Mazda’s entry-level CX-3 crossover gets a mid-cycle refresh for 2018. We review the base GX model where the new 6-speed stick shift for a more spirited drive makes up for the lack of glossy features.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Exterior photos are of the higher GT trim

In 2015, Mazda canceled the North American launch of its second-generation Mazda2 subcompact hatchback in an effort to concentrate on more profitable, higher-profile vehicles in its lineup.

One of those was the CX-3, a compact crossover that effectively replaced the Mazda2 as the brand’s entry-level model in 2016. For 2018, it undergoes some mid-cycle changes that include the addition of a manual transmission to the base GX trim level. For Mazda fans seeking something bigger, the CX-5 is the go-to for extra space and power

That’s a notable thing given the stick shift’s waning popularity, particularly in crossovers. But Mazda has made it clear in recent years that it wants to make cars for driving enthusiasts, many of whom like shifting gears for themselves rather than letting the car do it for them.

Mazda has also made its Smart City brake-support system standard across the range for 2018, so that all CX-3 buyers can benefit from its frontal-collision detection with automatic braking at city driving speeds.

2018 mazda cx-3 review red rear view

Tested: 2018 CX-3 GX

The automaker shuffled a few other features around in the CX-3’s GS and GT trims, but we’re not concerned with that, because our tester was a GX with that new manual transmission. You can only get it with front-wheel drive, but that’s no matter for us as it positions this crossover closer to the Mazda2 we wish we’d been able to get our hands on a few years ago.

The bulkier CX-3 is heavier than that little hatch would have been, but the manual transmission makes it feel more fun than with the automatic, and the 111-kg weight reduction compared to CX-3 models fitted with the automatic and all-wheel drive is one you’ll notice right away if you drive the two configurations back-to-back.

Driving Dynamics: Same 2.0L engine as 2017 model

Mazda left the CX-3’s engine alone, so it’s still a 2.0L four-cylinder making 146 hp and 146 lb-ft of torque. Despite those modest power figures, all of that torque is available from 2,800 rpm to provide useful acceleration at cruising speeds without the need to downshift.

Other formidable competitors include the Honda HR-V and Nissan Qashqai / Nissan Rogue Sport but if you’re looking for a small crossover you’ll enjoy driving with some enthusiasm, nothing matches the Mazda’s sharp responses.

The transmission will feel familiar to anyone who’s driven a Mazda3. Shift feel is smooth once the car is warmed up, but cold temperatures bring out a cranky reluctance that requires patience on the part of the driver. The move from second to third sends the shift lever further to the right than we expect, making it easy to “miss” that shift, which is less than ideal if you’re accelerating quickly to merge with highway traffic.

Mazda estimates the CX-3’s fuel consumption at 9.0/7.0 L/100 km (city/highway) with the new manual transmission, and our test vehicle averaged a bit better than 8.0 L/100 km in combined driving.

CX-3 Interior Impressions

The recent updates don’t change the car’s tight interior. The front seats are narrow and rear-seat legroom is certainly not generous, though there’s enough room for a couple of adults to sit back there in reasonable comfort. Crossovers are popular with families, but forget fitting child seats back here. The trunk is small, too, but the back seats fold flat with the cargo area floor to expand carrying capacity.

2018 mazda cx-3 review GX interior
GX interior – photo: AutoGuide.com

This car’s entry-level status shows in an interior made of hard plastics that look good but feel cheap to the touch. Our tester had an optional central armrest between the front seats that folds up and out of the way, which is where we left it because it otherwise interferes with shifting and use of the console-mounted knob that controls the infotainment system. That said, the 7.0-inch screen also responds to touch, providing a useful workaround to that design flaw. On the plus side, we appreciate the simplicity of the CX-3’s manual climate controls.

GT vs GX models

Mazda lets you load the CX-3 up in a GT trim that comes with niceties like navigation, passive keyless entry and automatic climate control. But the base GX trim to which the manual transmission is limited can’t even be optioned with a heated steering wheel or front seats, features we imagine are now a couple of the most popular convenience items among Canadian car buyers even at this model’s $20,000 price point, which is about $700 less than last year’s entry-level model.

2018 mazda cx-3 review rear cargo seats down

Price

Bring another C$1,300 to a Mazda store and you can drive away in a Mazda3 Sport in mid-range GS trim, a car that includes heated seats and steering wheel and boasts more interior space, higher-quality materials, a more powerful engine and better fuel economy. All you trade is the CX-3’s marginally higher seating position.

Takeaway

The CX-3 faces some new competition this year in the Toyota C-HR, which comes with more standard features at a higher price but whose drive lacks the personality promised by its looks. Other formidable competitors include the Honda HR-V and Nissan Qashqai / Nissan Rogue Sport but if you’re looking for a small crossover you’ll enjoy driving with some enthusiasm, nothing matches the Mazda’s sharp responses.

Entry-level cars are not the penalty boxes they used to be, but given the popularity of small crossovers, we’re disappointed Mazda’s 2018 update to the CX-3 didn’t include the option for more convenience items in GX form. But if you’re okay with chilly hands and backside first thing on a winter morning, this year’s most important addition — the manual transmission — makes the most fun-to-drive subcompact SUV even more entertaining, and you won’t hear us complain about that.

More info on the 2018 CX-3 compact SUV here – United States (Mazda) and Canada (Mazda)

2018 mazda cx-3 review red sideview

2018 CX-3 Specs:

  • Engine: 2.0L four-cylinder
  • Power: 146 hp
  • Torque: 146 lb-ft
  • Transmission: Six-speed manual
  • Brakes: Four-wheel disc
  • Steering: Electric power-assist rack-and-pinion
  • Suspension: McPherson strut (front); Torsion beam (rear)
  • Fuel economy, ratings (l/100km, city/highway): 9.0/7.0
  • Fuel economy, observed (l/100km): 7.8
  • Price: C$19,995/C$20,750 starting MSRP/as tested for GX; in the US, the entry-level CX-3 Sport starts at US$20,110