Whatever your thoughts are – good, bad, or indifferent – about the ever-expanding crossover SUV segment, these vehicles aren’t going anywhere. Particularly subcompact SUVs, which are forecasted to reach 796,118 units by the end of 2019. That would equal a mind-blowing 304-percent increase in sales since 2015. Lawdhavmercy, that is a whole lot of cute utes roaming around. And we aren’t even at peak mini-utility yet.

Yet, to say automakers are simply shrinking existing vehicles to make a quick buck is a disservice. Okay, some probably are, but many aren’t – or at a minimum, they’re trying to redeem their previous production faux paus. To that list, you can add Mazda.

While there’s plenty to like about Mazda’s current smallest SUV offering, the CX-3 (i.e., dynamics, design), the new CX-30 seemingly makes more sense. Sharing its platform with the current Mazda3 (the CX-3 hails from the smaller Mazda2), the 2020 CX-30 is bolder, better, and probably even more dynamic than any of the cute Mazda utes that came before it.

Sporty By Nature

Blame the rotary engine, its Mazdaspeed lineup, a motorsports heritage, or that lingering "Zoom-Zoom" that occasionally whispers in your ear. But the Hiroshima, Japan-headquartered brand will never shake off its connection to dynamics and handling. And it shouldn’t have to. There’s a reason the vehicle dynamics portion of any Mazda drive event presentation is also the longest.

With unwavering attention to detail, the Mazda research and development team is either insane or, well, insane. Instead of just putting early production models through the paces of hard driving in harsh climates (Midwest winters and deathly deserts, anyone?), or test after test on the track and dyno, or fuel economy road trips, or even playing with CPU algorithms, they studied us. Humans. More specifically, they studied our bodies.

There’s no date night involved (settle down…), but the TL;DR version is that no matter how a vehicle performs, how our bodies react to that performance – whether dynamics, ergonomics, ambience – is just as important to the driving experience. You can’t just do an LS swap and call it a day (I mean, you could with some mods maybe, but).

2020 Mazda CX-30: First Drive
2020 Mazda CX-30: First Drive

So, all this anatomical analysis created what exactly? Well, the CX-30 is probably the best non-luxury subcompact crossover on the market. Yes, that is saying a lot, especially when vehicles in this segment (for the most part) are dubious in purpose, lack real-world utility, and are typically pricier than a comparable hatch or wagon.

But with fresh-from-the-port CX-30 Premium all-wheel-drive models at our disposal, the famed Southern California mountain roads are beckoning. Unfortunately, sunshine is not in the forecast. The skies are downright temperamental. SoCal, you tease.

Poised, Punchy

Our 150-mile route from San Diego’s Old Town District to Palm Desert starts as a low-visibility Wet ‘n Wild water park full of obstacles like obliviously late lane changers and closely merging semis. When finally off the interstate and onto the slower-paced roads and switchbacks that traverse through San Diego County’s Laguna Mountains, into the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto ranges of Riverside County, the occasional flooding and soft road edges suggest caution. I open up the throttle when the conditions allow (like being able to see beyond 100 yards), but “go big or go home” wasn’t in the cards. Unless home was a coffin.

Nevertheless, the all-wheel-drive system never impedes my driving style. And nothing the CX-30 does in terms of driver assistance or safety features feels intrusive. Granted, half the time these systems are disabled due to rain or ice blocking the sensors, but they’re the most chill in-car nannies ever. And if you prefer to go without warnings, a single button on the dash disables blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning, and lane-keep assist.

Not that there’s a reason to feel unsafe. The CX-30 is always poised, regardless of the precipitation situation. Even when pushing the vehicle and earning some wheel slip, the CX-30 assists but never takes the driving out of my hands. Sounds weird, but sometimes modern automobile systems force you into situations you were trying to avoid in the first place.

For example, you spot debris in the middle of the road and make an evasive maneuver. However, the vehicle doesn’t see what you see and, therefore, tries to force you back into the lane. So, there you are, fighting with the vehicle to avoid some rocks. You’re trying to be safe, it’s trying to be safe – but in reality, no one is safe.

Gallery: 2020 Mazda CX-30: First Drive

The CX-30 doesn’t do that. The driver is respected. If you counteract what the vehicle suggests, the CX-30 backs off, offering a sort of esoteric connection between driver and machine. You don’t notice it until you get into another vehicle. Then you realize how little the physical exertion of driving is with the CX-30.

The braking offers confident grip but at the same time, softness in the vehicle’s pitch so that you and your passengers’ heads don’t suffer stop-and-go whiplash. The steering is Mazda precise, reactive to driver inputs but never too taut or too twitchy. Turning is effortless and intuitive.

Outfitted with a 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine, the CX-30 doesn’t feel out of breath while taking in the breathtaking views of various pines and oak woodland in this region of the Peninsular Ranges. The day starts at an elevation of 30 feet, peaks at around 5,000 feet, and comes back to earth, so to speak, at 250 feet.

The CX-30 is always poised, regardless of the precipitation situation.

The same engine as in the Mazda3, its 186 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque is more than enough for the elevation climbs and descents. The engine note is mostly muddled thanks to the ultra-quiet cabin. Compared to Mazdas of years past, the CX-30 is almost tone-deaf. If the vehicle were any quieter, it would be creepy.

