When it was launched in New Zealand nigh on two years ago, Mazda's 2 hatchback broke new ground on several fronts. For one, it was the second car - after the mid-sized Mazda 6 - to use Mazda's new single numeral nomenclature. The old system of three-numeral nameplates was ditched just as that system had replaced individual model names on the company's export market sedans.
Mazda's small sedan/hatchback which had been known as the 121, became simply the 2; the 323 became the 3, the 626 the 6. Conversely, the 2's immediate predecessor had sported a name - the Demio - after being known as the 121 for several years. The other significant first was less obvious. In fact, you were unaware of it until you either drove or rode in the car.
It was the first to arrive in New Zealand of a new breed of Japanese small cars which eschewed the somewhat "tinny" feel traditional with superminis and replaced it with ride qualities and a general feel that was much more suggestive of a bigger car.
Nissan's quirkily-styled Micra brought the same sort of feel to the market last year, and this year Suzuki's Swift took the process a step further, delivering ride, noise suppression and refinement levels previously unheard of in so small a car. The tin can clang once typical of small Suzukis - especially when you shut the doors - was relegated to history. Now, along comes Mazda's revised 2 - facelifted in automotive industry jargon.
And driving one for a few days reinforced our view that - even more than two years down the track - this petite five-door is a very competitive contender in the small car class. We're inclined to think, though, that the 2 has something of a market visibility problem.
More than one person came out with: "what's a Mazda 2?" And they were surprised to learn the car had been on sale here for more than two years. They were much wiser when we said it was the Mazda 121/Demio replacement. That's when the metaphorical light bulbs flashed on.
The Mazda is as perky on the roads as its cheeky looks suggest. Performance from the 82kW/141Nm 1.5-litre engine is lively. But the power delivery is so smooth, refined and quiet that you need to keep a close eye on the speedo in city driving to prevent the car creeping into the 60-70km/h speed zone.
The progress is so smooth and so quiet and fuss free (not always the case with past Mazda engines which can be quite noisy) that you can drift into ticket territory without knowing it. There's plenty of go for open road running, and the Mazda 2 will cruise quietly and effortlessly on the motorway. Mazda has brought the 2 into line with its bigger 3 and 6 stablemates by moving to the Activematic automatic transmission, which incorporates a manual gear selection mode.
Mazda says the gearbox improves fuel economy. In official Australian government tests, the 2's average consumption is now listed as seven litres per 100 kilometres - down from 7.2 litres/100km under ADR 81/01 testing. The gearbox shifts smoothly left in Drive, and delivers instant downshifts if you use the sequential manual mode.
In held second and third ratios the gearing is sufficiently tall, yet the motor flexible enough to ensure rapid progress with a minimum of gearchanging. Mazda also offers a five-speed manual gearbox in the 2, but we haven't sampled it. If it's up to the usual Mazda standard it will be a precise, good-to-use unit.
But it wasn't the drivetrain that impressed us most but the crisper steering feel. Turn-in is particularly precise, and the Mazda can be placed with great accuracy. The steering also delivers good feel. The improved steering response is thanks to changes to the electric power steering system. It's now based on the steering unit used in the RX8 sports car. The speed sensitive electric assistance is designed to ensure light steering at low speed, but a heavier, more controlled feel at higher speeds.
And the changes deliver on Mazda's promise. The steering is quickish - 2.7 turns lock-to-lock - and the turning circle is a compact 9.8 metres. The basic handling trait is the usual front-wheel drive understeer, but front wheel sledge seldom becomes a problem.
In fact, the 2 exhibits an old Mazda cornering trait when pushed hard. As weight transfers to the back of the car in moderately hard cornering there's a degree of roll oversteer that give a degree of tail-out feel.
It's be familiar to anyone who has driven older front-drive Mazda 323s or 626s fitted with the twin trapezoidal rear suspension. The old system could alarm some drivers who felt at first that the tail was about to let go. It didn't, the car simply settled into the corner and tracked on around as the weight transferred.
This lively feel made the old Mazdas and their cousins-under-the-skin Ford Lasers and Telstars fun to drive; and the new 2 shares some of that traditional Mazda flair. Exterior changes to the new Mazda 2 include redesigned front fenders and bonnet, with larger headlights a key feature. The taillights get a sportier look.
Sports variants get a mildly aggressive and attractive aero bodykit and a new bold grille and bumper redesign. The Mazda 2 is an appealing entrant in the crowded small car segment. It's pricier than some rivals, but provides a good range of features, comfort, refinement, good build quality and abilities. It would definitely figure on our short list.
test and photographs by Mike Stock
Mazda's 2 scored well with passengers on several fronts. It high roofline and consequent good headroom and airy cabin got the seal of approval. As did the comfortable seats and the ease of entry and exit - again partly the result of the high roofline, though also a result of the seats' relatively high hip axis. It rated well as a car in which you could slide on to the seat easily and naturally, rather than having to drop down into it. It also scored highly on storage compartments, especially the neat two-compartment glovebox and adjacent forward-opening drawer.
What you get
Mazda 2 safety equipment includes dual front airbags, front seatbelt pretensioners with load limiters, and anti-whiplash front seats. ABS braking is standard and an intrusion-minimising brake pedal reduces the chance of foot, ankle and lower leg injuries. The remote central door-locking controls are now incorporated in the new retractable key which enables the key blade to fold out of the way when not in use.
Other features include power windows, power mirrors, air-conditioning and CD player. The Sports model gets a six-disc CD player with steering wheel mounted controls for ease of access.
The multi-adjustable rear seat allows improved rear passenger comfort or increased cargo carrying capacity. The 2 comes with Mazda's attractive comprehensive three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty and free scheduled servicing for the first 100,000km or three years (which ever comes first).
There's also a comprehensive, 24 hours a day, 365-days-a-year roadside assistance package that is valid for three years with unlimited kilometres.
Mazda 2 pricing
Mazda 2 1.5 manual, $21,470
Mazda 2 1.5 Activematic automatic, $22,670
Mazda 2 1.5 Sport manual, $25,420
Mazda 2 1.5 Sport Activematic auto, $26,620