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Ownership: 2020 Mazda CX-30 review: A fancy and fun small SUV

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  Six-Way Compact Crossover Battle Ford Escape vs. Honda CR-V vs. Mazda CX-5 vs. Subaru Forester vs. Toyota RAV4 vs. VW Tiguan.Tall is the new normal. Americans bought roughly 8.5 million SUVs in 2019, making it by far the biggest single vehicle category. Some 2.9 million of those were compact crossovers from mainstream manufacturers, and no wonder: They're reasonably priced and good for just about every domestic task, from the dreaded family road trip to a weekend Home Depot run. There's a reason why there are now 16 vehicles in the segment, and that's reason enough to sort out the best from the rest.

With the popularity of small crossover SUVs , there's no shortage of established entries offering efficient drivetrain configurations and lots of utility. What this segment lacks, however, is compelling style and great driving dynamics. For the most part, small SUVs are forgettable point-A-to-point-B shuttles.

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Luckily for anyone in search of a compact SUV with more visual pizzazz and a more engaging character, the 2020 Mazda CX-30 can fill that role for your motoring pleasure.

A real looker in and out

The Honda HR-V , Nissan Rogue Sport and Subaru Crosstrek don't score high on the design scale, but the CX-30 does. Slotting in between the CX-3 and CX-5 in Mazda's SUV lineup, the newest entry is attractive, wearing the latest take on the company's Kodo design language. Like the Mazda3 sedan and hatchback that were new last year, the CX-30 has flowing body lines that read clean, sporty and mature.

The 2020 Mazda CX-30: Engaging, with premium fixings

Also like the Mazda3 , the CX-30 has an interior that deserves high praise for its simple, stylish and intuitive layout. The luxury-level materials deserve a shout-out as well, and are truly impressive to see in this class, putting the surroundings in competing vehicles to shame. Major touchpoints are leather- or vinyl-wrapped, padded and stitched, and all plastic panels inside are nicely finished. The front seats have support in all the right places for long drives and enough bolstering to hold onto passengers through turns.

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Front-seat space is fine for adults, but the back of the CX-30 isn't what I'd call spacious. A couple of average-size adults in the back will fit fine, with enough legroom, but three passengers across would be a squeeze. For cargo, there's 20.2 cubic feet in the trunk, which grows to 45.2 cubic feet with the backseats folded down, revealing one of the Mazda's weaknesses. The Honda (57.6), Nissan (53.3) and Subaru (55.3) all boast quite a bit more total luggage volume.

Substantial tech

On the technology front, all CX-30s get a Mazda Connect infotainment system with an 8.8-inch center display, but it isn't a touchscreen. That means controls fall primarily on the knob on the center console, flanked by shortcut buttons for my tester's navigation system, 12-speaker Bose audio setup and Bluetooth.

a close up of a car: Mazda Connect isn't the easiest infotainment system to work through. Jon Wong/Roadshow © Provided by Roadshow Mazda Connect isn't the easiest infotainment system to work through. Jon Wong/Roadshow

Not having a touchscreen means it's trickier to efficiently work through Mazda Connect. Entering navigation destinations is more time-consuming, and setting radio presets is way too complicated. While the system switches between different menus in short order, operating it still needs to be simplified, and more vibrant graphics wouldn't hurt, either. Luckily, users have the option of handing infotainment controls over to Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.

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What's another downer? There are only two USB ports and a 12-volt outlet up front, with no power points within easy reach of passengers in back.

For safety, every CX-30 comes standard with adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking and lane-departure warning with lane-keep assist. My loaded Premium Package car also benefits from blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and a head-up display.

Navigation, Bose audio, Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on the CX-30 Premium Package. Jon Wong/Roadshow © Provided by Roadshow Navigation, Bose audio, Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on the CX-30 Premium Package. Jon Wong/Roadshow

Mazda dynamics

Motivating all CX-30s is a 2.5-liter naturally aspirated I4 making 186 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque, connected to a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmission. Front-wheel drive is standard with all-wheel drive available for all trim levels. On my all-wheel-drive Premium tester, the EPA estimates it'll return 25 miles per gallon in the city and 32 mpg on the highway. Throughout a week of mostly city driving, I observed a respectable 26 mpg.

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The Mazda's power figures are stout for the class, bettering the Honda (141 hp), Nissan (141 hp) and Subaru (152 hp). But off-the-line acceleration is sluggish with peak torque not available until further up in the rev range at 4,000 rpm. To help matters some on the low end, engaging Sport mode unlocks peppier launches and lets the transmission hang onto gears longer, letting the engine operate up high where it does its best work.

a close up of an engine: The CX-30's engine is sluggish on the low end. Jon Wong/Roadshow © Provided by Roadshow The CX-30's engine is sluggish on the low end. Jon Wong/Roadshow

Suspension tuning on the CX-30 is wonderful, delivering a compliant, quiet and comfortable ride for normal slogs around town, and composed manners when flinging the Mazda around on backroads. The steering is lightly weighted, but responsive for sharp turn-in that's made better by the G-Vectoring Control Plus system. This tech reduces engine torque to the front wheels slightly when the driver begins to dial in steering input. That loads up the front 18-inch Bridgestone Turanza EL 400 tires for more grip when entering turns. I can't feel the system in action, which is the point, but the results are impressive -- this crossover truly feels planted through corners.

Taken as a whole, the drivetrain, suspension, G-Vectoring tech, steering response and strong brakes create a small SUV that's truly satisfying and entertaining to wheel around. And that's something you just can't say about the HR-V, Rogue Sport or Crosstrek, setting the CX-30 apart in an increasingly growing segment.

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How I'd spec it

For the loaded all-wheel-drive CX-30 Premium Package pictured here, you'll have to part with $31,025, including $1,100 for destination. That figure isn't too insane, but I'm always looking for ways to be as frugal as possible and get the features I value most. 

a car parked in a parking lot: A $31,025 price tag for a loaded CX-30 is on the steep side. Jon Wong/Roadshow © Provided by Roadshow A $31,025 price tag for a loaded CX-30 is on the steep side. Jon Wong/Roadshow

In this Mazda's case, my ideal example is a Preferred Package with all-wheel drive that begins at $28,700, netting me blind-spot monitoring, heated front seats, upgraded Bose sound and satellite radio. Tacking on $300 for a Machine Gray Metallic paint job and $275 for a wireless charging pad for an additional power source brings the price tag of my car to $29,275.

The class athlete

The 2020 Mazda CX-30 starts at $23,000, with all-wheel drive costing an additional $1,400. It costs slightly more than the $21,940 HR-V and $23,155 Crosstrek, with that last having standard all-wheel drive, but it does undercut the $24,335 Rogue Sport. Given the choice between all of those, it's a no-brainer for me. Even with warts like a not-so-great infotainment system, the CX-30 is the clear winner for its looks, interior build quality and how fun it is behind the wheel.

This was originally published on Roadshow.

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