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Honda HR-V RS Vs Mazda CX-3 sTouring – head to head

Dan DeGasperi pits the newly face-lifted Mazda CX-3 against the new-to-the-range Honda HR-V RS. Are they the best buys in the segment?

2018 Honda HR-V RS Specifications

Price $31,990+ORC Warranty five-years, unlimited km Safety 5 stars Engine 1.8-litre petrol four-cylinder Power 105kW at 6500rpm Torque 172Nm at 4300rpm Transmission continuously-variable automatic Drive front-wheel drive Dimensions 4360mm (L) 1790mm (W) 1605mm (H) 2610mm (WB) Seats five Boot Space 437-1462 litres Weight 1305kg Towing 800kg (braked) Fuel Tank 60 litres Thirst 6.7L/100km claimed/8.8L/100km tested

2018 Mazda CX-3 sTouring Specifications

Price $29,790+ORC Warranty five-years, unlimited km Safety 5 stars Engine 2.0-litre petrol four-cylinder Power 110kW at 6000rpm Torque 195Nm at 2800rpm Transmission six-speed automatic Drive front-wheel drive Dimensions 4275mm (L) 1765mm (W) 1535mm (H) 2570mm (WB) Seats five Boot Space 264-1174 litres Weight 1210kg Towing 1200kg (braked) Fuel Tank 48 litres Thirst 6.3L/100km claimed/9.3L/100km tested

FACE-LIFTED versions of an existing model are often the best buys for consumers. When performed correctly, they should address key flaws identified in the three-to-four years since the current-generation of vehicle launched. And so it transpires with these small SUVs.

The Honda HR-V arrived in 2014, the Mazda CX-3 in 2015, and both have come in for a substantial mid-life upgrade this year. The former already takes a 10 per cent share of the small SUV segment, the latter 13 per cent, together making up almost a quarter of the class.

While in the past they have made a name for themselves in different ways, with the HR-V prioritising space and the CX-3 sportiness, things seem to change a bit for 2018. Honda has developed this racier RS version with sharper steering and firmer suspension, Mazda has upped storage room and quality inside, while both introduce road noise-dulling measures.

Could both $30,000-plus middle model grades, the HR-V RS and CX-3 sTouring, prove that patience makes the perfect small SUV?

What Are The Honda HR-V RS and Mazda CX-3 sTouring?

Of these small SUVs, the HR-V comes only with front-wheel drive, a 1.8-litre petrol four-cylinder and a continuously-variable transmission (CVT). It runs VTi ($24,990 plus on-road costs), VTi-S ($27,990+ORC), the RS tested here ($31,990+ORC) and VTi-LX ($34,590+ORC).

Honda HR-V Vs Mazda CX-3

The VTi buys 16-inch alloy wheels, auto-off headlights, cruise control, single-zone climate control and a new 7.0-inch touchscreen with satellite navigation. The VTi-S adds 17s, auto on/off headlights, foglights, keyless auto-entry with push-button start, leather-wrapped steering wheel and other safety items (see next section). This RS then includes 18s, black bodykit, auto on/off wipers, paddleshifters for the auto, leather trim and heated front seats. But it takes the VTi-LX to get a panoramic sunroof, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, electric-fold door mirrors, electric-adjust driver’s seat and the most active safety technology.

The CX-3 offers a choice of front- or all-wheel drive (FWD/AWD), 2.0-litre petrol or 1.8-litre diesel, manual or auto. That’s in Neo Sport ($21,790+ORC man/$23,790+ORC auto), Maxx Sport ($23,690+ORC/$25,690+ORC auto), sTouring ($27,790+ORC man /$29,790+ORC auto tested here) and Akari ($32,790+ORC man/$34,790+ORC). Once auto is optioned, the latter trio can be had with AWD for $2000 again, while diesel FWD ($28,090+ORC Maxx Sport), or diesel AWD ($34,190+ORC sTouring/$39,190+ORC Akari) are also available. So much choice.

Honda HR-V Vs Mazda CX-3

The Neo Sport gets 16-inch steel wheels with hubcaps, plus a 7.0-inch touchscreen with digital radio and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone mirroring (missing from all the HR-Vs). The Maxx Sport then adds 16-inch alloy wheels, auto on/off headlights and wipers, rear fold-down armrest, leather-wrapped steering wheel, single-zone climate control, sat-nav plus safety extras. This sTouring gets 18s, LED headlights, keyless auto-entry with push-button start, electric-fold door mirrors, part-leather, and head-up display, while Akari gets leather, heated and electric-adjust front seats, electric sunroof, and even more safety tech.

What About Safety?

As-tested, the $29,790+ORC sTouring FWD beats its pricier $31,990+ORC RS opponent for safety tech. Both get rear-view cameras, but only Mazda includes front parking sensors in addition to each model’s rear sensors, and only the CX-3’s autonomous emergency braking (AEB) works to 80km/h or at low-speed in reverse – the HR-V’s is to 32km/h, forward only.

The Honda even lacks a digital speedometer, and its LaneWatch system – which mounts a camera on the passenger door mirror and projects an image onto the centre screen when changing lanes – only works well in the daytime and without a driver-side blind-spot answer. Its rival not only gets a digital speedo, but also speed-limit sign recognition (a windscreen-mounted camera that looks for signs) and a proper blind-spot warning light on each mirror (or as with speed signs, side-traffic alerts are projected on the head-up display).

Disappointingly, though, lane-departure warning and automatic high-beam are reserved for the CX-3 Akari and HR-V VTi-LX flagships, though in the former case the auto beam is adaptive and blocks out only the strand of light affecting the specific vehicle ahead or oncoming. The latter also reserves forward collision warning for the top model grade, too.

