By Derek Price
If there’s a heaven for driving enthusiasts, I suspect the people running Mazda right now will get an extremely pleasant afterlife.
Let’s face it. The car world is filled with sinners today. Dealer lots are packed with dull sedans that ever-fewer people are excited about buying. Shoppers seem to prefer the wickedness of unbelievably bland crossover vehicles with their bulbous shapes and high centers of gravity.
Some brands are even openly committing genocide on manual transmissions and, most horrific of all, replacing them with mushy CVTs.
Can you imagine the kind of evil it takes to do that? I can’t even wrap my mind around it.
Mazda, though, is doing saintly work through products like the all-new CX-30. Yes, it’s a crossover, which means it’s not quite as much fun to drive as the brilliantly designed, lower-to-the-ground Mazda3, my favorite reasonably priced sedan and hatchback on the market today.
But by crossover standards — and even by the measuring stick of many sporty sedans, for that matter — it’s tremendous fun to drive.
Like the Mazda3, the CX-30 feels as if it was built by people who actually care about driving, something that’s all too rare today. Tight steering, a firm suspension, responsive brakes and a rev-happy engine combine to make it genuinely fun on winding roads.
I believe Mazda could have sold a boatload of CX-30s if they just created another boring crossover. But they didn’t.
You can feel it from the driver’s seat, and you can see it in the design.
While most CUVs look like they started out as hatchbacks before designers stuck a straw into them and blew hard to make them get all puffy, the CX-30 is sleek, trim and svelte. There are no pretensions of silly, fake, truck-like machismo in its lines.
In fact, the silliest thing about it is the name.
It slots between the CX-3 and the CX-5 in Mazda’s North American lineup. The only advantage of alphanumeric names is for situations exactly like this, when the logical name for this vehicle should be CX-4. Elmo could explain that on Sesame Street.
In a page pulled straight from Infiniti’s “How to Confuse Buyers” playbook, though, Mazda calls this the CX-30. Go figure.
Aside from the oddball name, this vehicle seems completely void of mistakes. Its cabin is one of the nicest in its hotly competitive category, with ample soft-touch materials and a snazzy look that makes it feel more expensive than it is.
It even managed to avoid the mortal sin that is all too common today: a transmission that saps all the fun from driving. Many modern crossovers either use a transmission with far too many gears or, worse, a rubber-band-like continuously variable gearbox.
The six-speed automatic in the CX-30 responds quickly and confidently, delivering a much more driver-friendly sensation than most small crossovers it competes with.
If you care about the way a vehicle feels over the road — how it changes direction and “communicates” with the driver through sensory feedback — I think the CX-30 is in a class by itself. It does all the boring stuff exceptionally well, too, including an easy-to-use infotainment system and plenty of safety features. But for people interested in the fun stuff without paying a fortune, it stands alone.
You can buy crossovers that are more rewarding to drive, but they cost double or more what this one does. The Alfa Romeo Stelvio, Porsche Cayenne and BMW X-Whatever are all amazing machines, but they’re not built for people on a budget. The starting price is $21,900.
For building the most car-like, fun-to-drive, affordable crossover on the market, the folks at Mazda deserve a special place in automotive heaven. I’d be in favor of a marble statue here on Earth, too.
At A Glance
What was tested? 2020 Mazda CX-30 Premium AWD ($29,600). Options: Machine gray paint ($300), frameless auto-dim mirror ($275), navigation SD card ($450). Price as tested (including $1,045 destination charge): $31,570
Wheelbase: 104.5 in.
Length: 173 in.
Width: 70.7 in.
Height: 62.2 in.
Engine: 2.5-liter four cylinder (186 hp, 186 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 25 city, 32 highway
Why buy it?
This fresh product from Mazda has svelte looks and an engaging driving feel, two things that are rare in small crossover vehicles. It’s the most fun-to-drive, yet affordable, vehicle of its type.