The Mazda3 five-door is the more mature model of the two, having been introduced to a world market in fall 2003. With a commonsense footprint enclosed by almost-organic, upscale sheetmetal, the Mazda3 – especially in 5-door form – punches well above its weight in the still-nascent hatchback category. With a redesign (third-generation) introduced in 2014, along with a more recent refresh, the newest sedan and hatchback merge Mazda's KODO design philosophy with a responsive platform, available 2.5-liter drivetrain and a comfortable – if not expansive – interior.
What the Mazda3 5-door (photo at left) does not give you is the crossover's high hip point, despite having ground clearance almost identical to the CX-3 subcompact crossover. And while the stated passenger volume of the Mazda3 and CX-3 is almost identical, those cubes are arranged differently; the Mazda3 offers an interior package more linear, while the CX-3 is more upright.
Mazda's subcompact CX-3 (photo at top) is a more recent entry, having been developed from the Mazda2 architecture and hitting the street two years ago. It sits below Mazda's CX-9 and CX-5 in the Mazda pecking order. And it is tiny, on a wheelbase of just 101 inches and offering an overall length of just 168 inches. It is seven inches shorter than the Mazda3, with a wheelbase five inches shorter. The net effect is a more compressed environment for passengers, along with the very real challenge of fitting something inside – such as a bicycle – even when that something has its front wheel removed.
In the city, I like the CX-3's compactness, and relatively unrestricted visibility when compared to the Mazda3's overall length and lower seating. But when both are equipped with their six-speed automatics, and the Mazda3 is spec'd with its available 2.5 liter DOHC four, there's almost no comparison in their performance. With that spec the hatchback has Mazda's well-hyped zoom, while the CX-3 makes do with nothing but a 4-cylinder boom.
The Mazda3 is genuinely responsive, and that acceleration is heightened by the availability of a 6-speed manual transmission with both the base 2.0 liter engine and the optional 2.5 liter mill. Conversely, the CX-3 offers only an automatic transmission on all three trim levels, and that automatic is tied to just 146 horsepower, a 39-horse deficit when compared to the Mazda3's 2.5.
If going into Mazda's online Build Your Own buying guide and spec'ing a Grand Touring variant of both the compact hatch and subcompact crossover, you'll configure two Mazdas, each costing between $27,000 (CX-3 front-wheel drive) and $28,500 (Mazda3 GT with standard 2.5 liter four). If parking in downtown Boston on a daily basis, I know I'd prefer the smaller footprint of the CX-3. If, however, I was driving around Boston, I'd enjoy the stronger performance of the Mazda3 Grand Touring.
The ideal, of course, would be for Mazda product planners to put the bigger engine in their smallest crossover. It wouldn't offer any more room, but you'd at least have the suggestion of zoom.