2021 Mazda CX-30 Review

Sometimes, too close is not far enough.

It is why Mazda will stop selling the CX-3, its smallest crossover SUV, after next year in favor of the new CX-30, its next-smallest crossover SUV.

The CX-30 came out last year as a new model, ostensibly slotting between the smallest CX-3 and the mid-sized CX-5. People had trouble telling the difference between the two since they were so minute, but there are differences such as the CX-30 having a much stronger standard engine than the CX-3 and most of the subcompact-sized rivals of both of these little Mazdas.

In any event, Mazda has decided to make just one small crossover rather than two to not compete against itself for the same buyers.

What It Is

The CX-30 will be the smallest crossover Mazda sells after the 2022 model year when the slightly smaller CX-3 will no longer be offered.

It’s similar in general layout to other small crossovers like the Subaru Crosstrek, Toyota CH-R, Honda HR-V, and Hyundai Kona. It differs from them with a standard engine that’s more powerful than the available engines in all of those models. That is if they even offered a more powerful optional engine.

Several of them don’t. The CX-30 is available with the strongest optional engine in the class.

Prices start at $22,050 for the base S trim equipped with a 186 horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine (without a turbo), and front-wheel drive.

Adding AWD bumps the MSRP up to $23,050.

The new-for-2021 Turbo, equipped with a turbo-boosted 227 horsepower version of the 2.5-liter engine, stickers for $30,050, and comes standard with AWD.

A top-of-the-line Turbo Premium Plus, with the same drivetrain plus a 12-speaker Bose audio system, Head-up Display (HUD), adaptive headlights that turn with the steering wheel, and a whole roster of electronic “safety” equipment, including something called Traffic Jam Assist, lists for $34,050.

What’s New

More power.

Mazda decided that offering the CX-30 with just the 186 hp engine in a class where 140-150 horsepower engines are standard, and the most you can get in something similarly priced is 182 horsepower. The Subaru Crosstrek’s optional engine wasn’t enough to cement its status as the muscle car of the small crossover bunch.

So it has added a turbocharged version of the 2.5-liter engine to the roster.

What’s Good

  • Most small crossovers are small under the hood, even with their optional engines. The CX-30 isn’t, with either of its two available engines.
  • The standard engine doesn’t need a turbo to make more power than its rivals’ optional turbocharged engines.
  • Though it’s a crossover (meant to be practical), it has more style than other crossovers in the class.

What’s Not So Good

  • The LCD display screen isn’t a touchscreen; MMI rotary knob input system is more awkward to use than systems in rivals.
  • Some of the “safety” and “assistance” tech is naggy and can’t be turned all the way off nor opted out of using.
  • The newly available turbo engine is only available in higher-priced trims and only with AWD.

Under The Hood

The CX-30 comes standard with a 2.5-liter, 186 horsepower four-cylinder engine that is larger and much stronger than the standard engines in rivals like the:

  • Crosstrek (2.0- liters, 152 hp)
  • C-HR (2.0-liters, 144 hp)
  • HR-V (1.8-liters, 141 hp)
  • Kona (2.0- liters, 147 hp)

The CX-30 model makes its power without a turbocharger, which adds both expense and complexity and pressure applied to internal parts such as bearings, pistons and connecting rods. Turbos also add heat, which must be alleviated by heavier-duty cooling (and oiling) systems.

Pressure and heat can be compensated for by building an engine to be tougher and its peripheral systems (such as its cooling system) to be more capable of heat dissipation. Unfortunately, there’s no getting around the increased number of parts, and so the increased chances of one or several of them not holding up will happen eventually. It may not be an issue for you if you don’t plan to keep the car forever. But if you do, you may want to skip the turbo.

The CX-30 also has something else its rivals haven’t got: A conventional automatic transmission with six speeds rather than a continuously variable (CVT) automatic with ranges.

CVTS are all the rage with the car companies because they help the car companies squeeze another 2-3 MPGs out of the drivetrain. They do so by keeping the engine in the ideal spot in its power band at all road speeds, but the price the car buyer pays for that is a vague, almost “slippy” feel as the car accelerates. A geared automatic shifts up and down as the car accelerates, imparting a more positive feel and (usually) producing less drivetrain noise because engine RPMs decrease with each upshift. A CVT will increase and hold the engine RPM at a higher speed until the driver eases off the accelerator.

CVTs also have a much worse track record for durability than conventional automatics and can be quite expensive to replace (CVTs are generally not rebuildable) when they fail.

You can go FWD or AWD with the CX-30’s much stronger standard engine. Often with crossovers (the Hyundai’s Kona is an exception), to get the optional stronger engine, you must also buy AWD, which is not a feature everyone necessarily needs or wants (more components, more potential down-the-road repairs).

The CX-30 also offers a turbocharged option. Pressurized, the 2.5-liter engine’s output swells to 227 horsepower, which is much more horsepower than the Kona’s optional turbocharged 1.6-liter engine summons (175 hp) and easily outguns the Subaru Crosstrek’s newly available turbocharged 2.5-liter engine (182 hp).

With all that power, it is no surprise that the CX-30 is the speediest crossover in its class, posting a 0-60 time of 5.8 seconds.

But the real news is how quick the not-turbocharged CX-30 is—especially relative to its much less powerful rivals, with their standard engines. The FWD version gets to 60 in the mid-sevens. The Crosstrek, with its standard engine, takes more than 9 seconds.

Also of interest is that the turbo version of the 2.5-liter engine’s MPG numbers (22 city, 30 highway) are only negligibly lower than the MPG numbers posted by the non-turbo’s version of the 2.5-liter engine (25 city, 33 highway with AWD).

