2016 Mazda CX-3 First Drive - Crossover style, Miata spirit

Mazda wants to make a compact crossover that isn't boringly earnest, and the 2016 CX-3 is the striking result. Taking on the Honda HR-V, Fiat's 500X, and Jeep's Renegade among the other smaller SUVs that have proliferated among city streets in recent months, the CX-3's promise is that you needn't sacrifice fun simply because an MX-5 Miata won't fit all your friends or family. Turns out, they're actually on to something, though it helps if you tick the right options.

The styling is off to a good start. "We really didn't want to design an SUV version of the Mazda2," Ken Saward, chief of the Mazda Design Group, explained, "and conversely we didn't want to create a mini-version of the CX-5."

Instead, lessons were borrowed from some of the more striking concept cars in Mazda's back-catalog, albeit translated to something which is practical enough to work on the road.

So, the overhangs are short, and the wheels are big – up to 18-inches, the largest in the subcompact CUV segment – with meaty fenders to give the CX-3 a more purposeful stance. There are no common lines that run entirely front to rear, with soft surfaces instead translating into crisp edges and vice-versa.

The teardrop side glass is reminiscent of the Mazda6, but here the D-pillars have been blacked out to give the impression of stretching the glasswork out to the very back of the car. It's visual trickery but it works, and while the CX-3 might be shorter and taller than the Mazda3, it hides its upright bulk in a way that no other small CUV quite manages.

Under the hood there'll be a single engine for the US market, Mazda's SKYACTIV-G 2.0L good for 146 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 146 lb-ft of torque at 2,800 rpm. That means no hybrid and no all-electric options, and while that might seem strange on the face of it, the company has a strong argument for sticking with gas, at least for the time being.

Key to that argument is the fuel economy. There are plenty of reasons for it – the 13.0:1 compression ratio, for instance, highest for a gas engine – but the headline numbers are 35 mpg on the highway or 29 mpg in the city (31 mpg combined) for the front-wheel drive CX-3, and 32 mpg highway or 27 mpg city (29 mpg combined) for the all-wheel drive car. That should put the CX-3 among the top in its class.

Impressively, the CX-3 didn't have to succumb to a CVT in order to do that. Instead, every version of the car gets a SKYACTIV-Drive six speed automatic, with paddle-shifters on the top-spec Grand Touring. It's related to the gearbox in the Mazda3, but smaller and lighter, and even if you don't have the paddles you still get a manual override mode with rev-matching.

Sport mode is also standard, holding lower gears and keeping the engine in its core torque range for the best response.

Then there's the i-ACTIV AWD system. It's based on the all-wheel drive in the CX-5, but 20-percent smaller. Mazda has also hooked it up to a handful of extra sensors – monitoring things like exterior temperature and the electric power steering; sensors that were already there, but previously independent – to give it a predictive ability of the road ahead.

So, if the road suddenly turns slippery, i-ACTIV AWD can tell immediately – from factors like wheel slip, a change in resistance from the steering, and even if the temperature suddenly drops – and shift power to the appropriate wheel.

Mazda has three models, kicking off with the CX-3 Sport at $19,960 (plus destination). That gets you 16-inch steel wheels, daytime running lights, power mirrors and windows, Bluetooth, manual air conditioning, keyless entry and push-button start, tilt/telescopic wheel, a reversing camera, and tire pressure monitors.

Step up to the $21,960 CX-3 Touring, meanwhile, and you get alloy wheels and heated side mirrors, leatherette/cloth seats – heated for those in the front – and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter. Advanced keyless entry and both the blind-spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert systems also come as standard.

Another $1,410 adds the Touring Tech Package to the car, with a moonroof, Bose 7-speaker audio system, and HD and satellite radio.

Finally, $24,990 gets you the CX-3 Grand Touring, where you get 18-inch alloys, a power moonroof, LED exterior lights, leather seats, automatic climate control, a head-up display for the driver, navigation, Sirius and HD radio, paddle shifters, a 7-speaker Bose audio system, and adaptive front lights.

$1,920 adds the i-ACTIVSENSE safety package to the Grand Touring, with adaptive cruise control, smart city braking, lane departure warnings, and automatic headlamps and wipers.

Crucially, the i-ACTIV AWD system is available on every trim, a $1,250 option. I say crucially, because it honestly does give the CX-3 some legitimate "zoom zoom".

Frankly, a crossover shouldn't handle this well. Oh, certainly, the segment's whole gimmick has always been its combination of SUV-lite driving position and sportier attitude, but for the most part the actual cars have been worthy family-haulers but a long way from dynamic.

Mazda does not appear to have received that memo. We started the day in the CX-3 AWD, and quickly learned to trust the i-ACTIV system to get us around corners at rates that would leave other crossovers wallowing. The electric power steering is a little on the light side at center, but direct all the same and the feel gets meatier as you turn, while the paddle-shifters on the Grand Touring are within easy reach.

Given its horsepower and torque, the CX-3 isn't a speed demon on the straights. However, the fact that you can carry pace through the corners keeps the rate feeling rapid. There's little body roll, the CX-3 shifting from side to side as we tackled aggressive mountain roads like it thinks it's a 2016 MX-5 Miata.

In contrast, the FWD car isn't dull, per se, but it feels a little more mainstream. You of course don't get i-ACTIV's prescience, and while the front-wheel-drive CX-3 is solid and predictable, it doesn't urge you on to hustle though the bends.

Either way, inside the cabin is spacious in the front, though there's a little compromise in the back and trunk for that Kodo design language. The rear bench – which splits and folds, though not in the same super-flexible way as the HR-V's seats do – has space for three though it'd be cramped if they're all larger than kids, and trunk room is down compared to rivals.

The styling is more interesting than in the Honda, however, with nicely designed dials, easily-used HVAC controls, and a cohesiveness that other cars in the segment fall short on. Atop the dash is Mazda's 7-inch infotainment screen, touch-sensitive when you're parked but handing over control to the combo jog dial/joystick in the center console when you're on the move.

Mazda does it in the name of safety, which is admirable, but the ergonomics are fouled a little by the long armrest which forces some mild contortions to work around it. That's a shame, because the armrest actually delivers one of the CX-3's niftier features, a smartphone nook built into the end to keep your handset at hand.

There's also no sign of CarPlay or Android Auto – "we are looking into those technologies," Mazda's Dan Calhoun, vehicle line manager for the CX-3, says – and neither can you get power seats.

What can be added, though, is Mazda Mobile Start, a $500 dealer-fit option that grants remote control of the locks, engine start, and the rear screen defroster from your smartphone. The first year is free, but after that it's a $65 annual subscription.

Judged soberly, there are more flexible compact SUVs out there. Honda's HR-V remains our pick if a surfeit of options for toting people or cargo are your primary concern, but the CX-3 has it beat for driving appeal and eye-catching style both inside and out.

Factor in the affordable price and the bulging kit list, and you've got a perky little crossover that doesn't feel pedestrian despite the higher driving position and nod to practicality. Personally, I'd pick the Touring and spend some of what you'd save versus a Grand Touring to check the i-ACTIV AWD option.