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Light cars are a strange category in Australia. While sales are on the nose, buyers still flock to this segment in the hunt for a first, or last car.

With both models recently benefitting from an update, we lined up two favourites to see which is most worthy of your hard-earned dollar. It’s the Mazda 2 Genki head-to-head against the Toyota Yaris ZR.

Cars in this segment boast excellent visibility from the front, rear and sides and nowadays are loaded with the same or similar features as their larger brand counterparts. That’s certainly the case with the Mazda 2 and Yaris models tested here now kitted out with Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB).

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While the Mazda 2 and Yaris ranges start at around $15,000 before on-road costs, we’ve gone for the upper-specification Mazda 2 and top-specification Yaris models, priced at $22,690 and $22,490 respectively before on-road costs.

We hit the road to find out which of these two Japanese hatches is most worthy of your dollars.


Pricing and specifications

Both cars are within cooee of each other in terms of pricing, with just $200 separating them. Equally, they’re both quite well equipped to sit at this price point.

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The Mazda 2 Genki comes with a stack of standard kit, including: 16-inch alloy wheels, six-speaker stereo with Bluetooth, auxiliary and USB inputs, CD player, central locking with keyless entry, cruise control, LED daytime running lights, fog lights, stop/start system, satellite navigation, LED headlights, keyless start, single-zone automatic climate control, heads-up display, DAB+ digital radio, automatic windscreen wipers and headlights and voice recognition.

There’s no lack of safety features either with AEB (low speed), stability control, traction control, six airbags, rear cross-traffic alert, rear AEB and rear parking sensors with rear-view camera all standard.

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Toyota’s Yaris ZR is equally well equipped, fitted with: 15-inch alloy wheels, six-speaker stereo with Bluetooth, auxiliary and USB inputs, CD player, central locking with keyless entry, cruise control, LED headlights, satellite navigation, voice recognition, automatic headlights and single zone automatic climate control.

There’s also an impressive array of safety features, with AEB (low speed), stability control, traction control, seven airbags (including a driver’s knee airbag) and a rear-view camera. It misses out on parking sensors and rear AEB.


Interior 

The biggest separation between these cars exists inside the cabins. The Mazda 2 feels like a small version of the Mazda 3 in the sense it shares several instruments, infotainment and switchgear. That helps it feel premium and a cut above the Yaris.

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At the front of the cabin, a 7.0-inch MZD connect system features a touchscreen (when stationary) and a rotary dial with shortcut buttons to move between menus. It’s nicely presented but lacks modern phone connectivity features such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

But, it makes up for it with a decent voice recognition system, a great sound system and DAB+ digital radio. A head-up display also presents speed and navigation information in an easy-to-read spot. It could be a little clearer, though.

The seats are very comfortable and the driving position is excellent. It offers great visibility out the front and rear, while a clear rear-view camera and rear parking sensors help get the Mazda 2 into tight parking spaces.

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Rear seat leg room is compromised if you have a taller driver in the first row. This is to be expected given the size and class this vehicle sits in. But, with somebody like CarAdvice‘s Mandy Turner in the front seat, I had stacks of leg room. So, it’s horses for courses, really.

Cargo capacity is quite limited. Again – it’s to be expected for a car like this. Measuring in at 250 litres, it’s 36 litres short of the Yaris. But, the difference is barely noticeable. Both vehicles miss out on rear air vents, but with a car this size, it’s not too big of a deal.

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Jumping into the Yaris ZR feels like a step back in time. The curvy dashboard and layout looks circa-Echo, while the 6.1-inch infotainment system is a massive step down from Mazda’s MZD Connect system.

Despite being a touchscreen, it misses out on things like DAB+ digital radio, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and on top of all that, it can be tricky to use at times with illogical menus. Functionality is helped by a voice recognition system, but again, it’s nothing to write home about with limited functionality.

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Like the Mazda, the seating position is good with great visibility out the front, rear and sides. There is a rear-view camera, but it’s not teamed with parking sensors, which breaks from the norm and could potentially catch some drivers out expecting beeps as they get closer to a wall.

