In the ever-evolving world of the compact CUV – or, in the case of these two, perhaps I should say compact/subcompact CUV – the designations between vehicles are getting murkier and murkier.
Take these two, for instance: the Nissan is clearly the bigger vehicle, very much like a Rogue with a chopped rear end and the CX-3, more like a Mazda3 on stilts. It’s smaller inside, but as we embark out on this test, I’ll bet it will be the more fun vehicle to drive.
Ask either manufacturer, though, and they will list the other as one of the competitors to their car, along with the likes of the Subaru Crosstrek and Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross. It’s then that you realize that there simply isn’t really any point in classifying these things anymore; crossovers have become so ubiquitous that buyers are looking at other reasons to by a specific one, aside from just size considerations. Tech is important, styling is important, interior creature comforts are important and yes, even the drive is important at this level.
While it wasn’t so long ago that this would be a foregone conclusion – Mazda designs great-looking cars, and have done so for quote some time. Nissan, on the other hand, has their moments but their volume-selling CUVs tend to be a little more vanilla.
Not so this time, however. The Qashqai is shorter than the Rogue but has a more hunkered-down stance that does well to separate it from its larger sibling. Then there are the details like the gorgeous 18” two-tone rims on our SL Platinum tester as well as its Caspian Blue paint, even though it’s far from the wildest colour available for the Qashqai, a swatch that includes stuff like Monarch Orange, Scarlett Red and – wait for it – Nitro Lime.
Then there’s the CX-30, seen here in GT spec and finished in Polymetal Grey Metallic – and no, please don’t ask us what the heck a “polymetal” is – but also available in Soul Red Crystal metallic paint, a colour that continues to be one of the nicest shades of red you can get anywhere in the mainstream market. Trouble is, that’s kind of where it ends for the Mazda as the rest of the available colours are more muted than what you can get for the Qashqai.
Still, though: the CX-30 remains a sharp-looking thing, though how you feel about it kind of depends on how you feel about the latest Mazda 3 hatch. With the exception of the CX-30 having a slightly taller roofline, thinner c-pillar, slightly bulgier hood, a taller ride height and plastic cladding around the wheels and rocker panels, the CX-30 really is a spitting image of the 3. Which is OK as the 3 remains one of the better-looking compacts available today, but if you want your crossover to look a little burlier, the Qashqai is the better choice.
Inside, the Qashqai harbours the busier dash of the two, that’s for sure. There are more buttons on the more traditional centre stack and steering wheel spokes, the infotainment display is more colourful than that of the Mazda and so is the TFT display within the gauge cluster.
Don’t get me wrong, though – that is not to say the CX-30’s treatment is bad; it’s just a little more buttoned-down and, to be honest, classier. The centre stack is a super low-profile affair as it harbours controls for the dual-zone climate control system and that is it. Everything else is left to the infotainment controls in and around the main wheel atop the transmission tunnel.
It’s really tough to choose the Mazda here. The Qashqai is the bigger vehicle (but not so much bigger that it’s bulkier to drive) and as a result, is inherently more practical. It has more room up front and in the back (pretty much the same amount, in fact, as the Rogue) and more cargo capacity than the CX-30, even though that’s where the switch from Rogue to Qashqai is felt the most, as there is 40 per cent less storage behind the rear seats in the Qashqai as there is in the Rogue. The rear seats are easier to fold – I had the driver’s seat pretty much all the way back on its rails, and was still able to fully drop the rear seat without having to mess with its headrest – the cargo area gets a neat-o modifiable floor to better keep your wares in check and there’s better in-cabin storage.
I am a tad miffed, however, that there isn’t a great storage area up-front for your mobile device, just a square-shaped shelf of sorts at the base of the centre stack that isn’t all that useful. It appears that the switch to an electronic handbrake is to blame: the Rogue — with which the Qashqai shares a dash — used to use a foot-activated parking brake. Since the Qashqai’s is electronic, they had to find a spot for that lever and so half the surface area of the storage tray – which would be perfect for a phone – has been switched to the housing for the e-brake and auto hold button.
For its part, though, Mazda has done well with the space they have in the CX-30; the rear seat sits nicely flat one you get the headrests out of the way, the rear armrest can still be folded even with a child’s seat installed and that taller roof does add more cargo space overall.
