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Mazda goes Juke hunting with its Skyactiv-generation baby SUV, but the rapidly expanding segment has other rivals to keep in mind now too

This is the age of the compact crossover, and the latest one is the Mazda CX-3. With an appetite among Europe’s car buyers well established, the class’s ranks are filling up fast – and yet the wait for a truly outstanding example goes on. What can Mazda offer?

Manufacturer enthusiasm and customer demand ought to have delivered a standout prospect by now. Instead, while the 36-month procession of bandwagon-jumpers we’ve witnessed has been characterised occasionally by moderate talent, alternative appeal or value for money (see Nissan Juke, Renault Captur and Dacia Duster), we’ve as often experienced blandness and dynamic disappointment.

The time is right for something more compact, cleverly packaged, affordable, usable, good looking and fun to drive to come to the fore

The cars that have earned our admiration thus far – chiefly the Dacia Duster and the Skoda Yeti – may soon be ruled too large to qualify for a segment increasingly populated by jacked-up superminis.

The time is right for something more compact, cleverly packaged, affordable, usable, good looking and fun to drive to come to the fore – something from the mould that, historically, the best small cars have managed to spring.

Step forward, then, the Mazda CX-3, nominally baby brother to the larger Mazda CX-5 but more meaningfully taller, heavier, higher-riding sibling of the impressive Mazda 2.

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The firm’s downsized crossover has arrived at the ideal time; not only is the closely related supermini very good and new but there’s also likely to be a lot of customer goodwill and footfall flowing Mazda’s way following the launch of the much-anticipated new Mazda MX-5 roadster.

The brand’s now-mature Kodo design language ties all its recent offerings together rather neatly, and the fruits of its Skyactiv engineering philosophy continue to land – not least in the CX-3’s engine line-up, which includes two 2.0-litre petrol units and the 104bhp 1.5-litre diesel on test.

A new all-wheel drive system has also been introduced, but the CX-3 – like most of its rivals – will mostly ship in front-drive format and a mid-level SE-L or SE-L Nav spec, the latter as tested here.

Mazda CX-3 design & styling

The CX-3’s design is coherent and smart. Its shape seems to have sprouted upwards from that of the related 2 supermini like a well-watered rose bush, and yet the car, which shares the 2’s 2570mm wheelbase, doesn’t spread out to cover much more ground.

The 40mm difference in ride height, however, produces a more substantial presence and offers Mazda’s designers a larger canvas onto which they can apply the intricate creases and surfaces of the Kodo theme.

Mazda insists that the CX-3’s underbody, with a 29% ultra-high-tensile steel content, has the same torsional rigidity as that of a Mazda 3 hatch.

The suspension – MacPherson struts and a rear twist beam – is largely carried over from the 2, albeit in overhauled form. Having created higher roll centres for each axle, the engineers fitted firmer bushes and retuned the spring/damper settings to suit.

The steering, too, has been adapted, with a beefed-up electric power assistance motor and a 7% slower ratio than the 2 to better suit its size and higher centre of gravity.

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Our test car was a front-driver, but all-wheel-drive variants retain the torsion beam rear suspension, adapting it to make room for the rear differential. The rear diff itself is smaller than the one used in larger four-wheel-drive Mazdas and helps to make the CX-3’s adaptive, torque-splitting drivetrain 20% lighter than that of the CX-5.

In petrol format, the AWD system is mated exclusively to the 148bhp 2.0-litre engine. This is available only with Mazda’s six-speed manual gearbox, while the lower-powered 118bhp front-drive version can also be had with a conventional auto ’box.

Nevertheless, the 1.5-litre Skyactiv-D of our test car is at least as interesting, since it has been mildly fettled for use in the crossover.

Peak torque, available from 1600rpm, has been increased from 184lb ft to 199lb ft via a revised turbocharger to improve the heavier crossover’s in-gear response. The four-cylinder unit retains an uncharacteristically low 14.8:1 compression ratio.

This makes for a cooler and more diffuse kind of combustion than the diesel norm and is the chief reason why the CX-3 emits just 105g/km of CO2.

The oil-burner can also be had in conjunction with the AWD system, although CO2 leap to 123g/km for the manual version and 136g/km for the range-topping auto.

Mazda CX-3 First drives