TINY DANCERS: Mazda CX-3 Maxx Sport AWD and Toyota C-HR 2WD
AUSTRALIA’S second-best-selling small SUV has much going for it – striking design, stylish interior, great seats, strong performance, quality engineering – but the Mazda CX-3’S biggest ace is choice. Nothing else in its class offers the dazzling smorgasbord of petrol, diesel, front-drive, all-wheel drive, auto and manual flavours. Sixteen all up, in fact.
Lots of choice, and within that lies some real gems – namely the AWD, since it upgrades the rear suspension from the FWD’S torsion beam to a De Dion set-up. Yes, it’s also auto-only, but in this case that hardly matters.
In late 2015, an stouring AWD auto chase car in our Mazda MX-5 meets Toyota 86 GTS comparo astonished all with its ability to keep up with the hard-charging sports cars over demanding mountain roads, displaying un-suv-esque handling and roadholding prowess, backed up by a punchy, rev-happy 109kw/192nm 2.0-litre heart and quick-shifting six-speed torque-converter auto that in Sport mode held on to each ratio right up to the limiter.
We still talk about that CX-3’S athleticism in the office today. But it wasn’t without flaws. At the time, we complained about tiresome engine and road noise intrusion, but September’s Series II facelift – with its upgraded cabin finish, specification, power outputs and chassis tune – has quietened things down a tad on both fronts, while the $27,690 Maxx Sport AWD auto’s 16-inch rubber takes the edge off the firm ride as well. Lusty, lively and lovely to behold, Mazda’s littlest SUV upstart in this guise fits like a glove – a form-fitting fencing one for sparring with warm hatches.
In contrast, the Toyota C-HR manual’s coupe-on-stilts styling suggests a return to the superficial ‘form over function’ softness from the brand’s more comic
back-catalogue tat like the ’90s Paseo, especially as the 85kw/185nm 1.2-litre four-pot turbo seems incongruously tiny beneath that broad bonnet. A CVT with or without all-wheel drive are the only other options, too. So not exactly spoilt for choice.
Yet the C-HR’S rigid body is underpinned by the company’s impressive all-new Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) structure that elevates the other Japanese small SUV a league or two higher than most for suspension suppleness (there’s a double wishbone rear-end back there), steering connection and chassis refinement. If it wasn’t for the anime looks, you’d swear such fluency is only the provenance of the French. If only most premium SUVS offered such cultured manners.
There’s more. The son-of-’86 six-speed manual shifter is a joy (thankfully, as it needs to be rowed quite regularly to get the most from that slick turbo powertrain), the elegant dash is a statement in sparse, solid, contemporary design, the generous packaging provides ample space for adults as well as heaps more cargo capacity than the limited CX-3, while standard kit includes adaptive cruise control, auto-high beams and AEB.
A small-suv comparison champion within these pages, the C-HR feels and drives like it’s been overengineered. That said, as with most cars with well-sorted steering and suspension, the Toyota’s chassis always seems like it could do with a lot more power. That unusual upswept side glasshouse and shallow rear window also limit reversing vision, forcing an over-reliance on the camera sited within a very dated and fiddly centre touchscreen. The Corolla’s latest multimedia system cannot come soon enough. Never mind. It all still works fine.
In a nutshell, then, the base C-HR manual at $26,990 is fun to just let loose in, with an eager and willing powertrain, steering connection and reactions to carve through corners quickly and suspension travel to glide over urban bumps beautifully. Don’t be fooled by the bold and brash exterior looks; this Toyota small SUV is anything but superficial.