Mazda CX-30 sizes up 'just right' SUV solution
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The winding roads through the scenic hills of the Taunus region — on the northern outskirts of Frankfurt, Germany — take you past hiking and bike trails.
Roadside signs warn of deer and I saw a squirrel safely make a dash across the highway. I got to wondering whether there might be bears in the woods — because the car I was driving has a Goldilocks personality.
Sounds a bit cute. Let me explain.
Mazda used these roads for the recent global launch of its new CX-30 crossover/SUV contender. Set to arrive in the New Zealand market early next year, the new CX-30 fits neatly between the CX-3 and CX-5 to give Mazda its fifth SUV pillar.
And if you're wondering why it's not called CX-4, that badge is already used on a China-only extended version of the CX-3.
Conversations I've had with Mazda owners and prospective buyers are the prompt for the Goldilocks observation. An oft-repeated theme has been the CX-3 looks cool but is too small while the CX-5 is a bit too big for the garage.
Among multiple objectives the CX-30 is a shot at "just right" SUV sizing. The Mazda engineers had defined measurement targets — primarily sub-4400mm in length and sub-1800mm in width for city agility and tight car parks. And they have achieved a turning circle to match the smaller CX-3.
For reference the CX-30 is 120mm longer and 30mm wider than CX-3 but only 5mm taller. And it's smaller than the CX-5 in all dimensions.
But the CX-30 is much more than a re-sizing exercise.
Under the skin there is significant commonality with the gen-four Mazda3 which has just rolled out a new SkyActiv-Vehicle platform to commence Mazda's seventh generation product cycle.
The flexibility of the latest SkyActiv architecture means the CX-30s wheelbase is 25mm shorter than a Mazda3 while the ground clearance is raised to 175mm. The width is identical at 1795mm.
Specific styling cues — most obviously pronounced dark grey cladding of the sills and wheel arches — emphasise the SUV stance but the reality is the front seat hip point is a moderate 45mm higher than the Mazda3 hatch.
The hip point is at the same height as the CX-3 (lower than the CX-5) and the designers paid attention to the relationship between seat height and sill position to make access more natural.
Exterior panels and the frontal design are similar but in all cases subtly different to Mazda3 themes. The latest evolution and maturing of Mazda’s Kodo design philosophy puts less emphasis on sheet metal creases and feature lines and more on the overall form and how it interacts with changes in light.
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The grille shape and texture, slim lighting signature and rear styling are clearly linked to, yet differentiated from, the new Mazda3.
It's the same in the cabin with Mazda’s new de-cluttered new generation architecture, minimised controls, 8.8-inch widescreen display and operation through a lovely "click and confirm" feel to the switchgear.
While rear seat accommodation is reasonably snug the efficient floor design provide and upright seating position provide decent headroom and reasonable kneeroom. Load space measures up at 430 litres — significantly improved over the CX3 and there’s also more cargo space than a Mazda3 hatch to offer the lifestyle appeal that SUV buyers seek.
In Germany I drove a 1.8-litre SkyActiv-D diesel version and a 2.0-litre SkyActiv-G petrol with a six-speed manual transmission helped along by Mazda’s new 24-volt mild hybrid starter/generator that is launching the brand's electrification drive.
The output for the Euro-spec 2.0-litre petrol is 90kW — significantly lower than the 114kW that New Zealanders receive in a 2.0-litre Mazda3 — and that shifts attention to the torque boost from the mild hybrid system. At low speeds it assists with a responsive feel and noticeably smoothed out the first-to-second and second-to-third upshifts.
Sampling two engine/transmission combos not destined for the Kiwi market meant there was more to be gained from paying attention to the chassis dynamics.
The run through the Taunus hills, villages and an autobahn section confirmed the close relationship with the Mazda3. That’s a good thing, with the same fluent steering response and chassis control combined with a notable improvement in NVH quality that makes the cabin pleasingly quiet.
It makes the CX-30 a low-stress drive which carries pace on the highway with an assured stance while feeling responsive and accurate in the twistier sections.
It's clear from the content of recent Mazda press events that the brand is attempting to create some space of its own as a car company with a human-focused approach to vehicle design and dynamics.
There's massive Mazda enthusiasm for a human-centred — rather than machine-centred — design approach and study of the subtleties of how a car interacts with the driver. For example, it's fair to say Mazda is more interested in how a car feels and sounds under acceleration rather just the numbers on the stopwatch.
The Mazda engineers have some entertaining demonstrations and compelling theories around seat position and shape backed up by study of human physiology and movement.
Central to this approach is to design a seat with the prime design target of holding the occupants' pelvis in an upright position. In turn that maintains the S-shape of the spine and by achieving correct posture. Mazda says drivers and passengers maintain their natural human balance ability, can more accurately predict the behaviour of the car and in particular can hold their head still.
The observation I've made from time in both the new Mazda3 and CX-30 is that after sitting in the car for the first time and making my initial seat, steering wheel and mirror adjustments I haven't found myself making more fine-tuning adjustments a few minutes into the drive.
In the CX-30 the driver's seat provides plenty of support and you are only just aware of the raised seat height only from the enhanced visibility rather than from centre of gravity or roll response feedback as the car moves through corners.
First impressions are it's very close to a car-like driving experience with similar progressive steering and chassis response which has immediately marked the new Mazda3 as a rewarding place to spend time behind the wheel.
Details of the CX-30 line-up for New Zealand are still being finalised ahead of a local introduction expected first-quarter 2020.
Mazda New Zealand plans to offer a mix of 2.0-litre and 2.5-litre SkyActiv-G petrol engine choices with both front-drive and all-wheel-drive versions. The advanced new SkyActiv-X engine with its pioneering Spark Plug Controlled Compression Ignition petrol engine technology will also figure in the line-up of CX-30 models.
New Zealand will get six-speed automatics and while both cars sampled in Germany were front wheel-drive there will be CX-30 all-wheel-drive models as well.
Specification choice is likely to mirror the new Mazda3 structure with GSX, GTX and Limited grades topped by a "high-plus" Takami version.
An important element in the arrival of the CX-30 will see it position Mazda among the first mainstream brands to offer five different SUV/crossover model lines in the New Zealand market.
"I think there is some clear space between compact and medium size SUVs. Potentially that’s a sweet spot for the CX-30," said Mazda New Zealand managing director, David Hodge.
"Having five SUV models is a great place to be. But unlike some of our competitors who have actually pulled out of traditional car segments, we have grown our SUV line-up while still having full range of hatchbacks and sedans.
"We believe there are still plenty of people passionate about traditional passenger cars."
The Goldilocks personality for the CX-30 extends beyond a set of carefully chosen mid-size dimensions. SUV versatility and fashionable design also blends with the new Mazda3's assured driving dynamics appeal to seek a "just right" position for the CX-30.