2016 Yahoo Autos Savvy Ride Of The Year: Mazda CX-3

Justin Hyde
Managing Editor

Have you ever owned a car that made you seem smarter? Maybe it wasn’t the flashiest or most gadget-filled, but you could get your friends and neighbors nodding in agreement when you talked about it. When we tested 22 of the most important new models of 2016, searching for our Yahoo Autos Savvy Ride of the Year, that’s what we were aiming for.

Through Wednesday, Yahoo Autos will unveil the 2016 Ride of the Year awards, our picks for the best of the best among new cars and SUVs. Check out our choices for the Tech, Epic and Fresh Rides of the Year.

The idea of a “car of the year” contest dates to a time decades before the birth of the SUV. This year, in several segments, buyers will chose more SUVs than cars, and it’s far more common to cross shop across body styles. For this year’s Yahoo Autos test, we rethought our contest to focus on the way people choose their vehicles today, comparing cars and SUVs together, and the result was our Ride of the Year.

For the Savvy Ride of the Year, our formula essentially boils down to “value plus common sense.” The average new vehicle now costs $32,000; money most people don’t have when they walk into a dealership to make the second-biggest purchase of their lives. The average commuter will spend 100 hours every year in their vehicles, and while there’s lots of pressure to overpay, it’s also easy to economize yourself into a rolling detention hall that’s your second home for the next several years. Our Savvy pick would recognize the best new vehicle in the sweet spot between those extremes; a vehicle that deserves your hard-earned cash.

Of the 22 vehicles in our field, fully half were mulled as potential picks, from the least-expensive car we tested (the $17,570 Scion iA) to $45,000 SUVs. Not every car we invited managed to show up; Chevrolet was unable to provide a new Chevy Volt in time, and Honda couldn’t provide the new Civic despite our invitation.

Working through the field, the standards became quickly apparent. Every new car should now have automatic emergency braking. Most will offer some combination of lane-departure system and rear camera with a warning system for objects behind you. The dash controls should work without needing a night class from a dealership IT guy. Power matters, as does driving feel, but so does fuel economy, even if most buyers don’t pay as close attention to MPGs as they once did.

A few trends quickly emerged. The larger SUVs in our contest—the Honda Pilot, the Ford Edge, the Hyundai Tucson and the Nissan Murano—were fine vehicles, but all roughly on the same level, with some superfluous gadgets that inflated their sticker prices. At the other end, the Scion iA had a few fans, but we found both it and the Scion iM to be slightly too focused on a rock-bottom starting price, to the detriment of long-term enjoyment.

After several days of driving, we found a couple of vehicles kept coming up in conversation. The most surprising might have been the new Chevrolet Malibu. The past two generations of Malibus have been near-misses in a field—midsize sedans—that doesn’t tolerate mistakes. The 2016 redo arrives more elegant from the outside and more comfortable inside; the 2-liter turbo Malibu with 250 hp and an eight-speed automatic transmission was finally up to the level of finish and amenities expected by the Camry/Accord/Altima crowd. (That it comes with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, unlike some competitors, will only add to its appeal.)

That said, the Malibu was fully priced at $34,285, comparable to the top-end in the segment, but not exactly a bargain. As we hunted for more value among our field, we soon coalesced around a smaller pick: the Mazda CX-3.

At $27,000, the small SUV had every major tech feature—auto braking, lane departure warning, automatic cruise—of the SUVs that cost $10,000 more. Unlike the slightly cheaper Honda HR-V, the interior of the CX-3 didn’t feel like an economy-class downgrade, from the stylish dash to the comfortable seats to the nice touch of a hidden phone storage slot in the driver’s armrest. The driving dynamics were typically Mazda; sporty without punishment, making the most of its 146 hp from the 2-liter engine, while delivering 29 mpg combined city/highway.

It looks, and drives, like a more expensive car than it is. And yes, size will matter to many; if you are parents with more than one child, the compact CX-3 will not really serve you well, But I would tell any young couple looking for an all-wheel-drive city ride to start here, and I wouldn’t worry if there was another passenger on the way.

If the CX-3’s so savvy, why didn’t it win our overall award? Well, it came close, but in the end our overall Ride of the Year was such a compelling combination of design, technology and driving enjoyment we couldn’t help but give it the honor. Come back Wednesday, and we’ll tell you what’s the best overall new vehicle of 2016.