Test drive: The 2020 Mazda CX-30 is a world-beating small SUV

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The Mazda CX-30 is the best subcompact SUV in the world. Technically speaking.

The all-new 2020 model was picked as one of the three finalists for the World Car of the Year award, alongside the Mazda3 hatchback/sedan and Kia Telluride 3-row SUV. The Telluride took home the title, while the Mazda3 was named World Car Design of the Year.

Of course, these awards are based on the collective opinion of a small group of automotive journalists, many of whom think every vehicle--from the cheapest economy car to the brawniest pickup--should drive like a Mazda Miata and exhibit the beauty of a Michelangelo sculpture.

The thing about it is, the CX-30 kind of does.

The CX-30 is essentially the SUV version of the Mazda3, the two sharing their platforms, drivetrain and interior design. It’s slightly larger than the Mazda CX-3 SUV that’s been around for a few years, but a lot sleeker and not much more expensive. The sharp, stylish lines help it stand out some in a segment known for anonymous shapes.

The CX-30 is available in a range of front and all-wheel-drive models at prices from $23,000 to $30,700. All have the same 186 hp 2.5-liter engine and six-speed automatic transmission and come standard with automatic emergency brakes, radar cruise control and lane-keeping assist.

Work your way up the trim levels and cloth upholstery becomes leatherette then leather, while goodies like heated front seats, a 12-speaker Bose audio system and head-up display get installed along the way. Mazda’s been aiming to provide premium products at a bargain price, and the CX-30 fits the bill, especially in the top of the line Premium Package trim. The surfaces are covered in high-end materials that rival some luxury cars and the chic, clean design of the dashboard is both fashionable and functional.

It’s a tight fit in the rear, even by the standards of its class, which has a bolt upright seatback back that’s not great for long trips, but also a surprising amount of headroom given the relatively low roof and a healthy 20.2 cubic feet of cargo space behind it. Air vents are provided on the center console, but not a USB port, so tell your kids to bring the long cords that can reach the two up front.

There, drivers will find as perfect of a seating position as you can get in this type of vehicle and a steering wheel that feels excellent to the touch, but limited over the shoulder visibility due to the CX-30’s high beltline and bunker-slit windows. The perfectly competent infotainment system, which has Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration on all but the base model that allows you to skip the $450 navigation system charge, is controlled by an intuitive knob and button setup on the center console instead of a touchscreen.

The naturally-aspirated motor is lively and makes a nice sound, and the ride quality is the best you can expect in a tiny utility vehicle. The CX-30 strikes a nice balance between comfort and control that’s closer to the Mazda3. It does have an inch and a half more ground clearance at 6.9 inches, however, and is particularly impressive as it steps over bumps in the pavement without virtually no rebound. Mazda definitely did not mail this one in.

Fuel economy ranges from 24 city/31 highway in all-wheel-drive models to 25/33 with front-wheel-drive, which is better than some of its less powerful competitors and not too far off the Mazda3’s.

If you’re looking for an enjoyable to drive, wallet and city-friendly utility vehicle, and don’t plan on using the rear seats often, the CX-30 is tough to beat. The unpainted black rear bumper cover even adds a layer of  protection from unsightly paint chips for parallel parkers.

For those in more of a family way, the roomier Hyundai Kona or Kia Soul may be the way to go, but by all other measures, I’m going to have to agree with the World Car Awards jury on this one. From the driver's perspective, the CX-30 is the best.

(They were right about the Telluride, too.)

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2020 Mazda CX-30

Base price: $23,000

As tested: $31,370

Type: 4-door, 5-passenger all-wheel-drive SUV

Engine: 2.5-liter inline-4-cylinder

Power: 186 hp, 186 lb-ft

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

MPG:  25 city/32 hwy