Second row leg- and headroom is cramped. As mentioned above, it’s not exactly the end of the world given the segment this car competes in. Both cars are equipped with space saver spare tyres that sit beneath the boot floor.

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On the road

Despite both vehicles featuring pint-sized engines, they perform adequately due to their light kerb weight. The Mazda measures in at just 1053kg and the Toyota 2kg more at 1055kg.

Under the bonnet of the Mazda is a 1.5-litre naturally aspirated petrol engine producing 81kW of power and 141Nm of torque. It sends torque through a six-speed automatic gearbox and consumes a miserly 4.9 litres of fuel per 100km on the combined cycle.

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Around the city, the 1.5-litre engine offers plenty of pep, but it takes a while to wind on. Peak torque is reached at 4000rpm, while peak power arrives at 6000rpm. The gearbox is intelligent enough to hold gears when it’s clear more pace is required.

The engine is nice and quiet, even when revs increase closer to redline. The electrically-assisted steering is excellent and light enough when parking and communicative enough when speeds pick up.

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Arguably the Mazda 2’s most positive trait is its ride. You wouldn’t expect a small car like this to handle the bump and grind of rough city streets as well as it does. This carries to its performance on highways where it’s smooth and carefree.

Mazda 2’s recent update adds G-Vectoring Control. It’s an electronic system that can reduce engine torque with the aim of increasing vertical load on tyres. It’s virtually imperceptible and is intended to increase control and reduce fuel consumption.

Does it work? Well, it’s impossible to tell. It doesn’t affect the drive, though, which is the main thing.

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Where the Mazda excels on the noise suppression and ride front, the Toyota works to the opposite. The engine is quite noisy and gets very thrashy. That’s partly due to the gearbox mated to the engine.

Under its bonnet is a 1.5-litre naturally aspirated petrol engine that produces 80kW of power and 141Nm of torque.

Like the Mazda, peak power hits at 6000rpm, but peak torque doesn’t appear until 4400rpm, meaning you need to rev the Yaris even harder to achieve a feeling of acceleration.

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This, in turn with its four-speed automatic gearbox means that it’s not always a pleasant driving experience given how noisy it becomes at the top end of the rev range.

Both vehicles feature similar suspension setups, but are tuned quite differently.

The Yaris rides firmer and can feel harsh over speed humps and potholes. It’s fine on a smooth road, but the extra road noise from the tyres and occasional choppy ride can be unsettling.

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Funnily enough – the Yaris has a very sporty steering wheel with a flat bottom. It’s the type of wheel you’d find on any number of sports cars, let alone a small city car. The ancient gearbox also means higher fuel consumption with the Yaris consuming 6.4L/100km, which is around 25 per cent more than the Mazda 2.


Running costs

You won’t find any big surprises when it comes to warranty and servicing.

Both cars feature three year warranties with the Mazda offering unlimited kilometres or three years (whichever comes first), while the Toyota offers three years or 100,000km.

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Over a three-year period, servicing ends up being quite similar if you don’t travel much. But, travel the national average and things change quite quickly. Normally when we calculate servicing pricing we use an average yearly travel of 20,000km over a three-year period.

The Mazda 2 requires servicing every 10,000km or 12 months (whichever comes first). That means over three years and 60,000km the Mazda requires six services. Over that period, it comes out to $1800. If you stick to just the servicing periods over three years (i.e. three services), it comes out to $886.

Yaris, on the other hand, needs servicing every 6 months or 10,000km with each service capped at $140. That makes it a $840 proposition over three years, or 60,000km.

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VERDICT

The Toyota Yaris was once a star performer in this segment and regarded as the default option for a light city car. While that may have been the case some time ago, it hasn’t kept with the times.

Mazda’s recent Mazda 2 update has added a stack of useful kit and driving technology that propels it into a new league of light car.

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My wife and I own a previous generation Mazda 2 and the step forward from that model was huge. To think that you can get a car today that has all of these features for not much over $20,000 is pretty impressive.

The Mazda 2 excels over the Yaris is almost every area we tested, which is why it walks away with the win in this comparison.

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