Increased activity in the small car sector is proof positive New Zealanders are taking more interest in fuel prices.
Improvements in small car safety, equipment, comfort and refinement are nothing new. Sharp increases in pump prices are. Significantly, more consumers are coming away applauding the benefits of driving smaller vehicles. Previously they hadn't even included a small car on their shopping list.
Mazda's entrant in the micro and light class is not a big player but, even so, sales of new Mazda2 five-door hatchbacks have increased a worthwhile 33 per cent so far this year. The model is currently running ninth best seller in the junior size category but its sales are less than one quarter those of class leader Suzuki Swift or runner-up Honda Jazz. Still, Mazda2 is something of a power leader - but only just.
With a healthy 82kW on tap from the 1.5-litre engine, Mazda2 is a lively way to go and was clearly the most powerful of the babies until the recent arrival of a Sports version of the Jazz. While the Honda's output is a touch less, the Jazz produces slightly more torque.
You may wonder if many small car owners are going to be too concerned about such technicalities, but buyers of the upgraded Sport version of Mazda2 are likely to have more than a passing interest in performance attributes.
The facelifted Mazda2 Sport arrived with the less costly version in July, offering a better level of appointment and improvements in both fuel economy and emission levels, all for roughly the same money. This better value package is a welcome, if familiar motor industry story.
At $25,420 for the manual version we evaluated, the Mazda is $820 dearer than the rival Jazz, but whereas new Honda pricing is claimed to be "non negotiable", you can bet your money on a Mazda discount. So essentially the two models are priced the same.
Of course you can forgo the alloy wheels, body kit and improved controls, and save $4000 by opting for the basic Mazda2 which has the same mechanicals and good driving manners.
Even though the entry-level price is higher than Swift, Holden Barina, Hyundai Getz and Nissan Micra, not to mention the closely related Ford Fiesta, the Mazda has the advantage of the most power and extra engine capacity of at least some of its rivals. To put engine output into perspective, it's just 3kW less than the original 1.6-litre Mazda MX-5.
This is good enough to whirl the Mazda2 from a standstill to 100 km/h in 10.5 seconds, while the 6.6 litres/100 km (42.8 miles per gallon) combined fuel cycle makes good reading even it is par for the course.
With around 3,000 revs on the clock at our legal open road limit, the car is sensibly geared and happy enough for longer stints. This double overhead cam engine with variable valve technology is smooth and flexible, pulling fourth and fifth gears at modest speeds without protest. Try and rush things, however, and the car behaves somewhat jerkily as if to remind drivers we all need to keep saving fuel.
Power output is the same as before, but an electronic throttle has been adopted and some fine tuning has enhanced efficiency of the 16-valve motor.
There's a real feeling of substance and quality about the Mazda2, from the impeccable build quality to the mature dashboard, compliant ride and good handling. Throw in the new flick-knife retractable key that would do a Jaguar proud, and you have a small car with style.
There are two trip meters, bright rims to the bold instruments that mimic the bigger Mazdas, a classy looking silvery panel in the lower centre of the dash for integrated audio and ventilation, and a handy compartment recessed within the top of the facia.
The 2005 revamp has seen the introduction of electrically driven, speed sensitive power steering geared to a sharpish 2.7 turns lock to lock and a tight 9.8 metre turning circle. As well as being highly accurate and alive, the new power steering saps less energy from the mechanicals which means more kilometres to the litre.
First launched in 2003 as a worthy replacement for the somewhat dull Demio, Mazda2 inherits the Fiesta's platform which is no bad thing. Both the Mazda and Ford share good ride characteristics that are above the class average.
The Mazda is especially good over indifferent surfaces, providing the sort of ride comfort that would have been unthinkable in a small car 20 or even ten years ago.
There are MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam rear suspension, while the disc/drum brakes are well up to the task. ABS with electronic brake force distribution is standard on both versions.
Well-placed pedals and a height adjustable steering column improve the driving experience.
Safety integrity scores highly, with fitment of an advanced restraint system (ARS) comprising seat belt pre-tensioners and dual stage load limiting retractors, plus a brake pedal that moves way from the driver in an accident.
New front guards and bonnet, larger headlamps and changes to the rear lights are worthwhile.
That revised front end assumes a real solid look, and a clear family association with the large Mazda3 and Mazda6 models. The upright appearance of the body is surely improved by the Sport kit that includes lower side skirts, a discreet tailgate spoiler, five spoke alloys and driving lamps.
Add a deep, low loading tailgate, double folding rear seats and moderately good leg room for the 3.9 metre long front driver and you have the makings of a fine small car.
The wheelbase is relatively long and body overhangs front and rear are minimal in an effort to pack as much space as possible. Rear seating is somewhat shapeless but the high positioning is a bonus for those who have to travel in the back, providing a grandstand view.
Being impressed by the auto up and down action for the driver's window, delay action cut-off courtesy lights, illuminated entry and steering wheel controls for the audio system with its six-disc CD changer.
For an extra $1200 the Activematic auto transmission can be specified. This has the same four speeds as before while adding manual sequential shifting for those wanting to control their own changes.
A Sport, perhaps, in name alone, but the bolder looks over the base Mazda2 will strike an accord with buyers wanting that extra touch.