Funny thing about Mazda. For a brand that has burnished an image for delivering a more sporty and dynamic driving experience than most of its key Japanese competitors, it has routinely fallen short on power. That’s something the automaker aimed to address a couple years back with the addition of a turbocharged version of its familiar SkyActiv powertrain.
Originally launched on the CX-5 and then added to the Mazda3 line, the 2.5-liter turbo package is now making its debut under the hood of the 2021 Mazda CX-30. And what a difference it makes, finally adding the sort of zoom-zoom the crossover has needed to harken back to Mazda’s long-running former ad slogan.
There are few vehicles that, to my mind, can’t be improved with a bit more power. In the case of the CX-30, the 2.5 Turbo engine is simply transformative.
In this SUV-crazed era, automakers are looking for every possible bit of “white space” to slot in yet another offering. With the launch of the CX-30 in 2019, Mazda managed to carve out a niche we didn’t know was there between the CX-3 and CX-5 models. Why not call it the CX-4? Don’t ask.
The CX-30 offers the latest take on Mazda’s distinctive Kodo, “Soul of Motion,” design language. The overall look is surprisingly simple yet elegant, the crossover featuring sumptuous curves that play with light like good sculpture.
The big news with the 2021 Mazda CX-30 2.5 Turbo is the availability of the 2.5-liter Turbo engine first introduced on the bigger CX-5. If anything, it delivers an even more exhilarating experience in this smaller, lighter machine. Mazda has also added some appealing new features to the turbo model, including its Traffic Jam Assist feature which is meant to ease the tedium of driving in heavy traffic at speeds up to 40 mph.
Overall, Mazda’s goal is to create a “class above” product that climbs out of the entry-level cellar that most of the products in this size class compete in. Despite its relatively affordable price, the Japanese brand aims to target premium and even true luxury competitors with the CX-30 2.5 Turbo. How well it succeeds is something I aimed to determine after spending the better part of a week in the new model.
The use of what Mazda designers call a “Sori Curve” also has the effect of making the CX-30 look larger than its actual dimensions. That’s enhanced by the use of an oversized grille, with cats-eye headlights sweeping into the front fenders, as well as a tailgate that is markedly broader than on Mazda’s CX-3.
The Turbo adds a few nice touches, including new chrome accents, inside and out, larger exhaust pipes and revised black cladding around the wheel wells that make it look almost like the body itself is floating above what, on the Turbo, are now 18-inch matte black alloy wheels.
While sharing the same underpinnings as the four-door Mazda3 sedan, the overall effect is of a more rugged utility vehicle, further enhanced by a modest increase in ride height.
Where Mazda stylists have really excelled is inside the cabin which has a clear, class-above feel. As with the exterior, there’s an elegant simplicity, without all the added detailing meant to make it seem like you’re getting more than you paid for.
Mazda designers went with a broad, subtly wing-shaped dashboard enhancing the sense of width of the CX-30. The symmetrical layout of the instrument panel creates a cockpit feel and everything is easy to read behind the steering wheel.
The centerpiece of the cabin, quite literally, is the infotainment display that is positioned relatively high, and slightly set back, atop the center console. It demonstrates the thinking that Mazda’s product development team put into the new car. The placement makes it easier to glance over without taking your eyes off the road for long and, by pushing the screen back a bit, it’s easier for older eyes to focus on the display.
While the overall look isn’t quite up to luxury levels of refinement the CX-30 cabin is a definite step up from the likes of Mazda’s mainstream competitors. But, if there is anything to gripe about it’s the lack of rear seat legroom. With someone of my height – 6 feet, 2 inches – sitting up front, those stuck in the back won’t have much room to move about.
The launch of the 2.5-liter turbo engine was transformative when it first arrived in the CX-5 a short while back. Mazda has taken things a step further here – if for no other reason than the lighter mass of the CX-30 2.5 Turbo. While the automaker doesn’t release 0-60 numbers, the general consensus was that it would take the naturally aspirated 2.5-liter engine about 8 seconds to hit that mark. A rough estimate suggests the Turbo is down in the low to mid 6-second range.