Neither gets active lane-keep assistance, as is found across the line-up of another rival, the Toyota C-HR that starts from $28,990+ORC in auto.

What’s Are Their Interiors Like?

Pragmatically speaking, you could buy a CX-3 Akari manual for $800 more than this HR-V RS auto and hit the jackpot with all of the features mentioned in the above sections. But alas if it has to be auto, then the Honda makes up for its safety tech deficit with much more space.

Practically speaking, instead, the smaller Mazda (with 8.5 centimetres less body length, 7cm less height, 2.5cm less width) just can’t compete with its larger and more cleverly designed rival (which even places the fuel tank under the front seats to boost rear space…)

Honda HR-V Vs Mazda CX-3

Up front and the sTouring feels lower and snug, but a new centre console with extra storage and soft-touch leather-look trim boosts storage and class respectively. While some plastics used feel cheap (though its rival is no different) it wins soundly for infotainment. A brighter display is just the start, for a choice of touchscreen or rotary dial controller aids intuition, the software is quicker, and there’s excellent voice control too.

Honda HR-V Vs Mazda CX-3

The RS has one of the worst infotainment systems of any new car, by contrast. And contrast really is the word, because the tilted, afterthought-looking screen is terribly affected by sun glare. The sat-nav is slow with dud graphics, the single USB port is mounted on the unit itself, leaving a cord to dangle down, and there’s no digital radio, CarPlay/Android Auto or voice command – whereas in its rival, say ‘1 Smith Street, Smithville’ and the nav picks it up.

Honda HR-V Vs Mazda CX-3

The HR-V may have a long way to come back from here, but it leaves plenty of room to take that path. Cushy cushions up front and behind may be common to both, but it then strides ahead with vast extra legroom, a reclining rear backrest, and a bench that flips itself up into a sandwich – exposing a brilliantly low floor and delivering a split boot. We’re talking volume of 437 litres behind the rear seat, or 1462L with backrest dropped.

The CX-3 is cosy, but comfortable, and its square boot is usable but hardly big – here, the smaller dimensions take their toll, with a higher boot floor and unimaginative 60:40 split-fold backrest taking boot volume to 264L seat-up and 1174L seat-folded, or one-third less…

What Are They Like To Drive?

From here these two are neck and neck. It’s CX-3 for value, safety and infotainment tech, HR-V for space, practicality and versatility. On the road, though, the Mazda would historically stride ahead – but not entirely this time. Honda has sharpened the steering for the RS, making for a system that is responsive around town, rarely allowing a driver’s arms to cross over. The suspension is firmer, but it’s also plainly better. This isn’t an aggressive, sports-car tune, but one that helps this SUV feel tight and agile, yet not hard or harsh.

Honda HR-V Vs Mazda CX-3

It’s also a match for the sTouring, which thumps and bangs a little more through its same-sized wheels, has a bit more body wobble and can skim its nose over speed humps, which no SUV should and its rival avoids. The steering is also a little slower, though it’s still smooth. But this smaller, 95kg-lighter SUV does feel more rewarding to drive than a competitor built on more basic underpinnings. The more winding the road, the better the CX-3 feels, where the HR-V is a case of good springs and dampers; but no dynamic chassis.

That’s okay for this segment, though, and by this point it’s even-stevens again. Where the Honda falls is with its 105kW/172Nm 1.8-litre engine and CVT combo. For a 1305kg vehicle, it’s plainly not enough, making for breathless response and an auto that flares and carries on with little intuition. Around town, it’s okay. But Mazda’s 110kW/195Nm 2.0-litre feels a whole lot faster in a 1210kg vehicle, plus its six-speed auto is just about perfect – tight, not doughy, immediate, not laggy, as well as being superbly smart. It just makes it feel so much more alive, and enjoyable, than its rival. That said, both engines are as loud as road-noise isn’t – both include more sound-deadening measures and they work decently.

Honda HR-V Vs Mazda CX-3

At least the RS beat the sTouring by 0.5 litres per 100 kilometres on test (8.8L/100km versus 9.3L/100km – though at least both require regular unleaded). It isn’t enough to offset the increased servicing costs, though, with HR-V’s six-month/10,000km intervals costing $1761 to 2.5-years or 50,000km. The CX-3’s annual/10,000km checks ask $1031 to three years or 30,000km; or $1845 to five years or 50,000km.

So, Which One Wins And Why?

A vehicle like the HR-V that is small on the outside, with benchmark practicality inside, should have a Practical Motoring comparison test won. But practical measures are more than about sheer space, and the CX-3 strikes back for value, safety, tech and servicing.

On balance the Honda remains the more flawed option, with poor infotainment, average active safety and little in the way of performance compounded by a $2200-higher pricetag.

Yet the RS also hits higher highs than its rival, thanks to a superb blend of size and space, and finally quite good steering and ride quality – though that’s specific to this model grade only, while the sound deadening measures are RS/VTi-LX-only. For VTi and VTi-S buyers, it’s a half-finished facelift.

Whether you’re buying the sTouring or the Neo Sport, Maxx Sport or Akari, you get the same level of outstanding forward/reverse AEB, quieter cabin, powerful engine, engaging dynamics and very good infotainment (minus sat-nav on the entry-level only). The CX-3’s only downside is a lack of room, and that will be enough to relegate it for some to second place here. Otherwise, its broader value appeal and consistency hand it the overall win.

Honda HR-V Vs Mazda CX-3

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Dan DeGasperi

Dan DeGasperi