The Mazda CX-3 might have been beaten to the market by Nissan, Renault, Honda and Holden, but its late arrival doesn’t seem to have done it any harm at all. The mini-SUV joins a Mazda line-up of cars that is handing out bloody noses to its rivals using a combination of looks, pricing and specification.

The CX-3 fits right in with the rest of the range while hopefully bringing with it the CX-5’s superior dynamics in a smaller package.

Value

There’s a slightly bewildering array of CX-3s, powered by either a 2.0-litre SkyActiv petrol or a 1.5-litre turbo-diesel. You can have a bare-ish bones manual front-wheel drive Neo for $19,990 or blow almost double that on an all-wheel drive Akari automatic. The big seller is the Maxx AWD at around $27,000, give or take a few bucks depending on transmission.

We landed ourselves the top-level Akari. This trim level is available with both engines, manual (petrol only) or auto and either driving the front or all the wheels. Our auto Akari front-wheel drive petrol weighed in at $33,290.

This includes 18-inch alloys, a six-speaker stereo with USB and Bluetooth, rear view camera and reversing sensors, keyless entry and start, cruise control, LED fog lamps and headlights, sat-nav, heads-up display, power everything, auto wipers and headlights, leather trim, (tiddly) sunroof and comprehensive safety package.

It’s lithe and athletic-looking, with a good mix of Mazda’s key design elements

There’s just one option (the safety package is optional in lower trims), the evergreen bargain that is the $200 Soul Red metallic paint.

Design

Mazda CX-3 hasn’t got a single bad angle to it, especially in this Akari trim with big alloys and plenty of body-coloured exterior parts. It’s lithe and athletic-looking, with a good mix of Mazda’s key design elements while managing to shrink the CX-5 without it looking desperate.

Light on the bling and with few unpainted body bits, it also avoids the mini-SUV cliche of trying to look big ‘n’ chunky. There’s a decent palette of colours, our car coming in the unexpectedly cool ceramic, a colour that changed very subtly with the light and looked like egg shells.

Inside is contemporary Mazda, which means clean design and good ergonomics, with a Peugeot-like flair for mixing textures to keep things interesting. There’s also a Peugeot-like knack for providing an irritating dashboard, in this case Mazda’s central-dial-with-wings that infuriates some in the ‘2 and ‘3 – too-small instruments packed into a big space.

Accommodation is adequate if not expansive, with head and shoulder room lacking a little in the rear, but kids will be perfectly happy. Rear kneeroom is good while there’s enough space to shuffle your feet under the front seat. Sadly, there are no air-con vents back here, which might mean some sweaty times aft.

The boot is adequate with a small hatch-like 264 litres (it betters the Mazda 2 by just 8 litres), expanding to 1174 when the seats are dropped. It has a nifty false floor under which you can sling laptops, tablets and whatever else you want to hide that roughly will fit in a depth of around 10cm.

The front seats are very comfortable but unfortunately the lack of armrest – a problem shared with its rival Renault Captur, for instance - makes for a less than appealing long distance proposition. Overall the cabin is light-on for storage. There are only two cupholders for the front and none in the rear, without even an armrest to balance drinks on - though that might be just as well…

Don’t get too excited about the head-up display, either – it’s projected onto a tiny retractable blade of glass and isn’t especially helpful but does mean you don’t have to use the silly main instrument panel to check your speed.

Safety

Six airbags, blind spot sensor, brake assist, stability and traction controls, rear cross traffic warning, collision mitigation forward and reverse, brake force distribution, ABS, hill holder, lane departure warning.

It’s not a bad engine but it doesn’t sound very good, with an unpleasant buzz getting into the cabin

The CX-3 earned five ANCAP stars.

Features

Mazda’s MZD-Connect takes pride of place on a 7.0-inch screen bolted onto the dashboard. It’s controlled by either touching the screen or with a rotary dial on the console, which is both refreshing and bewildering. Like the Holden Trax it can connect to your phone’s various conforming apps such as Pandora, but has its own sat-nav.

Engine

The Akari’s front wheels are propelled by Mazda’s SkyActiv-G (as in gasoline) 2.0-litre naturally-aspirated four cylinder, good for 109kW and 192Nm, from standard unleaded.

With i-Stop (stop-start), and a six-speed automatic transmission, Mazda claims a combined average of 6.1L/100km and a 0-100km/h time of just under nine seconds.

Driving

Let’s start with the weakest link in the CX-3 and that is the engine. It’s not a bad engine but it doesn’t sound very good, with an unpleasant buzz getting into the cabin when you’ve got even mild throttle on. Its 109kW is a bit weedy compared to similarly-sized rivals (or, more to the point, smaller turbos) and the torque figure is merely competitive. It doesn’t have to be a rocket, no, but it could have a bit more oomph and should be quieter than the naturally aspirated Holden Trax.

The keen steering is great for darting in and out of gaps in the traffic

Secondly, if you don’t like a firm ride, the CX-3 is not for you. But...

That firm ride means it’s the best handling small SUV on the road. Like big brother CX-5, it’s terrific fun to chuck around when you’re on your own, with great grip from the front tyres and flat cornering – it’s worth noting this is lowest slung of the mini-SUV crowd.

The Akari’s big wheels and fatter rubber make sure there’s unlikely to be anything going wrong unless you get really silly and the subtle interventions from stability and traction controls build further confidence.

Of course, nobody really does that with a CX-3. To drive around the suburbs, the keen steering is great for darting in and out of gaps in the traffic and the quick-ish rack means you won’t be twirling your arms parking.

The transmission is well-suited to the task, but don’t bother with sport, it’s a waste of time. Let the computer get on with the job without telling it to hold a gear for too long. It just gives you a headache.