Those MPG stats are also very competitive with the numbers posted by small-engined and much-less-powerful rivals like the Crosstrek (28 city, 33 highway), the HR-V (27 city, 31 highway), and the C-HR (27 city, 31 highway).

A final point of interest is that both of the CX-30’s engines, including the turbo-boosted engine, are designed to run on regular unleaded. Turbocharged engines often require premium unleaded to deliver the horsepower they advertise, and you pay a little extra for that at every fill-up.

On The Road

Every crossover is practical. Few are fun. The CX-30 at least makes an effort.

It would be more fun, of course, if it were available with a manual transmission. Unfortunately, the government regs have made it challenging to deliver the highest-possible numbers on government fuel efficiency tests with a manual transmission.

You can’t program a manual to shift up to the highest (overdrive) gear as soon as mechanically feasible as you can an automatic. Most drivers will not select the next-highest gear until they can do so without belly-flopping the engine’s power and so the car’s forward momentum.

But you can program an automatic to shift that way.

This gives a deceptive impression of the mileage the car so equipped is going to deliver in the real world because most drivers will respond to a too-soon programmed upshift into overdrive by pushing down harder on the gas (or selecting “sport” mode, which usually kicks the automatic out of overdrive, making the drivetrain feel more responsive).

This results—lower-than-advertised gas mileage.

This unpublicized fact is that a driver who knows how and when to shift can outperform an automatic’s programming—highly dependent, of course, on the individual skill of the driver as opposed to the programmer (who programs for one-size-fits-all).

The manual also has the built-in advantage of being mechanically (rather than hydraulically) connected to the engine via the mechanically connected (to the flywheel) clutch. There is no “loss in transmission” of engine power (and so, efficiency loss) through a manual, as there is with an automatic—even modern automatics with lock-up torque converters do establish a mechanical connection between the engine and transmission, but only when the car is moving and usually only at steady-state cruise speeds.

Mazda doesn’t give you the option to shift for yourself, but the CX-30’s six-speed automatic does shift. Almost all of its rivals have CVT automatics that never shift. They have an oatmeal-soggy feel when you stand on the gas; the CX-30 feels snappy as its transmission shifts through each of its six gears.

Also, it’s less necessary to stand on the gas when you have the power to spare.

Even the standard engine has plenty. In rivals, you pay extra to get adequate.

At The Curb

Crossovers are utilitarian by design, so it’s harder to design them to look un-alike. It’s why most do. The function dictates the form. How many ways can you design a screwdriver?

Again, Mazda at least makes an effort.

The CX-30 shares some of its looks with the good-looking Mazda3 and Mazda6 sedans, defined by their comparatively long noses and elegant wave-motion sculpting.

What it doesn’t share with them is their comparative impracticality.

Like other crossovers (including its less good-looking rivals), the CX-30 offers three times as much space (and then some) as would a sedan of the same size or even a larger size, in terms of its physical footprint.

It has 20.2 cubic feet behind the rear seats, and with the rear seats folded, the available space opens up to 45.2 cubic feet. This is very competitive with more practical-looking rivals like the HR-V, which has slightly more space (23.2 cubic feet behind its second row; 55.9 cubic feet in total) and the C-HR (19.1 cubic feet behind its second row and just 37 cubic feet, total).

The Mazda also has more backseat legroom (36.3 inches) than several of its rivals, including most notably the C-HR (just 31.7 inches) and the Hyundai Kona (34.6 inches). The HR-V has the most in the class at 39.3 inches, but it also has the least powerful engine (1.8-liters, 141 hp with no upgrade offered).

The CX-30 also looks good on the inside, as is true of all Mazda models. It is attractively finished, with what looks and feels like real metal (brushed nickel) trim that gives it a cut-above feel—especially given its barely over $22k price to start. This is less to start than under-engined rivals like the Crosstrek ($22,245) and only slightly more than under-engined rivals like the HR-V ($21,020) and C-HR ($21,595).

The Rest

One of the few negative differences between the CX-30 and its rivals is its awkward-to-use rotary/push knob controller, which you have to use to make certain adjustments because the CX-30’s standard 8.8-inch display screen is not a touchscreen. To make adjustments, you must first rotate the knob to access the menu item you’d like to select, then push to select it, and then rotate/push again to alter the setting. You almost have to look at it to work it.

It could use some work.

Also, in the hair-in-the-soup department: The CX-30 has too much busybody electronics geared for “safety” and “assistance.” Especially the higher-trim/Turbo versions. Some of these “assists” can be dialed back but not turned off all the way. And many of them (including Forward Collision Mitigation, Lane Keep Assist, and a Drowsy Driver Monitor) cannot be opted out because they are standard equipment in every CX-30.

The same is true of automatic stop/start (ASS), which shuts off the engine at practically every red light and makes you push a button to shut the ASS off. At least, though, you can shut it off.

Finally, watch out for the power rear liftgate that comes with the Preferred and Premium trims; it won’t let you manually raise or lower the liftgate. It will actively fight you if you try. So you have to stand and wait while it lifts itself slowly while beeping.

Some people, such as those with limited mobility, may find this helpful and even necessary. But it can be very annoying if you’re not limited and want to open and close the liftgate and get going without all that waiting.

The Bottom Line

It’s generally hard to tell much difference between Crossover A and Crossover B. But the Mazda CX-30 is different under the hood and with how it looks. It certainly makes it easier to write a review and gives buyers an easier choice to make.

Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books, reviewing cars, and blogging about cars+ for his website EricPetersAutos.com.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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