Payne: Forget luxury SUVs, get a Mazda CX-30 Turbo

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 11, 2021

Auto consumers have been fixated on their transition to SUVs, but I encourage them to pay attention to a parallel trend: the democratization of the automobile. Thanks to the electronics revolution, the gap between luxury and mainstream autos has been shrinking rapidly.

With the 2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo, the difference has been obliterated.

In design and performance, my mainstream CX-30 Turbo Premium Plus is the equal of compact luxury SUVs like the Audi Q3 and BMW X1/X2. Factor in the loaded, $35,225 CX-30’s price tag versus the $42,000 Teutons and the sexy Mazda is the best buy in segment. Mainstream or luxury. Call it a milestone.

The 2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo builds on the standard, $31k CX-30 by adding standard AWD and a powerful engine.

Sure, brand matters when you’re a young professional about to drop $40,000 on your first car. But your college smarts are whispering that — with the $7,000 you save on sticker — you can buy a nice couch set, chairs, and 68-inch OLED TV for your new condo.

It’s not like you’re compromising looks, horsepower, or tech. I mean, just look at the Mazda.

It’s gorgeous. Lean face accented by chrome cheeks under headlight peepers that sweep backward into athletic flanks. It’s quite a sculpture, prettier than any luxe bod. Drawn with strong lines and a shallow greenhouse, the proportions are only interrupted by huge, black fender moldings.

Mazda designers say the black cladding was added — not to nip costs — but to instill a sense of off-roadiness in order to differentiate CX-30 from, say, its sister hot hatch, the Mazda 3 Turbo. My bet is Mazda will correct that design hiccup in a mid-cycle refresh, because few customers will take this little ute into the brush.

Heck, you’re more likely to seek out a race track to test this nimble beast. The CX-30 is a joy to drive hard.

The 2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo's 250-horse, 310-torque turbo-4 is a game changer. An engine in a mainstream ute more powerful than its luxury betters.

The standard 182-horse CX-30 was the only crossover in class that could hold a candle to the BMW X-1. Now add the 250-horse turbocharged 2.5 liter to the recipe. and the Mazda is every bit the 228-horsepower Bimmer’s equal. Forget other mainstream brands like the Ford Ecosport or Hyundai Kona, this eager ute is a luxury performance SUV in, well, luxury performance clothing.

I’ve written before in this space how the Mazda3 Turbo and VW Golf GTI are superior value plays to their Audi A3 and BMW 2-series peers. But absent a similar VW effort in the subcompact ute space, the CX-30 is really a class of one.

Not only does the turbo-4 deliver gobs of torque — it is delivered via a six-speed transmission that’s as buttery smooth as Sade’s voice. Dancing through the twisties of Oakland County lake country, I rotated the CX-30 through an apex with minimal body roll — then stomped the accelerator on exit without the familiar hiccup of rival boxes.

The feeling is similar to a Mazda3 Turbo — my runner-up for 2020 Detroit News Vehicle of the Year — because the CX-30 is essentially a 3 Turbo jacked up a few inches. Same drivetrain. Same chassis. Same baked-in goodness.

The CX-30 interior is as attractive as the exterior. The layout is typical Mazda with the screen set high on the dash so drivers can keep their eyes on the road while corner-carving. This means the infotainment controller is of the rotary variety — similar to Bimmers. It took me a while to learn some CX-30 functions since Mazda insists on burying features in menus. But once you’ve stored your favorite radio stations, you’ll want to use the Apple CarPlay or Android Auto app for your navigation, phone and text needs.

Phone apps are a big player in the democratization of autos. I use Android Auto and it’s as good in the car as it is in your hand — meaning you won’t miss those high-priced, luxury SUV nav systems. Android Auto voice navigation beats them all.

Like Tesla, the 2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo offers a graphic with adaptive cruise control that allows the driver to monitor nearby vehicles.

Phone apps are just the tip of the iceberg. Starting at $31,000, the CX-30 is loaded with standard features that luxe brands dole out to you for thousands more: Adaptive Cruise Control, blind-spot assist, auto emergency braking, rear traffic alert, phone apps, push-button start, dual-zone front passenger climate control and a jacuzzi (kidding about that last one).

The ACC system is particularly worthy of note given its similarities to Tesla — yes, another point of electronically induced democratization. Though Mazda has no Autopilot-like self-driving ambitions (unlike Subaru, which self-drives quite competently under 40 mph), its graphics are very similar to a Model 3 when adaptive cruise is engaged. An avatar of the Mazda hovers on the instrument display while sensors indicate where cars are in your blind spots.

This feature is indispensable on the Mazda3 Turbo given blind spots the size of New Hampshire. The CX-30, too, makes a design statement with its narrow greenhouse — but its more conventional C-pillar means you can better eyeball your surroundings.

I recommend the Premium Plus trim’s luxe fixins’: head-up display, 18-inch black wheels, blacked-capped mirrors. Just like the Audi and Bimmer.

The rear seats of the 2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo are tight. But clever carve outs in the back of the front seats mean even 6'5" reviewer Henry Payne can sit behind himself.

CX-30’s dashboard is simple, uncluttered. As is the center console — a relief compared to the over-engineered Audi.

Remarkably, the CX-30 Turbo’s sticker price is little different than its Mazda3 stablemate. Another value play in this SUV-made market for customers who normally must pay a $2,500 premium for anything ute (SUVs generally require more sheet metal and chassis rigidity).

I’m a hot hatch fanatic, but for those who want a higher-riding ute, the CX-30 offers better interior headroom and rear legroom than the lower-riding 3 Turbo. Engineers were especially clever in scalloping out the back of the front seats for added rear legroom. Your giraffe-legged 6’5” reviewer could sit behind himself thanks to the seat design.

My apex-carving was rudely interrupted by Michigan winter. But the CX-30 Turbo shrugs off the white stuff. More than off-roading, this is where the AWD system really shows its stuff.

I dialed the Mazda drive modes back to Eco from Sport in order to reduce engine torque and corresponding wheel spin. The Mazda grunted easily through the powder, its 3,500-pound weight manageable under slippery conditions.

The 2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo handles great in the summer months — and its all-wheel drive offers security in snowy winters.

Once upon a time, luxury brands separated themselves with style, tech, power. No more, at least when compared to Mazda.

The CX-30 does come with one rich taste, though. To get that 250 horses, you’ll need to fill the tank with premium, 93-octane fuel. Otherwise, cheaper regular fuel will get you 227 horses — equal to the X-1’s 227.

More savings you can put into furniture for your condo.

The 2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo is a subcompact SUV with hatchback cargo room behind the rear seats. The seats also fold flat for more cargo space.

2021 Mazda CX-30 Turbo

Vehicle type: Front engine, all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger subcompact SUV

Price: $31,225 including $1,175 destination charge ($35,995 AWD Premium Plus as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 250 horsepower (on premium, 93 octane fuel), 310 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.9 seconds (Car and Driver est.); top speed, 125 mph

Weight: 3,505 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 22 city/30 highway/25 combined

Report card

Highs: Premium looks; smooth, powerful drivetrain

Lows: infotainment features take a while to learn; oh, that black fender cladding

Overall: 4 stars

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