By Matthew DeBord

Matthew DeBord/BI

We call ‘em “cute utes,” and they’re increasingly all the rage. What are they? Subcompact crossover SUVs, the 21st-century version of the “econo-boxes” of the late 20th century — minus the box, but with lots of econo.

They’re also fairly adorable, wittle smushed-down SUVs that don’t resemble that 1990s hatchback, which screamed “college student” or “first job.” Hence the cute before ute.

We may be looking at a paradigm shift in the auto industry in the US, as carmakers abandon passengers cars — and small cars in particular, with their skimpy profit margins — and focus on SUVs and crossover. If that’s happening, then car companies don’t want to lose out on their youngest potential customers. It can be difficult to “conquest,” say, a Honda Civic buyer if Honda has perfectly good small SUVs to move them into.

So start them with a cute ute instead!

But which one? Well, that’s an easy question to answer. You aren’t going to find a better subcompact SUV than the Mazda CX-3.

Here’s why:

Behold, the 2017 CX-3: Grand Touring trim level, all-wheel-drive, “Dynamic Blue Mica” paint job.

Our test car tipped the cost scales at $28,500, and it had pretty much everything you could ask for (and pay for off the options lists). The base front-wheel-drive version can be had for only about $20,000.

I’ve owned three Mazdas (a Miata, a pickup, and a subcompact) and have always liked their looks: snappy without being too attention-getting. The CX-3 is no exception. It’s definitely not large, but it doesn’t appear to be a massive compromise on the proportions of a larger compact crossover. Mazda currently sells two other crossovers in the US: the CX-5 and the CX-9.

The CX-3 is entry level, but it’s all Mazda. Here’s the “mustache” badge, which dates from 1997 and is actually supposed to be an “M” crossed with bird wings.

The front-end styling is consistent with what many automakers are doing these days: angular, yet smooth, and sweeping.

The rear end is more low-key.

Mazda uses something called “Skyactiv,” a technology that aims to serve up good gas mileage without getting into hybrid or electric drivetrains. The CX-3 offers an impressive 27 mpg city/32 mpg highway/29 mpg combined.

The matte-black wheel arches provide the little ute with some needed heft. It’s an optical illusion to make the 180-inch wheels come off as beefier. And it works! This vehicle is actually a pumped-up version of Mazda’s no-longer-available Mazda 2.

The dual exhaust pipes are a nice touch.

Driving does matter! Mazda has always sought to satisfy the everyday enthusiast on a budget. The is a carmaker that used “Zoom! Zoom!” as a tagline, after all. We’ll see if the CX-3 lives up to expectations on that score.

The cabin is about as nicely appointed as can be for a sub-$30,000 car. The color on our tester was “Parchment.”

First mild gripe: The rear seat is quite cozy. My first grader actually felt a bit cramped. But hey — it’s a real back seat!

The cargo area under the hatch is also modest. But for the needs to most first-time car buyers or college students in need of wheels, it should be OK.

The leather two-tone seats were comfortable and pretty carefully detailed, for a ride at this price.

Nothing fancy here, but a completely modern treatment of the steering wheel — with all the necessary controls — plus a straightforward instrument panel.

Extremely basic cupholders.

But a rather expansive moon roof.

And places to plug stuff in. Yep, that’s a CD player.

All right, now dig this: a retractable heads-up display! It doesn’t display much info, but at this price, a cool feature.

The infotainment system has all the usual elements, from satellite radio to Bluetooth integration, to navigation.

Second gripe: I should note that nav took a while to get used to — Mazda could improve the user interface.

You can control the functions using this knob and the buttons between the front seats.

The Bose audio system is very Bose: right down-the-middle excellent. Mazda has packed seven speakers into the CX-3.

Our test car came with a six-speed automatic that can be put into manual mode, for paddle-shifting pleasure.

Flipping the CX-3 into Sport mode peps the performance up noticeably.

The CX-3 has some useful driver-assist features, including a lane-departure warning that is effective but a bit annoying: it creates a droning hum in the cabin, if the vehicle starts to drift.

What we have here is a 2.0-liter four banger, making 146 horsepower with 146 pound-feet of at-times buzzy torque (that’s my third gripe). But seriously, this is all motor, no turbocharger, simplicity itself, and it supplies plenty of zip.

Skyactiv power!

The engine looks sharp. Dig those exhaust manifolds!

And so, how does the CX-3 drive?

Believe it or not, I’ve driven the CX-3 on an actual race track. And it was tons of fun. I was using all of its 146 horsepower and carving up the corners with gusto. Was I going fast? Not really. The 0-60 time is around 8 seconds.

But I was getting close to the top speed of 120 mph.

In normal driving, the CX-3 is just terrific. I motored around the suburbs of New Jersey and made several jaunts into New York City in the week I sampled the vehicle. The bottom line is that although you aren’t going to feel like you’re in a Lexus, you are inhabiting an experience that’s about 10,000 miles above what we used to endure with inexpensive cars.

True, the CX-3 optioned as fully as our tester wasn’t cheap. But you can get the cute ute for thousands less than what we would have paid for the top trim level if we decided we didn’t want to give the car back.

Everyone wants to know what makes a good car for a first-timer. You have a college kid who needs wheels, or you’re on your own and require transportation. If you want to buy new, the CX-3 offers a great package: peppy performance, good handling, most likely adequate poor-weather performance with the AWD system (although we didn’t get to test it out in snow and muck), and plenty of technology.

Importantly, the CX-3 also has five-star frontal and side-crash ratings from NHTSA, and a four-star rollover rating. So safety is excellent, always a concern with smaller vehicles.

The CX-3 would also be a dandy city car, with its wee scale and what we expect would be a low cost of operation, coupled with Mazda reliability. It would even be a fine choice for downsizers who don’t care much about a luxury level ride, performance, or appointments.

The bottom line is an easy call: If you’re looking for a perfect first car, the CX-3 won’t disappoint you.

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Source:: Business By Insider