Up front, meanwhile, there is a proper spot for your mobile device (and an option to add a wireless charge pad at the dealer), and since there are so few buttons on the dash as a whole, it’s a lot easier to navigate. This is especially the case for the controls mounted ahead of the driver’s left knee; there’s an eight-button bank on the Qashqai (though only six actual buttons) which can be tough to see while driving and tough to memorize because there are so many. There are far less in the Mazda, they’re easier to see and most of the controls housed there don’t need to be accessed while driving anyway.
While the Mazda’s storage bin can be accessed by just sliding the lid back a titch, I don’t love that you have to do so in order to flip it up entirely as it’s a slightly more awkward way of accessing the bin.
Features, Equipment and Safety Tech
Since both of these sit at the top of their respective trim piles, they both have the works: forward collision assist, blind spot assist, rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, fancy Bose Audio (though the Mazda has 12 speakers to the Nissan’s nine), Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, navigation and so on.
The Qashqai does get Nissan’s Around View 360-degree camera, though, which remains one of the best in the biz with multiple viewpoints. The Mazda only gets the one and it’s mounted a little low so lining up your park job can be a little tricky.
As mentioned before: how you feel about these two cars’ infotainment systems will likely also dovetail with how you feel about the interiors in general. Like it’s tuxedo-ish interior, Mazda’s native interface is monochromatic. It’s clear, but it’s tame. The Nissan’s, by contrast, is brighter and more colourful and is a touchscreen system as opposed to the Mazda’s affair, controlled by the central wheel. A wheel, as it happens, that’s flanked by the volume knob which is a perfect place to put it because it’s so much easier to operate while driving. The Nissan does get some traditional knobs, though, for volume and radio tuning (that measures seven inches compared to the Mazda’s 8.8”).
Performance, Ride and Handling, Fun Factor
At the outset of this test, I suspected that this was where the CX-30 would gain some points on the Qashqai. After all: the CX-30 is essentially a Mazda3 on stilts, meaning the continued existence of the great steering rack that car’s known for, properly-tuned dampers and a nice amount of pep from its four-banger, especially since my GT tester had the larger of two available engines: a 2.5L unit shared with the CX-5, good for 186 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque. It’s all fed through a proper six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters. That’s a heck of a lot of power for such a small car.
I say “proper automatic” here because the Qashqai gets a continuously-variable automatic (CVT), which doesn’t actually shuffle any gears at all. That makes for more linear acceleration, sure, but it’s also nowhere near as athletic and responsive as a traditional auto. Add the fact that the Qashqai weighs more than the CX-30 and makes 141 hp and 147 lb-ft of torque, you knew the Mazda would pull away.
You can tell at throttle tip-in that the CX-30 is the more responsive of the two, and the same sensation is felt all over again when at-speed. Sure, you have to first deal with the transmission’s kick-down but once done, highway passes in the CX-30 are made without drama, while the Qashqai takes a little more patience. It will get you there, but not as quickly and more noisily, too, as that’s another quarrel with CVTs. The CX-30 really and truly feels like a performance-lite hatch when pushed, while the Qashqai feels like the people mover it is.
At this level, it doesn’t really come down to price as both of these top-spec models hover at around $35,000. At base, though, the Qashqai undercuts the CX-30 by about two grand. That’s understandable as the Mazda is the newer vehicle, has more power even though the base car gets the smaller 2.0L engine, heated front seats, alloy wheels, and the same larger infotainment display the GT gets. At the top level, though, the equipment packages are pretty much right on between these two so it really comes down to whether you crave the space afforded by the Qashqai, or the performance afforded by the Mazda. Both are important features, but since we’re not really talking performance CUVs here, I think I have to hand it to Nissan in the value department when taking the top-spec vehicle we see here.
But is it the one I’d have? I’m not so sure.
I think that if moving your family of four were the goal, both of these would be too small; the Rogue or CX-5 would be the better options. These two are much better equipped for couples or families of three, at which point the amount of room inside doesn’t matter quite as much and if that doesn’t matter, then it’s the Mazda for me thanks to its drive and features. I think the bigger question is how those considering the Mazda3 hatch would have their knickers in a twist with the arrival of the CX-30. After all: Canadians love their crossovers, even if they’re only a titch bigger than the cars on which they’re based.
You do really have to hand it to Nissan, though, for taking the tried, tested and true formula of the hot-selling Rogue and making it a little less serious and a little more fun in creating the Qashqai. It sells in big amounts worldwide, and it’s easy to see why. The Rogue is a tough nut to crack on the sales front, but smaller families looking at one should absolutely give the Qashqai a shot.