Sometimes, a car can stand out so positively in certain ways that it is worth forgiving its weak points. Other times, however, a car’s strengths can leave you blind to any flaws. The latter is a far more dangerous proposition, because you might only notice a vehicle’s downsides after you’ve already driven it off the lot.
Such a trap is easy to fall into when considering a pair of subcompact crossovers, the all-new 2018 Toyota C-HR and the freshly updated 2018 Mazda CX-3.
The Toyota mixes concept-car styling with five-door practicality, an elevated seating position, respectable gas mileage and an affordable base price of $23,495. The Mazda, meanwhile, trounces its ordinary-feeling competitors’ driving dynamics with sporty handling that makes it feel comparatively luxurious.
But look carefully at both of these crossovers before buying. While they may indeed fill the right niche for you, their compromises can also leave you wondering: “But... why?”
Let’s assume that you love how the C-HR looks, because there’s little reason to consider it if you don’t. (More sensibly shaped competitors, understandably enough, offer more practicality.) It’s styled like a rakish coupe, just elevated to reach the height of a small crossover. And although it’s an affordable model, nothing in the exterior styling screams “mainstream economy car.” Big 18-inch wheels, bold colors and a two-tone paint job, and an aggressively hunched-forward profile turns heads more easily than a luxury car.
But... why is it so slow? Why doesn’t it offer leather upholstery or a sunroof? Why does it only have a smallish, dated infotainment screen on the dashboard, and why is there just one USB port?
Based on how it looks, the C-HR seems like it should be fancier, more modern and more fun than its competitors – but it actually lags the class norm in all three ways. High-end safety features are standard equipment, but luxury gear is oddly absent. Smartphone integration is lacking, with no Android Auto or Apple CarPlay compatibility. The noisy four-cylinder engine is only peppy at low speeds, and the well-weighted steering loses its verve as soon as you try to push the car harder.
Toyota also doesn’t offer the C-HR with all-wheel-drive, which is available on most competitors. Why?
That’s not to say the C-HR is fatally flawed. Most vehicles with such out-there styling are hopelessly impractical, or at least less useful than this Toyota. The C-HR’s low roofline and small rear windows cut into interior room and outward visibility, but there’s still more passenger and cargo space than you’d find in a sports coupe. And if you’re not picky about acceleration performance, you can appreciate the C-HR’s EPA-estimated 29 miles per gallon in mixed driving. It also boasts comfortable front seats and a smooth ride.
Just be aware of the CH-R’s weaknesses before falling in love with it. And if the looks repulse rather than attract, you’re not missing too much.
The CX-3, meanwhile, is appealing in most ways – yet Mazda misses one important mark. That’s interior space. There’s less room behind the rear seat, 12.4 cubic feet, than you’d find in the trunk of a normal small sedan. The rear seat itself is also tight for adults, and the driver’s seating position is more like a car’s than an SUV’s.
So... why? Why buy the CX-3 over a good hatchback, such as the roomier, more powerful, more fuel-efficient and less expensive Mazda3 sold in the same dealership? The CX-3 does offer all-wheel-drive, which the Mazda3 lacks, and does have a slightly higher seating position. But unless the subcompact size or the lowest possible price is vital, yet another Mazda – the excellent CX-5 compact crossover – is likely the better fit.
The CX-3 rewards its drivers with best-in-class handling and a clean, minimalist interior whose high-end vibe suffers only from a creaky center armrest. It’s priced from $21,085 and gets up to 31 mpg in mixed driving. In other words, this vehicle’s strengths are those most associated with cars, while its weaknesses are those most associated with crossovers. If you like the CX-3, check out not only the Mazda3 but also the competing Honda Civic and Ford Focus hatchbacks.
Meanwhile, some other subcompact crossovers to consider include the value-priced Kia Soul, the hardy Subaru Crosstrek, the refined Buick Encore, and the spacious and generally decent Honda HR-V and Nissan Rogue Sport.
Note, though that few of these subcompact crossovers is a truly excellent vehicle. They’re generally either pleasant but compromised, like the CX-3, or they’re desirable only to buyers who benefit from the smallest exterior dimensions. The latter type, such as the HR-V, Rogue Sport or Chevrolet Trax, are typically just a few thousand dollars less than much roomier and more refined compact crossovers, such as the same brands’ excellent CR-V, Rogue and Equinox.