On Autos: Toyota, Mazda crossovers where functionality comes last

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The 2018 Toyota C-HR’s exuberant styling is the most notable appeal of this imperfect subcompact crossover. (Photo by Brady Holt)

Most crossovers aim to be pretty functional vehicles. Typically high and boxy, they deliver a commanding seating position and ample space for passengers and cargo.

This is usually the norm in the subcompact crossover class. While these models tend to give up some space for city-friendly dimensions, models like the Honda HR-V, Kia Soul, Nissan Rogue Sport and Mitsubishi Outlander Sport still offer comfortable seating for four adults and a decent amount of cargo room. Maneuverable and easy to park, subcompact crossovers are logical choices for Northwest drivers.

But in two other recently-tested subcompact crossovers – the all-new 2018 Toyota C-HR and the newly-updated 2018 Mazda CX-3 – functionality was one of the last priorities. While both models have their appeal, buyers should be aware of their drawbacks.

The eye-catching C-HR was clearly designed to attract attention. Picture a low-slung sports coupe, but raised higher off the ground. Then add the tested car’s two-tone white and radiant green mica paint job and the standard 18-inch alloy wheels, and the result looks like a daring concept car you can take home.

By the standard of a sports car, the C-HR is actually rather functional. A higher seating position makes it easier to get in and out, and the front seats are quite comfortable. With five doors, it is easy to load and unload people and cargo. And it is relatively affordable, with a base price of $23,495 (including a suite of sophisticated safety features) and an EPA rating of 29 mpg in mixed driving.

However, the C-HR is no sports car. It is peppy and agile around town, to be fair, with eager performance off the line and tight, responsive steering in normal conditions. But with just 144 horsepower, the C-HR is neither quick nor quiet if you need to accelerate beyond about 30 mph. And if you push it fast around a corner, it quickly feels like the crossover that it is.

Meanwhile, the C-HR’s styling leaves it as one of the least roomy subcompact crossovers. That is no mean feat in a class of pint-sized vehicles, but Toyota achieved it. Credit the steeply raked rear windshield and the high floor.

The C-HR’s shape also cuts into rear visibility. A backup camera helps out while you are parking, as is true in almost every other current-model vehicle, but it is unusually small in the C-HR – occupying a small rectangle of the rearview mirror. Unfortunately, given the tight visibility, this is a car that needs a bigger rearview camera, not a smaller one.

There are also a few odd errors. The C-HR is available with few luxury features (no leather upholstery or even power seat adjustments), limited tech (an aging infotainment system and just one USB port), and no all-wheel-drive.

You do not have to rule out the C-HR if you love how it looks, but unless you must have a unique-looking crossover, shop the competition first.

The 2018 Mazda CX-3. (Photo by Brady Holt)

Meanwhile, the Mazda CX-3 manages to beat the C-HR as the least roomy subcompact crossover. The rear seat and cargo hold would be tight even in the smallest economy car, much less in a crossover. Any rear passengers will be squeezed, and expect to fold down the rear seat often.

It is a pity that the CX-3 is so cramped, because it is otherwise so appealing. Priced from $21,085 and rated for up to 31 mpg in mixed driving, the little Mazda is the luxury car of its class. The exterior is aggressive yet subtly classy, and the elegantly simple interior – with a leather-trimmed dashboard and “floating” center touchscreen – resembles an Audi or BMW.

Even more impressive, the CX-3 has polished driving dynamics that continue its premium vibe. While many subcompact crossovers feel like they were simply built to be cheap, the CX-3 embraces the benefits of being small. It is agile and fun to drive, and generally does not make you feel like you settled for a subcompact crossover – but that you actually prefer a vehicle this size.

That is not to say everything is quite perfect. The ride could be a little smoother and the acceleration a little quicker. The interior could have a bigger touchscreen, a more advanced smartphone integration, a sturdier center armrest and a better place to stash your phone.

But the biggest drawback is the size. Unless you are wedded to an especially small vehicle with all-wheel-drive, sporty handling and an affordable price, the CX-3 makes little sense as a crossover. It is easy enough to get similar virtues from a good compact hatchback – even the Mazda3 that is sold out of the same showroom. It does not have the high seating position or roomy interior of a crossover, and it is only sporty and fuel-efficient by crossover standards.

Here, too, there are reasons to buy one. Just do so only with full consideration of what you are looking for, and what sort of vehicles might meet those needs.