When in Sport mode, the engine does make itself heard, but it’s not the best sound. Such a mode seems silly in a Mazda, anyway, when the vehicles are developed to be that way in the first place. In fact, Sport mode only affects the transmission and nothing more. No changes to the suspension or handling; just a longer rpm range per gear. Interestingly, in manual mode, the CX-30 holds the gear. You can redline in first if you want. But why? It’s not like you’re getting the glorious grunt of a V8 reverberating through the cabin. Oh, and no manual. Six-speed automatic only.

Upscale Interior

Speaking of the cabin, it’s exceptional. The aforementioned sound dampening is partly from the high-quality materials found literally everywhere. The leather trim, the soft rubber, the cushioning pads – there is little cheap stuff in here. The touch and feel of the knobs are all the same, regardless of size. The leather seats are soft yet supportive with no change in comfort between the front and rear seats.

The styling is bar none as well. From the tiered dashboard to the interior colors, just wow. Our test car features a Rich Brown scheme paired to white leather seats. A new Navy Blue interior showcases a deep hue with matching dark seats but is not available on the top-of-the-line Premium trim, which is disappointing. Although we don’t get to see a sample in person, the image shown looks great.

2020 Mazda CX-30: First Drive
2020 Mazda CX-30: First Drive
2020 Mazda CX-30: First Drive

The CX-30's interior layout is simple yet strategic. There are buttons for features you want quick access to, like temperature and volume controls. No scrolling through various menus or endlessly tapping a screen. Not that the CX-30 has a touchscreen. Scroll, pinch, touch the standard 8.8-inch color display as much as you want but the result will remain the same: fingerprints.

The ultra-wide screen is only controlled via voice commands and a central knob in the center console. But do not mistake that as a style-over-substance decision. While the idea may seem annoying at first, especially if you’re used to an in-car touchscreen, you’ll soon enough realize how refreshing it is to not have to poke a finger at a dashboard tablet while driving.

In the CX-30, the display is purposely positioned so far away from the driver’s seat that there’s no point in reaching for it. Although the button icons surrounding the central control knob are on the small side, there’s no learning curve in memorizing their locations as there are only four of them to tap. Also, the placement of infotainment screen, head-up display, and instrument panel are within a similar visual space that your eyes spend less time searching for functions and more time focused on the road ahead. So, if you do have to look away to read the gauges, for example, your visual detour will be a quick one.

The CX-30's interior layout is simple yet strategic.

When compared to the CX-3, the CX-30 is plentiful in terms of roominess and cargo space. Dimensionally, the CX-30 is on-par with the Mazda3 hatchback. Front-seat hip room, shoulder room, and knee clearance are identical. The CX-30 is more spacious in the rear even though, interestingly, the vehicle sits on a shorter wheelbase and is shorter in length (104.5/173.0 inches, respectively, versus the Mazda3 hatchback’s 107.3/175.6 inches).

The overall feeling of the CX-30 will make self-proclaimed premium automakers blush. In fact, the only budget-friendly piece in the CX-30 isn’t attached to the vehicle at all. The key fob, as design-oriented as it is, feels counterfeit. Compared to Mazda’s previous-generation, pill-shaped fob, the current version is larger, boxier, features tiny buttons, and lacks any real heft. You might even think it’s hollow. It’s too basic for even Amazon Basics.

The New Norm

Besides my personal beef with the key, I’m hard-pressed to find anything significant to dislike about the Mazda CX-30. The body-cladding can be a bit much in certain colors, but is less glaring compared to competitors. Mazda’s Kodo-inspired exterior design continues to impress. Soul Red Crystal is still a color I wish every car made were available in. The interior is more luxurious than the segment deserves. The engine sound doesn’t quite thrill, but the driving dynamics are exactly what you expect. And if you want more, I was told the CX-9’s turbocharged 2.5L engine will fit the CX-30’s engine bay just fine. Just sayin’.

2020 Mazda CX-30: First Drive

The CX-30 offers an enjoyable, balanced driving experience for anyone in any seat. There is little doubt that this newest Mazda will be a success, and the brand can use the sales help. Year-to-date sales through November are down 8.2 percent with every model except the CX-5 seeing a drop.

But is the CX-30 too good? Where does that leave the CX-3, which is deemed fun but too small and too pricey? Mazda insists the CX-3 will remain in its global lineup alongside the CX-30. But with small cars losing market share in the U.S., and the CX-30 offering everything the CX-3 can’t, it may only be a matter of time before it’s discontinued.In any case, the 2020 Mazda CX-30 arrives in dealerships now and might change your opinion on this whole subcompact crossover nonsense. It certainly changed mine.

2020 Mazda CX-30

Engine 2.5-Liter Four-Cylinder
Output 186 Horsepower / 186 Pound-Feet
Transmission Six-Speed Automatic
Maximum speed 126 Miles Per Hour
Efficiency 25 City / 32 Highway / 27 Combined
Drive Type All-Wheel Drive
Weight 3,252 Pounds
Seating Capacity 5
Cargo Volume 20.2 Cubic Feet
Base Price $21,900
As-Tested Price $31,370
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