Crossovers are such a big deal, they keep getting smaller
Testing out two subcompact CUVs - the Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3
If the trending auto-industry story has been the exploding popularity of compact CUVs, the new subplot is the genus of even smaller subcompact CUVs. The category's two top sellers are the Honda HR-V and the Mazda CX-3 – tested here in their respective fully loaded trims. They are direct competitors in size, price and concept, yet in many ways, they couldn't be more different.
HONDA HR-V EX-L NAVI
- Price, as tested: $30,450
- Engine: 1.8-litre four-cylinder
- Transmission/drive: CVT automatic/all-wheel drive
- Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.9 city, 7.5 highway
- Alternatives: Buick Encore, Chevrolet Trax, Fiat 500X. Hyundai Tucson, Jeep Renegade, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-3, Mitsubishi RVR, Nissan Juke, Nissan Qashqai, Toyota CH-R
Looks: It's a dumpy little thing, don't you think? No wonder: Although only marginally longer than the CX-3, the HR-V is noticeably taller. Call it a classic case of function before form. All three trim grades have the same-size 17-inch wheel and tire dimensions, steel on the LX, alloy on EX and EX-L.
Interior: The HR-V's superior interior is the roomiest tiddler in its class, with more rear legroom than some CUVs from the next class up. Even with the driver's seat at its lowest setting, you sit higher (ergo: visibility) than in the Mazda with its seat jacked halfway up (both have six-way seats with pump-action height adjustment). We could have used more thigh support, though, in the HR-V. Ergonomically, it's an odd mixture: clear, traditional analog gauges, but a less-than-user-friendly reliance on touch-sensitive controls for the audio and HVAC. At least the steering-wheel controls are nice to use.
Performance: "Fun-to-drive" usually comes standard in Hondas, but the HR-V didn't get that memo. Full-throttle launches produce a leisurely climb up to peak rpm, which the CVT transmission then holds in a constant frantic wail (no pretend upshifts on this CVT) as it ambles to 100 km/h in 10.4 seconds. In routine driving, conversely, the CVT shifts seamlessly and keeps the revs low for peaceful and frugal progress; a 120 km/h cruise on the freeway needs only 2,200 rpm. As for handling, most drivers will be happy with the light, frictionless steering feel at city speeds. For enthusiasts, the HR-V carves a curve well when pressed, but there's little incentive to do so.
Technology: Neither car features Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, but the HR-V EX-L does package navigation with voice recognition, HondaLink, SiriusXM and HD radio into its seven-inch display audio. Safety tech is limited to lane-departure and forward-collision alerts (no active assist) – plus Honda's unique LaneWatch blind-spot display. A backup camera is standard on all trims.
Cargo: The HR-V is based on the Fit platform and shares its sibling's clever design that places the fuel tank below the front seats, enabling a deep, flat floor out back. That translates into class-leading cargo volume behind the rear seats, and seats-folded volume second only to the Nissan Qashqai. Not forgetting the unique ability to flip the second-row seat cushions up so that four-foot Yucca plants can stand tall as you schlepp them home from IKEA.
If you need maximum space and utility in a small, fuel-efficient CUV, the HR-V has no equal. It's also smooth, light and easy to drive when you're not in any hurry. Just don't expect to have much fun along the way.
MAZDA CX-3 GT TECH PACKAGE
- Price, as tested: $30,495
- Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder
- Transmission/drive: Six-speed automatic/all-wheel drive
- Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.8 city, 7.5 highway
- Alternatives: Buick Encore, Chevrolet Trax, Fiat 500X. Honda HR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Jeep Renegade, Kia Sportage, Mitsubishi RVR, Nissan Juke, Nissan Qashqai, Toyota CH-R
Looks: It's not easy to make a tallish-yet-stubby two-box shape look sharp, yet Mazda has nailed it. But the relatively long-hood/short-cab proportions – a Mazda signature – do no favours for space efficiency. The GT has 18-inch wheels, versus 16-inchers on the GX (steel) and GS (aluminum).
Interior: Beauty compromises utility. Among its peers, only the Nissan Juke has less interior volume for passengers. In the backseat of the CX-3, my knees were brushing the front seat; doing the same in the HR-V, I had air to spare. The driving position is basically low-slung and snug, like in a sports car. That impression is furthered by the stylized gauge cluster dominated by a giant tachometer with a digital speedometer tucked into the bottom corner. Conventional rotary-knob HVAC controls are a plus, although they're set low on the centre stack. The free-standing seven-inch touch-screen display, high and centre on the dash, is interfaced with a twist/tap/toggle controller down by the handbrake, as with on European luxury cars. At least there's a conventional round knob for audio on/off and volume.
Performance: The CX-3 is no pocket rocket, but it's quicker (0-100 km/h in 9.4 seconds) than the HR-V and its conventional stepped-ratio six-speed automatic is, well, conventional (in a good way). Engaged drivers will warm to its direct, linear steering and tight handling feel, though steering effort is firm. Ride motions are stiffer than the HR-V's but still tolerable for a small utility with sporty aspirations. All grades of driver will appreciate the tight turning circle. The CX-3's biggest dynamic deficit is the NVH signature of the engine – it's rough, gruff and loud when working hard and doesn't fully abate even in cruise mode.
Technology: The Mazda's alert-and-assist features are part of an available $1,500 technology package, and go further than those standard on the HR-V EX-L. Smart City Brake Support includes an element of low-speed automatic braking, while only the CX-3 has rear cross-traffic alert; also included are advanced blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning and high-beam control. Adaptive front lighting is standard on the GT, as is HD Radio, Navi, MazdaConnect and a rear-view camera, but for SiriusXM you need the tech package.
Cargo: The CX-3's seats-up cargo volume is well below average for the segment. But that doesn't include some hidden space below the removable false floor. Surprisingly, the seats-down volume claimed by Mazda Canada is relatively competitive – only 8 per cent less than HR-V. Frankly, we don't believe it. Our own eyeballs (and tape measure) say the real volume is substantially less.
Think of the CX-3 as a sharp-looking, smart-handling sports hatch with the bonus of available all-wheel drive. Hey, there's nothing wrong with that. It's a nifty, likeable little car – it's just not a utility vehicle.