By Isaac Bouchard
Credit Buick with identifying the shift towards crossovers of all sizes, and getting the Encore out there before most; the reward is that this is now their best selling vehicle.
Mazda’s timing wasn’t bad, and its early test victories over most competitors in the subcompact class indicated the CX-3 is a leading contender.
While the two are very different takes on how to nail this segment, they share many similarities.
Both the Encore and CX-3 look great, with taught, tidy proportions and upscale detailing. The Mazda is sportier, since it has such a sleek greenhouse and 18-inch wheels on the Touring and Grand Touring models. While the Encore leans more towards the “cute ute” end of the spectrum, its truncated tail and recently updated lighting and fascias imbue it with enough chutzpah to seal the deal for a large pool of buyers.
Inside both are really 2+2s, with decent room for front seat passengers and very tight back seats. Fold those penalty benches down and cargo room makes them both useful vehicles for those at either end of the age spectrum, ideally without kids.
Both have interiors that feel of high quality: The CX-3’s is full of sporty accents like bright contrast stitching and jet exhaust-like vents; these complement the heavily bolstered seats, paddle shifters and fighter plane-aping head up display and insure the driver doesn’t feel like he or she is any old average vehicle.
The Encore’s update means nicer quality trim for the dash (actually much more enticing than that in the more expensive, recently tested Buick LaCrosse), upright seating and an intuitive infotainment touch screen. The Mazda’s is touch-reactive when stationary; once on the move a German-style wheel controller keeps eyes on the road more of the time.
They drive in a somewhat similar vein too; both are firmly suspended, with relatively low roll angles for a crossover, fast steering and actually quite absorbent rides.
Both are slow as compared to sedans: The Mazda’s 2-liter Skyactiv engine is normally aspirated, has torque and horsepower outputs of 146 each, and has to work hard to move its mass; the Buick has a 1.4–turbo that feels like a larger, unboosted engine once underway. The test vehicle had the more powerful of two such mills, with 153hp and 177lb-ft of torque. Each has a transmission that is unobtrusive and generally obedient. Brake modulation and firmness is decent in both machines.
Aside from their stylistic individuality—this class actually has a broad range of shapes, from the boxy Jeep Renegade to the funky Nissan Juke to bookend it—their personalities and performance are as differentiated as the size of the companies that make them.
The Buick comes from GM’s Korean arm, so while it is as Asian in some ways as the Mazda, it leans more towards the mainstream. It doesn’t encourage you to whip it down a mountain back road; it is more happy zooming around a congested city, where its upright shape and tall hip point make it easier to see out of and slot into tiny parking spots.
But this reviewer found it harder to find a comfortable seating position (due to the shape of the front headrests and upright angle of the steering column) inside the Enclave than the CX-3. A closer inspection shows the Buick’s seats to be faux leather compared to the Mazda’s actual hides—a real breathability bonus on hot summer days—and highlighted that the “domestic” vehicle is quite ambitious in its pricing.
The Japanese runabout is also quicker and more economical in real world use, though it could really use some insulation in the engine compartment; this motor, which seems refined in other Mazdas, is invasively noisy when pushed to its limits, which you must frequently do in Colorado’s thin air.
The Buick turbo has noticeable lag off the line here too, but once on boost is proffers more decorous—if thirstier—motivation. This is many down to it massing about 400 pounds more than the weight-optimized Mazda.
Both are 5-Star crash test rated and you can get semi-autonomous systems like emergency braking and lane departure warning to go with blind spot and rear cross path detection systems. Aside from the obvious price disparity, the distinctions really boil down to the more refined sensibility of the Buick (no surprise as a brand attribute) versus the exuberance and actual sporty mien the Mazda offers.
EPA ratings: 26/31mpg Buick; 27/32mpg Mazda
0-60mph: 8.4sec; 8.1sec Mazda
Price as tested: $35,575 Buick; $28,510 Mazda
4.5 Stars Buick Encore
4.5 Stars Mazda CX-3
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