Crossover Comparison: Honda HR-V vs Mazda CX-3

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The compact crossover market is one of the most hotly contested vehicle segments in South Africa. In this review, two Japanese rivals square off and despite some differences, both are rather good. Which one is the better buy, however?

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The crossover market has grown tremendously over the past few years and it’s easy to see why. There are numerous benefits to a crossover. It incorporates elements of ruggedness and hints at marginal off-road ability, a raised driving positions affords better visibility and it's easy to get you, your passengers and an assortment of luggage in and out of the vehicle.

The principle behind a crossover is simple. Take a normal family hatchback, raise its ground clearance, hike up the driving position a little, bolt on some cosmetic exterior and interior upgrades and you have a purposefully-styled vehicle that is compact, as well as versatile.

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The Mazda CX-3 strikes the first blow in this comparison simply because it is the better-looking contestant (courtesy of its sinuous Kodo design language). That’s not to say the Honda HR-V is unattractive; its looks are just more colour-dependent. The test unit's white finish contrasts well with the model’s black body cladding, for example. 

Whereas the HR-V boasts a fresh-looking interior with reasonable ergonomics, the CX-3's cabin is sportier, but feels a little sparse at first glance. Upon detailed inspection, you’ll notice both vehicles seem solid and well-built, but the Mazda feels like it is “built to last longer”.

The heated seats in the Honda are a welcome feature for those who have cold winters, while the HDMI port is a great way to connect devices. The Mazda is very well equipped and has very similar level of specification (satnav is available as an option), but given the price difference between the two, the CX-3 wins the specification-for-the-money battle.

The Mazda’s engine is the more refined of the two, plus it offers more power. What's more, the CX-3's automatic transmission has the edge on the Honda’s CVT by virtue of better responses to variable throttle inputs. The Mazda is also the more agile of the two, but its big wheels (and lower-profile tyres) impact negatively on its ride quality. If you're looking for a smoother ride quality (above everything else) from a driving experience, the Honda is better. 

As a stylish, fashionable and driver-focused offering, the Mazda adds a welcome element of sportiness to the segment. While the contenders are tied in terms of safety and fuel economy, in terms of driver enjoyment and outright value for money, the Mazda holds the edge.

However, the Honda is so much more practical than the CX-3 thanks to that trademark folding-seat setup and more spacious interior. By virtue of its versatility, space utilisation and superior ride quality, the Honda HR-V is the winner.

Both contestants sit near the top of the pile in the compact crossover segment. The Nissan Qashqai which is great to drive, boasts impressive levels of refinement and, provided you select the right engine/spec, offers sensible value for money. But the Nissan is the most expensive of the lot. Another Nissan, the Juke, has polarising looks, but is worth a look.

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What are we comparing?

The two vehicles featured in this comparative review are the Honda HR-V 1.8 Elegance and the Mazda CX-3 Individual Auto. They are the top-spec versions of their respective product line-ups and despite the price difference of about R45 000, there’s not much to separate the two.

The contenders were introduced to the South African market in 2015 as competitors to the Nissan Qashqai. There are two Honda HR-Vs to choose from: a 1.5 Comfort and 1.8 Elegance, while the Mazda has a one-engine, multiple trim-level line-up. The advantage goes to the Mazda for offering the consumer the choice of either a manual or automatic transmission.

Exterior styling

Both the Mazda and Honda have typical crossover design cues. They look rugged and purposeful, with a dashes of design flair added to the mix, plus daytime running lights that add to kerb appeal.

Design is such a subjective topic, but all our testers agreed that the Mazda CX-3 has the most striking design of the two. A particular highlight was those two-tone 18-inch alloy wheels, which are very stylish.

Summary: The Mazda CX-3 is the winner of the beauty contest thanks to its Kodo design language. That’s not to say that the Honda HR-V isn’t attractive. In the right colour, such as white, the HR-V is rather eye-catching too.

Interior design and finish

Both facias are contemporarily styled, feature-laden and dominated by large touchscreens. Ergonomics are good too.

However, there is a big difference insofar as build quality is concerned. As we've experienced before, the build quality of the Thailand-made HR-V is good, but not as good as that of the Japanese-made CX-3. While the Honda HR-V is not poorly made in any way, it’s just that the Mazda CX-3, which is the more affordable of the two, feels the most solid. 

The Honda offers a smartly designed dashboard and cabin, with plenty of practical places to put your keys and cellphone. We’re big fans of the USB/HDMI positioning. It is almost out of sight and prevents cables from being draped across the HR-V's transmission tunnel.

The Mazda’s cabin feels minimalist and sparse compared with the Honda. The infotainment controls have been placed on the centre console next to the handbrake, which frees up some space. There’s also a heads-up display on this top-spec model, but taller drivers will battle to find an ideal driving position to gain maximum benefit from the device.

Summary: The Mazda CX-3 has the sportier of the two interiors, but feels a little sparse at first glance. Upon detailed inspection, you’ll notice that both vehicles are solid and well-built, but it’s the Mazda that feels like it's built to last the longest.

Interior features

The price tags of these vehicles both fall under R400 000 and it’s impressive to see how much standard specification has been crammed into the Mazda and Honda.

The HR-V has climate control, auto lights and wipers, heated seats, cruise control, rear parking sensors and a multifunction steering wheel. It also features USB and HDMI ports, as well as Bluetooth. The infotainment and climate control functions are accessible via the touchscreen and while the system is fairly intuitive, it takes a few touch inputs for the system to recognise a command. Satellite navigation is possible through a smartphone app. Leather upholstery is standard.

