Mazda's new-age mini-SUV resets the benchmark.

We've had contenders and pretenders but now it's time for the best of the new-age SUV tiddlers.

It's the standout among the new arrivals

The Holden Trax and Ford EcoSport are too clunky and old-fashioned. The Subaru XV — despite a price cut this week — is still too dear and let down by its CVT auto and a boot that's gobbled by a full-sized spare.

The Honda HR-V wins with space but loses on price and quality flaws, while the trendy little Renault Captur is really too little in the engine room.

So we come to Mazda's candidate: the CX-3.

It's the standout among the new arrivals. It has everything from a $19,990 base price to a choice of 14 variants and the quality and comfort we've come to expect in everything with a Mazda badge.

It's easy for anyone to build the car they want

It also looks good, not just to my eyes but to everyone who wanted to talk about the CX-3. Many liked the funk factor of the Captur, a few liked the size and shape of the HR-V but everyone had good things to say about the cuteness of the baby Mazda.

It can also be delivered with petrol or diesel engines, front or all-wheel drive, six-speed manual or automatic gearboxes and safety kit including automatic emergency braking. Equipment grades start from Neo and ascend via Maxx and sTouring to top-spec Akari.

All the choices mean it's easy for anyone to build the car they want, although the top-end pricing leaps beyond $30,000 and that takes it into much tougher territory — perhaps even an in-house battle with its larger sibling, the more family focused CX-5.

Mazda is not sure yet on who is buying the car or what they want most, which is one reason for the scattergun approach to CX-3 marketing.

It also wants to ensure it has cars sitting on the sweet spots for pricing.

But we already know it's a huge hit with sales tracking towards the top of the class, where the Nissan Qashqai (recently renamed from Dualis) is the one to beat.

A tight feel that means it's sharp in the city but reasonably relaxed on the highway

The shortcomings of the CX-3 are obvious — lack of space, most notably in the boot — but its strengths come front-and-centre when I drive it back-to-back with the HR-V and Captur.

It is more lively, more car-like in corners and has a tight feel that means it's sharp in the city but reasonably relaxed on the highway.

In a lot of ways it's a Mini. That's a good thing, because the Mini is youthful and fun, and that's exactly where Mazda is going with the CX-3. But with a much sharper price.

The CX-3 is based on the new Mazda2, which was a CarsGuide Car of the Year finalist last year and actually trumped the bigger Mazda3 with our judging panel.

So we know what to expect in the look and layout, especially the cabin and controls. The large central multimedia screen looks good and works well, the minor controls have a solid feel and the seats are comfortable and supportive.

Mazda says the CX-3 is a five-seater but that would be stretching any friendship, and I worry about loading a pram or toddler gear in the baby boot.

Mechanically, the CX-3 benefits from Mazda's latest Skyactiv package. Engine options are a punchy 2.0-litre petrol four (109kW) and a 1.5‒litre turbo diesel (270Nm).

The six-speed manual is slick and the ratios in the six-speed auto are well chosen with a touch-change manual mode.

My test car is fully loaded, which is not good because I worry that the fruit will mask the basics. But it all comes through and I'm able to enjoy the drive.

The $32,000 deal includes all the extra safety features, including auto braking and blind-spot assistance. I would never spend that much on a CX-3.

I think the basics are just fine and somewhere in the mid-$20,000s, allowing for an automatic and a bit of extra enjoyment, would pull me up.