it up a bit and add some unfortunate plastic cladding and you have the CX-30. The GT trim level of Mazda's turbo four AWD sample will run you about $38,476 (plus plus plus, as usual), though the base GX, two litre FWD model starts at $26,776.

I'm sure there are more differences than the plastic, the height and the styling, but essentially, the CX-30 is a tall 3, and that's a wonderful thing to contemplate if you enjoy driving as much as you enjoy going somewhere.

That's where Mazda really excels. Sure, they aren't really using their "Zoom-Zoom" slogan any more, but they should because it applies even more now than it ever did, thanks to such things as this lovely turbo four.  

The CX-30 goes head-to-head against such worthy competitors as Toyota's C-HR, Honda's HR-V, Hyundai's Venue or Kona and Kia's Seltos and Niro. I haven't driven the South Korean ones, but can tell you that the CX-30 will run rings around the Honda and the Toyota, as far as driving pleasure is concerned, and even when it comes to features (at least, at the top trim level).

So that 38 grand price not only gets you a lovely and exhilarating ride, but you also get stuff such as:

  • Rear parking sensors
  • 18-inch alloy wheels (black finish)
  • Windshield-projected colour Active Driving Display (ADD)
  • Adaptive Front-lighting System (AFS)
  • Bose premium sound system with 12 speakers
  • Advanced keyless entry (vehicle access and lock via key fob proximity)
  • SiriusXM Satellite Radio (includes complimentary 3-month subscription)
  • SiriusXM Traffic Plus and Travel Link services (complimentary 5-year subscription)
  • Increased diameter exhaust outlets
  • Turbo badge on trunk and engine cover
  • Exterior mirrors in Jet Black Mica

Driving the CX-30 is pretty much like driving the 3, except for the better road holding abilities of the lower slung 3. But if you have to have an SUV, this one is really worth a try because it feels like
a 3 when you're inside, and despite the extra height it drives pretty much like one, too. Those are good things indeed.

You get the same engine choices as with the 3, including the two and the 2.5 litre non-turbo fours. Power gets to either the front or all wheels in both vehicles via a six-speed automatic transmission that, as it should, has a sport mode that keeps the revs a bit higher to help instill maximum "Zoom-Zoom" – though in sport the vehicles expect you to drive them at least a tad aggressively because they hang onto individual gears longer than you may like otherwise. 

As I said about this transmission when I first reviewed the CX-30, "it's a real automatic transmission, not a fun-sapping and ear-annoying continuously variable transmission like you find in a lot of the competition (and not just in this segment, either)."

Not only is Mazda's six speed better than a CVT, it's better than many other automatics, because these days carmakers are adding "gears" to their trannies to save fuel. So, you end up with up to 10 speeds and then find yourself in a high gear even at a relatively staid speed because that's what they trannies are designed to do. Then, when you need a shot of torque (passing, on ramps, exuberance…) it has to shift down through many more gears than it should, and this is not only not fun, it could be dangerous if you misjudge your passing or merging manoeuvre.

The CX-30's interior is typically Mazda, so it looks and feels as if it were taken from a higher end vehicle. It's elegant and straightforward and handsome. As with other Mazdas, the infotainment system consists of a touch screen that's too far away (for me), and a knob-based interface between the front seats that works well but is a tad fussy when you're driving. But overall, it's better than some higher end competition, with their weird knobs or other pointing devices and cascading menus.

I'd still prefer a straightforward touch screen like others offer, but this system is still above average in its ease of use.

The seats are comfortable and supportive (and of course you can have heat up front) and the higher trim levels offer power for the driver's seat. Mazda Canada's sample also had driver's seat memory, a great feature if more than one person uses the vehicle on a regular basis. And as with the 3, you can get traffic sign recognition and a nice head's up display.

Naturally, nannies abound on both vehicles, but the good news – very good news! – is that you can shut them off. And they stay off!

However you may slice it, the CX-30 is a lovely entry into this market niche. It has all the things I love about Mazdas – a joy to drive, unexpectedly high end features, Japanese quality, etc. – and the added practicality many people want these days from a more utility-oriented vehicle.

I'd still take the 3, as long as it's the sedan, but can certainly see why you might opt for the taller CX-30. It's still chock full of Zoom-Zoom, driving fun, and good value.

For what more could anyone ask?

Okay, a stick shift, but you can only get that on the lower trim levels of the 3, which doesn't include the turbo or the all-wheel drive. And the CX-30 is automatic only.


Copyright 2021 Jim Bray

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