Better yet, power comes on strong and fast – and with no apparent torque steer or turbo lag, the latter the result of a creative exhaust layout that gets the turbine spinning all but immediately.
Where the base 2.5-liter SkyActiv-G engine makes an acceptable, though far from inspiring 186 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque, the turbo bumps that up to as much as 250 hp and 320 lb-ft. That requires the use of premium fuel, however. For those who want to save a few bucks per tankful, 87 octane gas will still deliver 227 hp and 310 lb-ft, with Mazda claiming only the slightest degradation in off-the-line performance.
One surprise was the decision to pair the inline-4 engine to a 6-speed automatic, though we found it doing little hunting and seeking during our days behind the wheel. Power is then delivered to all four wheels through Mazda’s i-Activ All-Wheel-Drive system. More on that in a moment.
As for fuel economy, the 2021 CX-30 Turbo makes a decent 22 mpg city, 30 highway and 25 combined.
Technology and Safety
One of the more controversial moves by Mazda of late has been a move away from touchscreen infotainment displays. Instead, the automaker has decided it’s easier to operate the system using either voice, steering wheel controls or the rotary knob on the center console. To my mind, the automaker is right. The knob requires only a slight bit of learning to master and makes it easy to do things like zooming in and out on a map display. Meanwhile, Mazda’s voice recognition has improved during the past couple of years but still needs work.
The display is set back just enough that a touchscreen would be not just useless but potentially distracting to reach. That said, I’d like to see Mazda increase its display area a bit more during a mid-cycle update.
The Traffic Jam Assist system is one of the latest examples of an industry rushing to take the burden off the driver, especially in the most unpleasant of driving conditions. “This is not an autonomous driving feature,” stressed Matthew Valbuena, a Mazda tech manager, but it applies steering assistance in “tedious stop-and-go situations.” It’s reasonably effective at speeds up to about 40 mph but many buyers will likely question whether it’s worth the added cost.
One of the nicer features is the enhanced surround-view monitor that proved extremely useful while parking and in a variety of other situations. When driving off-road, meanwhile, you can use one of its various modes to see rocks and other obstacles normally blocked by the hood, a real plus.
There’s not much to dislike about the new turbo-four powertrain, certainly if you don’t mind paying a bit more for maximum performance. But, even on regular fuel, it delivers a big improvement over the naturally aspirated CX-30.
All versions of the turbo edition come with AWD, and that’s a good thing because the i-Activ system is extremely effective at delivering torque to the right wheels at any particular moment. What’s especially impressive is what happens when you switch to off-road mode. Mazda engineers have come up with an entirely different algorithm that can sense what you’re driving on and respond accordingly. You won’t find yourself in a situation where all the torque is being delivered to a wheel that’s spinning freely in the air as you struggle to get traction.
One of the more creative concepts Mazda has come up with in recent years is called g-vectoring. It’s easy to confuse it with torque vectoring where power is diverted to outside wheels to help push you through a corner. True, the system does enhance steering, especially around tight corners, but, as much as anything, g-vectoring just makes things feel smoother, with less tossing about of drivers and passengers.
While not quite an MX-5 Miata, the 2021 CX-30 does a good job of delivering on the Mazda philosophy summed up in Japanese as “jinbai itai,” essentially translating as “horse and rider as one.”
The crossover has a lot going for it: good looks, useful technology, and about the best power in the segment before you get into performance luxury alternatives like a Mercedes-AMG GLB.
True, there are a few things to grumble about, starting with the marginal interior space, but the competition generally doesn’t do any better.
The base, non-turbo version of the crossover starts at $21,900. The 2021 Mazda CX-30 2.5 Turbo jumps to $29,900, and a near fully equipped model with the “premium plus” package will push that to $33,900.
Considering what you’ll pay for other products in that class those numbers seem more than fair. Mazda is hoping you’ll think of the CX-30 Turbo as a premium product, something you’d put up against a Mercedes as much as a Hyundai. We’re not sure how many customers will buy into that line of thinking, but we expect the turbo to clearly expand the appeal of what’s already Mazda’s second best-selling product line.