Life is becoming increasingly fraught for car makers and motorists
With rising fuel prices, widening concerns about the environment and ever worsening traffic congestion in cities, life is becoming increasingly fraught for car makers and motorists.
The idea that we’re all going to carry on enjoying driving when and where we like is naive, to say the least.
We need to fend off the inevitable day of reckoning for as long as we can.
So it’s heartening to see a manufacturer like Mazda making a real effort with its latest new model to engineer worthwhile improvements that are totally in tune with our times.
Usually, the plan with a new model is to make it bigger and heavier, but the latest Mazda 2 is shorter, lighter, and more economical and has lower carbon dioxide emissions. It fills the bill nicely.
And if you think all that translates into a boring, lifeless runabout, you’d be wrong. Mazda has injected a fair measure of appeal into its new baby, starting with a neat body design that is liberally endowed with flair.
The previous higher bodied, wagon-like Mazda 2 (Demio in Japan) was more of a rival for the long-time strong-selling Honda Jazz.
However, the latest rendition hones in on superminis like the Toyota Yaris, Peugeot 207, Renault Clio, Volkswagen Polo, Hyundai Getz and the Suzuki Swift.
Significantly, the next generation Ford Fiesta shares its platform with the Mazda 2. Like its Japanese cousin, the Ford will also emphasise style.
Blue Oval insiders say good looks and striking styling have been put above all other considerations in the next Fiesta, codenamed Verve.
And by sharing development costs between the two manufacturers, profitability – always difficult with small cars – improves.
Certainly design is a key selling feature of the pert and curvy Mazda 2, a refreshing design inside and out.
It has a great profile, bold RX8-like front guards, a high bonnet, distinctive A-pillars, chunky C-pillars and pretty rear shaping. There are no bumpers as such and the entire body shape smacks of imagination.
Not often these days do you spend so much time admiring the flanks and shapes of a relatively inexpensive supermini.
The design objective was to make the new the car look good on the streets of Europe; it also looks good on the streets of New Zealand.
It scarcely seems a coincidence the entry-level $20,900 Mazda 2 Classic is just $100 dearer than a Swift LTD, although the Suzuki carries a higher level of appointment with niceties like alloy wheels. A more direct comparison is the standard Swift at a sharp $19,400.
The $23,100 Mazda 2 Sport has larger diameter alloy wheels (steel on the Classic), a body kit and front foglights, stability control and different cloth upholstery.
We kept comparing the Mazda 2 with the Swift because, each in their own way, both models are more imaginative than the class average.
At 3885mm, the Mazda is 190mm longer, and its wheels have been pushed to the outer extremities, providing a 2490mm wheelbase that’s a useful 100mm more than the Suzuki’s.
The Mazda 2’s height of 1475mm is 35mm less than the Suzuki’s and the two cars are almost the same width.
Yet despite the larger body and extra rear seat room, the Mazda’s 1040kg unladen weight is the same as the Swift’s.
The new Mazda 2 weighs around 100kg less than its predecessor, the result of lighter seats, exhaust, cooling system components, suspension and even electrics.
Mazda has also used high tensile chrome vanadium and nickel alloyed steel which carves 25kg off the weight.
Both the Mazda 2 and the Swift have 1.5-litre DOHC engines with variable valve timing, and the Mazda’s 76kW of power is just one kW higher. Its peak torque of 137Nm compares with the Swift’s 133Nm.
The 1.5-litre engine’s a shade harsh, but the five-speed manual slips to 100kmh in 10.2 seconds, has a top speed of 188kmh and a favourable CO2 rating of 140g/km.
In a combination of town and country operation, six litres/100km (47mpg) is feasible, so with the 43-litre tank, the car’s range is between 600 and 700km.
Expect the four-speed automatic to be a popular choice in our market. It adds $1400 to the manual price and is the noisier option, especially when pressing on.
A spell behind the wheel of the manual model showed it to be a more relaxed, less strained alternative, even though the stick-shifter is lower geared than the auto. At 100kmh in top, the manual’s engine is spinning at 3000rpm – about 200 revs more than the auto.
Kick-down response is effective enough and reasonably smooth, but the auto is clearly fussier and noisier. Another manual bonus is the slick gearchange that’s a delight to use.
Ride is firm and sometimes jarring on indifferent surfaces on the 185/55 15-inch rubber, so our personal jury is still out on how the car copes on lower profile 195/45 rubber on 16-inch rims.
No complaints about the absence of rural highway wind noise, but road noise is high on certain surfaces.
Steering is geared to a trim 2.7 turns lock to lock – the same as the original non-power steer classic Mini, although not as “quick” as today’s 2.4 turns in the BMW Mini.
With little involvement and perhaps too much electric power assistance, the light steering is accurate enough but lacks feel.
Still, the Mazda’s dynamics are good, body roll is minimal and the car is highly predictable.
The inside story is an encouraging mix, spoilt only by rather cheap looking cabin plastics.
Dashboard design has flair, and though an engine temperature gauge is missing, the black on white speedo and white on black rev counter are prominent enough.
Volume and mode controls for the nifty circular audio system can be operated from one of the three steering wheel spokes – a nice touch you won’t even find in a Toyota Corolla XL.
A wide top-mounted slot means the glove box doubles as a magazine rack. Clever.
Small cubbyholes abound, and the tray between the front seats has a divider when what it really needs is an anti-slip base.
Frontal vision is good, but the rising waistline and thick C-pillars restrict three-quarter rear visibility.
Crucially for this compact class, the Mazda 2 designers have achieved a roomy interior package in a handsome exterior, although boot space is tight compared to many rivals.
Mazda has hit the mark with its latest arrival, further consolidating the marque’s already impressive range of passenger vehicles.