Here's what we already knew: The perennial Mazda 3, when given a turbocharger, becomes zippy and fun. Here's what we just learned: When you give that same engine to the CX-30 subcompact SUV, it also becomes a joy.
Not that the CX-30 wasn't already a joy, mind you. Clearly, Mazda did something right with it. After it was introduced in 2019, the little SUV rocketed to second-best on the automaker's 2020 US sales charts.
Mazda managed to move 38,064 CX-30s last year. It was second only to the ever-popular CX-5, which sold 146,420 examples.
You can get a far cheaper version of the CX-30 if you forego the turbocharger — $22,050 versus the $30,050 starting price from this version. I have no idea if buyers will take the bait on a more powerful CX-30 Turbo, but if enjoyment behind the wheel is something you generally look for in a car, then you'll find it here.
The 2021 CX-30 Turbo: A taller 3
As a subcompact SUV, the CX-30 slots between the CX-3 and the CX-5. And no, it's not a CX-4, because that already exists in China. That would be nice, though, if not logical!
If it helps, think of it as a taller Mazda 3, as the two share the same platform. Mazda did with the CX-30 what it did for the Mazda 3 Turbo: gave it the 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder SkyActiv-G engine from the CX-5, CX-9, and Mazda 6 in the hopes for a more premium and upmarket push. Save for a few visual cues, The CX-30 Turbo looks largely the same as the non-turbo version.
The biggest difference surfaces when you drive it.
Details and safety ratings: Turbo time
The Skyactiv-G turbocharged engine produces a claimed 250 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque on 93-octane fuel. The power drops a bit to 227 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque on 87-octane fuel. In Turbo guise, the CX-30 is only offered with a six-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive.
Note that the non-turbo versions of the CX-30 make 186 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque. You can get them in either front- or all-wheel drive.
The car measures 14.4 feet long and stands 5.2 feet tall. Its maximum ground clearance comes to eight inches — a bit taller than the 3's 5.5 inches. Cargo volume comes to 20.2 cubic feet, or about the same as what the 3 hatchback offers. The EPA estimates the CX-30 Turbo to return 22 mpg in the city, 30 mpg on the highway, and 25 mpg combined.
The regular CX-30 earned five stars in its overall vehicle score when tested for crashworthiness by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, although it only got four stars for rollover risk. Last year, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the subcompact SUV its highest award, the Top Safety Pick Plus.
What stands out: Delights in the act of driving
When building the CX-30, it's clear Mazda didn't set out to remake the idea of a car. Its goal was to merely build a car — and build it well — so that driving it would come easily and non-invasively to anyone.
The interior only features stuff you'd actually need, like the climate controls, radio, and navigation. There's a physical gear selector lever, not buttons with P, R, N, and D on them. The steering wheel has just a handful of controls on it. Only the driver's seat is powered; the passenger seat is manually adjusted. Some might say this is because the car is affordable. I say it's because most other cars have gotten far too complicated and expensive.
Once you do start driving, the steering is responsive and the brakes don't grab hard when you first begin to press the pedal. The addition of the turbo engine gives the car great pickup and acceleration, propelling its egg-shaped body forward with the gumption of a much smaller car. There's pep right off the line, lending a tangible eagerness to the CX-30 Turbo's mood.
I've found other cars in the CX-30's class show their price when it comes to road noise, vibration, and harshness, but the Mazda impressed with its sound deadening and smooth ride. The only real exterior noise came from the wind washing over its body.
Otherwise, highway cruising was just as polished as cars worth two or three times as much as the CX-30.
What falls short: It's called subcompact for a reason
I don't consider myself a large person, but even I thought the back seats in the CX-30 were tight. The trunk, likewise, was petite, and only would probably only fit one large suitcase plus maybe a large duffel bag.
But as the car is classed as a subcompact, this is to be expected. Realistically, the CX-30 is for a two-person household that only sometimes needs to put friends or family in the back seat. A family with a small child or two could make it work, but they'd need to trade up for a bigger car as soon as those kids grew.
And while I appreciated the Mazda's devotion to physical buttons, dials, and switches, scrolling through menus on the infotainment screen proved clunky and slow. The CX-30's interface felt outdated when compared to the systems offered in competitor vehicles. This system, as The Drive pointed out, makes selecting music difficult.
How the CX-30 Turbo compares to its competitors
A regular, 186-horsepower 2021 CX-30 starts at $22,050. With its 250 horsepower, the base price for the 2021 CX-30 Turbo jumps to $30,050. My loaner came in the top Premium Plus package and thus had a starting price of $33,900. After a few options and a destination charge, the final MSRP came to $35,400.
But in power, it is. In this sense, you're getting quite a bit of engine for almost $10,000 less.
Buyers might balk at the premium price that the addition of the turbo engine commands, but it's clear who Mazda is aiming for with this upmarket push. And while the interior of the CX-30 is nice, it's still no Mercedes.
The newly turbocharged CX-30 and 3 drive well, but they are still based on entry-level cars from what, for a very long time, has been an economically focused brand. Keep in mind that the non-turbo CX-30 competes with the Jeep Renegade, Kia Seltos, and Subaru Crosstrek. Among those "entry-level errand-runners" (Mazda's words), it's king.
But against the existing luxury brands, ones whose lineups already include more powerful engines? Are consumers willing to shell out thousands more for what basically amounts to a turbocharged Mazda with all-wheel drive? Because it's asking a lot.
That remains to be seen.
Our impressions: It's fun!
That's the word that thumped around in my head during the time I spent with the CX-30 Turbo. I haven't driven many new cars I can confidently say feel like they have much of a personality, but the turbocharged CX-30's playfulness is palpable.
Its light-footedness and agility, paired with its eagerness off the line, make for an impish little SUV. With acute steering, good brakes, and torque on your side, you find yourself tucking around slower cars and tossing the CX-30 around corners with a bit more spunk than you would in something bigger and heavier. There's no reason everyday driving has to be a snooze, and Mazda has proven that.
As an added bonus, there's even an off-road traction assist function that helps with any off-roading you might want to do. I'm not saying you should immediately take your CX-30 to the Baja 1000, but during low-traction situations such as over a blanket of hard-packed snow, the Mazda felt sure-footed. The 360-degree monitor, which remains active up to speeds of 9.3 mph, helped me see the terrain all around me.
Yes, the CX-30 is expensive and the room for rear passengers and cargo is a bit cramped. But it's undoubtedly a fun car wrapped up in a very unassuming package. If you're someone who wants something that will plant a smile on your face but also doesn't scream for attention with brand snobbery, this is your friend.
Just be ready to pay for it.