The CX-3 offers rear park distance control, a reverse camera, cruise control, a multifunction steering wheel, climate control, auto lights and wipers and a heads-up display. There are USB (2x) and auxiliary ports, as well as Bluetooth connectivity and, as this is the top-spec model, partial leather trim with satellite navigation is available as an option. There are two ways to use the infotainment system: either use the controller dial located near the handbrake or the touchscreen. Given that in-car touchscreens are not quite as reactive as those of mobile phones, it’s best to use the dial and its adjacent buttons.

Summary: The heated seats in the Honda are a welcome feature for those who have cold winters, while the HDMI port is a great way to connect devices. The Mazda CX-3 is very well-equipped too and satnav is available as an option. However, given the price difference between the two, the Mazda CX-3 wins the specification battle.

Practicality

Honda's products are well known for their interior practicality. Thanks to its trademark seats, the HR-V's luggage area can grow from generous to cavernous, and a big mountain bike and its accessories can be loaded with ease. The split-loading bench allows the accommodation of a rear passenger even if you’re hauling abnormally long items such as curtain rails.

The Honda is a longer, wider and higher vehicle than the Mazda. While it’s not a huge difference, there’s a better use of space, which is evident in its boot dimensions. The Honda can swallow 393L worth of kit, but the Mazda only 264L.

There’s a sense of space in the Honda that the Mazda cannot replicate. The CX-3's cabin feels a little claustrophobic and very similar to the Mazda2 upon which it is based. The Honda has plenty of head and legroom for driver and passengers alike. The Mazda CX-3 is fine for driver and passenger, but rear legroom is a little tight.

Summary: The Honda trounces the Mazda in this department thanks to its patented seats that fold neatly into the floor. With this arrangement, loading capacity is exceptional and space generous. The Mazda CX-3 is comparably compact.

Powerplant and refinement

Despite the age of turbocharging being in full swing, both of these vehicles use naturally-aspirated motors. The Mazda and the Honda tested here are both automatics, while only the Mazda has the option of a manual gearbox.

The CX-3 has a 2.0-litre four-cylinder motor delivering 115kW and 204Nm. The brand has been a firm believer in its Sky-Activ engines, which are quite impressive. Power is fed to the front wheels through a six-speed automatic gearbox.

The HR-V's 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine produces 105kW and 172Nm and powers the front wheels through a CVT (as opposed to a conventional automatic). CVTs are supposedly lighter on fuel, which is something we'll address later.

The Mazda immediately feels the livelier of the two and offers an involving and youthful driving experience. The engine does get a little coarse towards the top of the rev range, but the mechanical noise doesn’t intrude into the cabin too much.

The Honda is the softer of the two and this is purely down to its CVT. These transmissions are the antithesis of performance driving and are instead tuned to deliver a smooth driving experience. When you’re not pressing on, the Honda offers a relaxing drive, but if you accelerate aggressively, the engine drones loudly enough to translate into the cabin.

Summary: The Mazda’s engine is the more refined of the two, plus it offers more power. The automatic gearbox is better than the Honda’s CVT as it’s more responsive.

Ride and handling

Neither these vehicles are performance orientated, which means ride comfort and refinement take priority.

Thanks to its compact dimensions, the Mazda feels the more nimble of the two vehicles. The Honda behaves more like a typical SUV and exhibits the kind of body roll associated with a higher crossover. Both suspensions soak up the bumps really well, but due to the 18-inch alloys on the Mazda, traversing bumps in the road can be a little jarring. The Honda’s 17-inch alloys fare a little better, but it’s evident that these lower-profile tyres aren’t happy on imperfect South African roads.

Summary: The Mazda is more agile than the Honda, but the latter offers a more absorbent ride.

Safety features

With families in mind, both the Honda and Mazda are well equipped in terms of active and passive safety features. Both vehicles come with six airbags, ABS with EBD and brake assist, stability control as well as Isofix mounts for child seats. Both vehicles come with rear parking sensors as well as full-size spare tyres.

Summary: It’s a tie in terms of safety. 

Fuel economy

Both vehicles offer average fuel consumption. Honda claims 6.8l/100km for its HR-V, while Mazda’s CX-3 is claimed to return just 6.1L/100km. In reality, you’re likely to see closer to around 7.5L/100km.

Summary: These two vehicles are evenly matched in terms of fuel economy.

Pricing and after sales

The Mazda CX-3 2.0 Individual Auto retails for R325 900. You get a 3-year/unlimited mileage warranty, as well as a 3-year/ unlimited mileage service plan. Mazda South Africa has 47 dealers.

The Honda HR-V 1.8 Elegance retails for R370 500. You get a 5-year/200 000 km warranty, as well as a 4-year/60 000 km service plan. There are 38 Honda dealerships in South Africa.

Summary: In terms of specification, engine and outright value for money, the Mazda CX-3 holds the edge. But, if you require optimal practicality, then you should not ignore the marginally more expensive Honda.

Verdict

Both contestants sit near the top of the pile in the compact crossover segment. The Nissan Qashqai which is great to drive, boasts impressive levels of refinement and, provided you select the right engine/spec, offers sensible value for money. But the Nissan is the most expensive of the lot. Another Nissan, the Juke, has polarising looks, but is worth a look.

As a stylish, fashionable and driver-focused offering, the Mazda adds a welcome element of sportiness to the segment. While the contenders are tied in terms of safety and fuel economy, in terms of driver enjoyment and outright value for money, the Mazda holds the edge.

However, the Honda is so much more practical than the CX-3 thanks to that trademark folding-seat setup and more spacious interior. By virtue of its versatility, space utilisation and superior ride quality, the Honda HR-V is the winner.

Compare these two vehicles here.

Buy a new Honda HR-V here.

Buy a new Mazda CX-3 here.

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