Even before it hits the road, Mazda’s all-new CX-3 wins a prize as a great-looking small SUV.

This sharply-designed package, inside and outside, follows the recent trend of handsome Mazda models including the Mazda2, Mazda3, CX-5 and Mazda6.

And the next-generation MX-5 roadster – smaller and lighter – promises to be cracker, but meanwhile the CX-3 should keep Mazda dealers satisfyingly busy.

Small SUVs have been the fastest-growing part of the Australian new-car market over the past year. This is a segment bursting with contenders from every major brand and a few minor ones.

So unsurprisingly Mazda says the CX-3 arrives to unprecedented customer interest – 33,000 prospective buyers registered on-line and 8500 waiting waiting for a test-drive.

They will find an easy to understand line-up of 14 models, with a keen starting price of $19,990 plus on-roads.

There are four models, Neo, Maxx, sTouring and Akari and choices of two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, 2.0 litre petrol or 1.5 litre diesel engines and manual or automatic transmissions.

All but the Neo are available now – its production starts in Japan next month – but I’m predicting few buyers will bother waiting for the ‘cheapie’ after they see what the dearer models offer.

The CX-3 is built on the chassis of the Mazda2 hatchback. It shares the 2’s wheelbase but is bigger in all other outside dimensions, although by SUV standards the roof height is low. Compared another way, it’s shorter, narrower and taller than the highly-popular Mazda3, meaning it’s an SUV that won’t hog your garage space.

The interior is adequate rather than roomy. Likewise the boot, which Mazda says surprisingly isn’t a priority for the 25 to 35 year-old unmarrieds who are prime targets for this car. Bikes, surfboards and kayaks go on the roof, anyway, while extra space is available under a false boot floor or by folding the back seats.

The Neo should get buyers in the showroom door with its sub-$20K price and comprehensive features list including all the usual expected items plus push-button starting, hill-start holder and reversing sensors.

A $1030 Safety Pack available for Neo, Maxx and sTouring provides emergency city braking, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert system.

Throw in an optional $778 reversing camera on the Neo – it’s standard on all other models – and for less than $21,800 you have a 2.0 litre wagon built by a premium Japanese manufacturer with virtually all the main safety, comfort and convenience features. That’s Value.

Step up through the Maxx, STouring and Akari ranges and the offering for the most part is merely icing – alloy wheels, navigation, head-up digital speedo on the windscreen, LED lighting, leather upholstery, automatic headlight dipping and many other features.

All of these are worth having and the Akari wraps them all up from $31,290, but the Neo with safety options ticks all the important boxes.

The petrol engine delivers 109 kiloWatts/192 Newtonmetres for decent performance, including 6.1 litres per 100 kms average fuel consumption. The diesel’s figures are 77 kW/270 Nm and 4.8 litres/100 kms.

While the petrol motor is available with the cheapest CX-3, the diesel range starts at Maxx level and comes only with automatic transmission. At $26,790 the least expensive diesel, the Maxx two-wheel drive, costs $2400 more than its petrol equivalent.

Optioned with the above-mentioned Safety Pack, the 2WD diesel Maxx is my pick of the 14-model CX-3 range.

Buyers who require all-wheel drive will pay at least $26,390, for the petrol Maxx.

Having tried both petrol and diesel engines on an introductory drive, it’s difficult to say if one is preferable to the other. The petrol gives stronger open-road performance at the price of higher fuel consumption; the diesel is the pick for economy and around-town accelerator response.

Roadholding and cornering behavior feel well controlled, due perhaps to the CX-3’s lower height than some small-SUV rivals. Ride comfort is good, although as with every car it drops off slightly as wheel diameter increases and tyre height decreases.

The CX-3 hits the spot. It offers compact good looks, performance, quality and whatever specification you want without breaking the bank.