Drive: 2021 Mazda's CX-30 features a powerful engine

The lesson we learned from our week with the Mazda CX-3 a few years ago was that it's impossible to build a subcompact sport-utility vehicle to our liking. We arrived at this conclusion based on the fact Mazda's midsize SUV, the CX-5, has long been our favorite in a segment that's crowded with quality models from South Korea, Japan, Europe and the United States. If the creator of the CX-5 can't get it right on a smaller scale, we reasoned, no one can.

That may help to explain why the CX-3, which has been discontinued, never came close to matching CX-5 sales even though it was more fuel-efficient, inexpensive and easier to park, thanks to its small size. The CX-5 was that much better in terms of ride, performance, seating comfort and utility.

But Mazda didn't give up on the idea of a smaller stablemate for its popular midsize SUV. The result was the CX-30 - bigger than the CX-3, and a much better car.

We test-drove a CX-30 in Premium Plus trim, with all-wheel drive and a turbocharged 227-horsepower engine that gets a boost to 250 hp if supplied with 93-octane unleaded gasoline. It's rated at 22 mpg city, 30 highway - competitive with the Honda HR-V, Hyundai Kona and Toyota CH-R, but not with the Hyundai Kona Electric.

The CX-30 was a delight to drive in every way. Its ride was firm yet composed, and the engine produced ample power. Handling was about what we always expect from a Mazda - that is, excellent. The interior was quiet. The only deficiency was rear-seat knee room, which was too tight for adult passengers seated behind tall drivers.

Our test car was priced at $35,995. The base CX-30 2.5 S, with a normally aspirated 186-horsepower engine and front-wheel drive, starts at $22,050. Even at this minimum level, Mazda provides such features as lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control, forward collision mitigation, drowsy-driver monitor and automatic high beams. Adding blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert requires moving up to the Select trim, starting at $24,050.

Our test car came with such features as dual-zone climate control, satellite radio, navigation system, heated power seats and heated steering wheel, power liftgate and leather upholstery.

The CX-30 holds 20.2 cubic feet of luggage behind the rear seat, and 45.2 cubic feet of cargo when the rear seat is lowered - more than the Toyota, about the same as the Hyundai, and less than the Honda. With the rear seat lowered, the Mazda's cargo deck is nearly seamless but slopes upward slightly.

Despite being a new model, the CX-30 has performed well in crash tests - earning five stars across the board in government tests, and a Top Safety Pick Plus rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The CX-30 is also off to a good start as a strong seller, attaining 38,064 units sold in 2020. That's more than the CX-3 sold in the United States in any two years.

2021 Mazda CX-30 Premium Plus AWD

Price: $35,995

Engine: 2.5-liter turbocharged inline Four, 227 horsepower, 310 lb.-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed shiftable automatic

Drive: all-wheel

Weight: 3,505 lb.

Suspension: MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear

Ground clearance: 8 in.

Wheels: 18x7-in. aluminum alloy

Tires: P215/55R18 all-season

Seating capacity: 5

Luggage capacity: 20.2 cu. ft.

Maximum cargo room: 45.2 cu. ft.

Fuel capacity: 12.7 gallons

Fuel economy: 22 mpg city, 30 mpg highway

Fuel type: regular unleaded gasoline

Steven Macoy (semacoy@gmail.com) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.