2021 Mazda CX-3 1.5 Review: The Upside Of Downsizing

Having the right kind of car only makes sense if it comes with the right kind of engine, as a new 1.5-litre version of Mazda CX-3 shows

Pictures: Derryn Wong and Leow Ju-Len


Having a big heart might win you lots of friends, but the Mazda CX-3 shows that the opposite might be true in a small car.

The unrelenting boom in Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) sales means carmakers need a whole family of them and not just one or two in the lineup (Mercedes has nine SUVs altogether, for instance), but it’s also vital for them to come with the right engines.

For the first time you can buy the CX-3 with a 1.5-litre engine instead of 2.0-litre, and that ought to do wonders for its sales prospects. If the entire history of car sales in Singapore shows anything, what people tend to want here is a large car with a small engine, which is the complete opposite of a CX-3 2.0.

And if nothing else, the CX-3 1.5 qualifies for a Category A Certificate Of Entitlement (COE), meaning buyers won’t have to pay for a pricier Category B one now if they want the smallest Mazda SUV.

With the deal-breaker engine out of the way, it’s likely that more people than ever will take a look at the five-door, five-seat baby SUV, and there’s a good chance they’ll like what they see. It may be small but the CX-3 doesn’t look like a toy, with a stance that makes it look like it’s ready to pounce on something, and curves in all the right places to suggest that it has the muscle to take down a small elephant.

There are neat details that draw the eye, too, like the little blades of chrome that project from the front grille into the slim headlights. It could use some bigger wheels to fill its arches, but the CX-3 is otherwise a nice example of the crisp, coherent design that makes the current Mazda range so attractive.

While Mazda execs like to say that its designers rule the company, the engineers there obviously have plenty of say. It isn’t easy to make a small car ride well (much less a small SUV) but the suspension team has done its work fairly well with the CX-3. At low speeds you do get the occasional hard jolt from the rear axle, but once the pace picks up the Mazda tends to glide better over the road. 

Small cars tend to be nimble anyway, but the Mazda balances that with great body control, so you can chuck it into corners without the palms getting sweaty. Meanwhile, the steering feels like someone fussy about feedback and sharpness worked hard on it.

Somewhat ironically, while the smaller engine should accelerate the CX-3’s sales, it’s probably the least impressive part of the car. There’s not much to complain about when you’re not in a hurry, but if you are, you’ll have to rev it hard and then it’s the engine that’ll complain. The CX-3 itself has decent insulation from outside noise, but the 1.5-litre engine has a loud voice.

Assuming you mostly bimble around patiently, you’ll find the going pretty pleasant. Just climbing aboard the Mazda sets the tone for a nice time, given how the cockpit area is so minimalist and neat, and thoughtfully laid out. At 7 inches diagonally, the infotainment screen is considered small by today’s standards, but it’s clear and logical, and the combination wheel/joystick controller makes it easy to use.

Seating in the rear feels tight and the chairs position occupants upright, but the CX-3 should work well for young families, with a boot that’s just about decent at 240 litres, and expandable.

Yet, the Mazda really feels more like a treat for the driver, especially in Elegance trim, which costs S$7,000 more. That adds a few features that are still rare at this price level, such as a head-up display system, a 360-degree parking camera that’s low-res but still useful, and blind spot monitors, which are so useful you wonder why they’re not mandatory in modern cars. If you intend to share the car with someone, the powered driver’s seat with memory is essential.

Nice as those are, the sweet stuff is the Mazda’s smartphone compatibility. Android Auto lets you Spotify yourself to your heart’s content, but better than that, the CX-3 has wireless Apple CarPlay, which means you can climb aboard, have your apps pop up on the Mazda’s screen and, er, Spotify yourself to your heart’s content.

Given the way smartphones rule our lives, the CX-3’s digital horsepower counts more than the horsepower under its bonnet.

Mazda CX-3 1.5 Elegance

Engine1,496cc, in-line 4
Power115hp at 6,000rpm
Torque149Nm at 4,000rpm
Gearbox6-speed automatic
0-100km/h11.2 seconds
Top Speed175km/h
Fuel Efficiency5.8L/100km
VES BandB / $0
AgentTrans Eurokars
PriceS$106,888 with COE
VerdictSharp looks and sharp handling still define Mazda’s smallest SUV, but a boisterous but smaller new engine broadens its appeal

about the author

Leow Julen
CarBuyer's managing editor is a lot older than he behaves. He's been writing about cars for 26 years. Someday he might do it coherently. Ju-Len believes in world peace and V8s, but not necessarily in that order.