Driven (all too briefly): Mazda CX-30

Click ‘Sport’ and it’s sort of like a Miata with room for 5 and all their stuff

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The dry lake bed was not nearly as dry as it appeared and our time off-roading was cut short for fear of getting bogged down in the muck | Larry Edsall photos

With the world in lockdown, I really didn’t have an opportunity to give the 2020 Mazda CX-30 the sort of workout we usually do with such vehicles. I did drive it enough, however, to experience its i-Active all-wheel drive system on a not-nearly-dry-enough “dry” lakebed in the Nevada desert and, best of all, while on paved surfaces got to enjoy the Sport driving mode.

The CX-30 is a new model rolled out in conjunction with Mazda’s centennial celebration, which coincides with the 60th anniversary of the company’s first passenger vehicle, the R360 coupe, and the 50th anniversary of the formation of Mazda Motors of America.

By the way, it wasn’t Mazda itself that first imported its cars to the United States; it was Curtiss-Wright Aviation, which brought in a pair of 100S coupes in 1967. Mazda Motors of America didn’t start selling cars here until a few years later.

Break through the crust and there were a couple inches of water and clay turned to mud

Mazda traces its history back 100 years to the founding of Toyo Cork Kogyo Corporation, which in addition to the cork in the company’s name also produced machine tools. In 1931, it offered its first motor vehicles, 3-wheeled pickup trucks for the Japanese domestic market.

Mazda was a pioneer in using rotary engines, and about 30 years ago re-created and modernized the cherished British-style roadster in the form of the Mazda MX-5 Miata. Since then, we’ve enjoyed a little of the Miata spirit and driving dynamics in seemingly every subsequent Mazda. That’s a remarkable achievement that we’ve come to expect from, say, Porsche as it diversified its portfolio, yet unexpected from a more mainstream and mass-market automaker.

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Imagine, a little Corvette in every Chevrolet or a measure of Mustang in every Ford. But Mazda seems to have found the recipe of incorporating fun-to-drive throughout its lineup. 

And that includes the new CX-30, which Mazda says is its second vehicle — the Mazda3 was the first — using the latest evolution of the Kodo (Soul of Motion) design language and “combines the flowing beauty of a coupe and the strong proportions of an SUV.”

Though the CX-30 appears compact, it is surprisingly and comfortably roomy inside, and offers an impressive 20-plus cubic feet of cargo room between the upright second row and the closed rear hatch, which in our Premium all-wheel-drive example operates up or down at the touch of a button on the hatch or the key fob.

Pricing of the CX-30 starts at $21,900. There’s a Select version for $23,900, a Preferred package at $26,200 and a Premium version at $28,200. 

We drove the top-of-the-line Premium version with all-wheel drive. Features include the latest driver assists, plus leather interior with a powered driver seat and heated front seats, Bose audio, power glass moonroof, heads-up display, navigation displayed on a screen nearly 9 inches wide, and larger rear disc brakes and 18-inch wheels instead of the standard 16s.

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‘Sport’ mode makes 186 horsepower plenty of fun

On pavement, the CX-30 is typically Mazda spunky. Engage the Sport mode button on the center console and the 186-horsepower, 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine really comes alive, thanks in part to the way Sport bumps up the revs by several hundred and the 6-speed transmission keeps those rpm in the power range.

As we noted earlier, there’s a little Miata in this crossover utility vehicle.

The CX-30 offers its all-wheel drive with a new feature that Mazda calls Off-Road Traction Assist. To experience how it functions, we headed out to a not-quite-dry-enough desert lakebed popular with off-roaders. We got the CX-30 really dirty really quickly, but also left quickly rather than risk getting bogged down in the soupy conditions just below the mud-caked surface.

Though the AWD setup doesn’t add ground clearance compared with the front-driven version, we experienced enough to anticipate that the off-road setup would be very welcomed technology on forest trails, dry desert paths or snow-covered roads.

Sorry that we can’t be more specific, but we simply were not able to put the miles into this car that we normally do. Perhaps we’ll get another opportunity after the lockdown ends. In the meantime, we were very positively impressed by a vehicle that stands apart from the usual cookie-cutter crossover clutter.

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2020 Mazda CX-30 Premium AWD

Vehicle type: 5-passenger crossover utility, all-wheel drive

Base price: $28,200 Price as tested: not available

Engine: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder, 186 horsepower @ 6,000 rpm, 186 pound-feet of torque @ 4,000 rpm Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 104.5 inches Overall length/width: 173.0 inches / 70.7 inches

Curb weight: 3,408 pounds

EPA mileage estimates: 25 city / 33 highway / 27 combined

Assembled in: Salamanca, Guanajuato, Mexico

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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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