2020 Mazda CX-30 First Drive Review

An Aveo wanders in the lane ahead, its gas flap open and waving in the 30-mph slipstream as it creeps along some of the best roads in all of Southern California as swiftly as a retreating glacier. The 2020 Mazda CX-30’s speedometer needle quivers and then falls. The longing for a passing zone becomes unbearable. Even with a merely adequate 186 horsepower and a standard automatic, I can’t wait to smoke this Aveo as I arc into another corner, tap brakes to transfer weight, and scoot into the next. And then a sort of calm washes over, provoking the slightest smile.

The smile is a realization that, short of a few performance models from the German brands, most compact crossovers don’t beg for this sort of action. The CX-30 is not most crossovers – it’s built on the bones of the dynamically overachieving Mazda3, making it legitimately rewarding to drive. Think of it more as a car that happens to be marketed as a crossover.

The careful attention to vehicle dynamics means it doesn’t wallow like you might expect a jacked-up 3 might. What it feels like is a 3 variant, not an entirely different vehicle — analogous to the Subaru Crosstrek’s relationship to the Impreza, albeit with greater visual differentiation and a much more sophisticated driving experience.

How about the CX-5? It’s a larger vehicle overall (its wheelbase is 1.7 inches longer and it's 6 inches longer overall) and there are more powertrain choices. The standard 187-hp 2.5-liter engine is similar to the CX-30’s but there are two up-level engine choices: a powerful 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-four with 250 hp, and a torquey 2.2-liter turbodiesel. But the real differentiator is room – the CX-5 has a full 10.7 cubes more than CX-30 behind the second row, and a useful 3 inches more rear seat leg room. A base CX-5 FWD carries a $2,450 premium over the CX-30, which buys you that extra space but also a less carlike experience.

To review: the CX-30 is space-efficient, fun to drive, and it starts well underneath its closest Mazda analogue, the slightly larger 3 hatchback. Mazda didn’t dilute things any by crossover-ifying the 3’s excellent underpinnings. And it’s a good deal, even considering the competition.

While all that’s good news for buyers, it may be bad news for the 3, which is the reason we’ve been harping on the comparisons all along. Consumer tastes are leaning hard towards crossovers, and while the 3 is attractive, the CX-30 offers more for less – with the one exception being a manual transmission option that's exclusive to the priciest version. The 3 is certainly the enthusiast choice, tighter and more focused.

But Mazda’s a tiny company, and the CX-30 is a phenomenal all-rounder. Put on your product planning hat and it’s tough to gin up a business case for the 3 – or the CX-3, which we wouldn’t miss in the least. We hope that the CX-30 isn’t the 3’s death knell, because making a buck isn’t everything in this business, particularly for a company like Mazda.