The 2020 Mazda CX-30 is a crossover you’ll actually enjoy driving

Mazda lent me a car to drive from LA to Palm Springs, provided two nights in hotels, then flew me home from San Diego to Washington, DC, for this story.

SAN DIEGO—The new Mazda CX-30 is a strange and wonderful thing—a subcompact crossover you’ll really enjoy driving. Sitting between the diminutive CX-3 and the heftier CX-5, it is an all-new model for Mazda that shares the same new Skyactiv vehicle architecture as the Mazda 3 we tried out at the start of the year.

(It might have been called the CX-4 had that moniker not already been pressed into action for a China-only crossover.)

The CX-30 is not particularly fast. It boasts no sporting pretensions. It’s also not really that expensive—the lineup starts at just under $22,000 for a front-wheel-drive spec, and a fully loaded all-wheel drive model with all the doodads still slips in under $30,000 unless you want that eye-catching Soul Red paint. But it has a well-appointed interior that, like the Mazda 3, punches well above its price bracket. You control everything with buttons and knobs and dials—no touchscreens are to be found here. And it yet again confirms that the Hiroshima-based car maker really does know how to imbue its vehicles with —a Japanese expression meaning the horse and rider acting as one. Drive it fast, slow, in traffic, on the freeway, or on your favorite back road—it doesn’t matter. It all puts a smile on your face.

Which is crazy—everyone knows that crossovers aren’t supposed to be pleasurable to drive, right?

At first glance you could be forgiven for thinking you were looking at a CX-5; at 173 inches (4,394mm) long, 71 inches (1,803mm) wide, and 63 inches (1,600mm) tall, it’s actually a full size smaller. As mentioned, the CX-30 shares a platform with the Mazda 3, and the same attention to detail that so impressed me about that car is present and correct here. Like the 3, the CX-30’s seats and seating position have been designed to take advantage of your natural balance. The typefaces are all consistent, and Mazda also spent time matching the white balance of each different illumination source inside the cabin. The company even made sure that all the switchgear has the same kind of feel under your finger. (I wrote at length about all that stuff back in January, in case you want to learn more.)

A joy to drive

The 3’s on-road manners impressed me back then, but as I noted at the time, that impression was based on only about an hour’s seat time. By contrast, we were lavished with seat time in the CX-30; Mazda had enough cars on hand that, unusually, most of the journalists on my wave got a car to themselves. We kicked off the day in Palm Springs and drove to Julian for lunch before I headed northeast to rediscover some old haunts from my time living in the area in the early 2000s. By 4pm, I was back in the Gaslamp District, having covered more than 200 miles on a mix of roads, from heavy freeway traffic on the 5 to the bliss that is an empty SR-74.

And yet, like the 3, the CX-30 only needed 15 minutes to make clear just how good Mazda’s ride and handling people are at their jobs. The difference with the larger CX-5 is like night and day—when we tested one on some of the same roads in 2017, I raved about everything from the handling (I complained about numb handling and too much body roll during cornering). Crossovers can’t corner—everyone knows that. They’re just taller hatchbacks, dynamically compromised by design.

Except this one can.

You notice it almost immediately the first time you turn in, as the car responds to the initial steering input in an immediate and linear fashion. That first phase of cornering is highly dependent upon the vertical loading of the front tires, which is obviously going to be different if you’re accelerating compared to braking, and so on, thanks to the properties of weight transfer. Mazda wants to make its cars respond consistently at turn-in regardless, and so it redesigned the G-Vectoring Control (GVC) system and all-wheel drive to make that happen.

As you begin to turn the wheel, the system actually reduces the engine’s torque output very slightly. It’s the sort of thing that feels imperceptible but helps the front tires’ stay at the right spot in the friction circle. Corner with gusto—above 0.4G—and on the way out of a corner GVC drags an outside front brake slightly. (The reason it’s the front outside brake and not the rear inside brake is because the front brakes are closer to the ABS unit hydraulics and so, therefore, can react faster.)

Mazda has also tweaked the all-wheel-drive system, which runs a real-time vehicle dynamics model to calculate tire load, shifting torque between front and rear axles again to maximize the friction circle. It’s even a slightly more efficient AWD system, losing 70 percent less energy from the driveline than the CX-5 (and 99 percent less energy than the CX-9).

The CX-30 uses Mazda’s 186hp (139kW), 186lb-ft (252Nm) Skyactiv-G engine. It’s a 2.5L, four-cylinder, gasoline direct-injection design that’s coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission. Unlike the Mazda 3 there is no option of a manual, and while you can get one in Japan with a Skyactiv-X engine, we may still have to wait a while longer before that engine comes to these shores.

It’s not a bad power unit, although I have to admit I’d love the car even more if it had an extra 40hp (30kW). That said, the 30 is more powerful than the (long) list of competitor subcompacts that Mazda compared it to, including the Subaru Crosstrek, Jeep Renegade, Ford EcoSport, Hyundai Kona, and Kia Soul. Fuel efficiency isn’t horrid; the FWD CX-30 is rated at 25/33/28mpg city/highway/combined, and the AWD version at 24/32/27mpg if fitted with cylinder deactivation (which comes with the Premium package), or 24/31/26mpg without.

$21,900 will get you into a FWD CX-30, while $23,300 buys an AWD CX-30. Even these base models are pretty well equipped. Every CX-30 gets LED head- and taillights, a suite of advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) that includes adaptive cruise control that handles stop-and-go traffic, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, and lane-keep assist (which is extremely unintrusive to the point where I don’t actually remember it engaging). The 8.8-inch infotainment system is also standard across the range, but you have to spring for the Select package (FWD: $23,900, AWD: $25,300) if you want Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. (You also get a leather steering wheel, keyless entry, dual-zone climate control, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alerts).

The Preferred package (FWD: $26,200, AWD: $27,600) adds Sirius XM, a 12-speaker Bose system (as opposed to the eight-speaker setup), and an eight-way power seat for the driver. The top-of-the-line Premium pack is $28,200 for FWD and $29,600 for AWD. This comes with all of the above, plus a full-color heads-up display, paddle shifters on the steering wheel, a powered liftgate for the hatch, adaptive headlights, and cylinder deactivation.

For an interior this classy and a driving experience better than pretty much any crossover short of a Porsche Macan, that seems like a good deal.

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