The all-new Mazda 2 will shoot straight to the pointy end of the city car class when it arrives in local showrooms in November.
That assertion is based on our second bite-sized preview of the company’s third-generation hatchback, after Mazda Australia invited us back to Japan to sample two new pre-production prototypes.
In June we tested a Mazda 2 prototype with the detuned 55kW/135Nm engine that’s destined for Europe, but the cars assembled this time at the Tokachi International Speedway in Hokkaido were Singaporean-spec vehicles that we’re told are more representative of the versions headed our way in a little over two months.
Powering both prototypes was a high-level tune of the Mazda 2’s new 1.5-litre direct-injection four-cylinder petrol engine producing 85kW of power and 148Nm of torque, which is up marginally on the 79kW/139Nm entry-level and 81kW/141Nm high-grade tunes headed for our market.
Mazda Australia also informed us the Mazda 2 sold locally will feature slightly firmer suspension and sharper steering than the Singapore-bound setup available at the circuit, and asked us to take any rough edges with a grain of salt, as the development cars aren’t entirely reflective of the finished product.
Quality and refinement are the last of Mazda’s concerns, however, if our short time behind the wheel of the all-new model – comprising two laps of a race circuit and two more of a ride and handling loop – is anything to go by.
The outgoing Mazda 2’s steering was a delight – light and slick – though overly reactive, particularly at higher speeds. The new setup finds a sweet balance, remaining pointy and direct while dialling out the initial twitchiness without introducing a vague patch at the straight-ahead position.
The steering is also fractionally quicker than before, and has a slightly meatier light-to-mid weighting, but remains easy to manoeuvre.
The new 2’s ride feels significantly more comfortable and composed than the firm and jittery old model. The test loop didn’t offer enough variation to make a conclusive assessment, but the softer suspension tune appears to do a much better job of smoothing the previously busy ride. Our prototype ironed out surface joins and settled quickly and quietly over larger bumps.
The softer setup is much more low speed-friendly than the current model, though the trade-off is a tempering of the 2’s previously darty handling. It remains nicely balanced and still encourages you to throw it into corners, but exhibits more body roll than the old model and lacks its sharpness. The new model is lighter, however (Mazda hasn’t confirmed exact weights yet, but it’s expected to creep under 1000kg, down from 1010-1032kg). Again, we’ll reserve our final judgement for when we test the Australian-spec car on local roads.
One area the Mazda 2 has definitely taken enormous strides forward is beneath the bonnet. The old 1.5-litre petrol engine was noisy and gruff, and regularly sounded like it was working harder than it was. The new Skyactiv-G engine is super sweet – silky as it progresses through the rev range, and much quieter inside the cabin. It provides decent acceleration off the line and continued steadily to 100km/h with three occupants on board.
The old 2’s dated four-speed automatic and five-speed manual transmissions make way for a pair of new six-speeders. Mazda says four in five Australians will opt for the auto, and our short test suggests they’ll be getting a good thing. The transmission – a version of the one in the Mazda 3, 6 and CX-5 – provides quick and clean shifts. Flicked into Sport mode it holds gears longer when accelerating and downshifts more aggressively under braking. There was no manual available to test.
Mazda is yet to announce fuel consumption data for the new model, but efficiency gains of up to 25 per cent have been promised, suggesting competitive economy figures of between 5.0 and 6.0 litres per 100km.
Mazda has also focused on the new 2’s driving position, and the results are obvious. You feel embraced by the driver-focused cockpit-style instrument layout and well held by the more supportive and comfortable front seats. The steering wheel now also offers reach adjustment in addition to tilt-adjust. Forward visibility is excellent, though the broad C-pillars inhibit the rear view slightly.
The driver is treated to a much more premium experience inside the cabin. The material quality, even in our pre-production prototypes, feels almost on par with the larger Mazda 3 – perhaps unsurprising given the two share much of their switchgear.
Our high-grade test cars featured buttery leather on the seats, dash panel, front knee-pads and door-liners, as well as semi-soft-touch plastic across the top of the dashboard and generous lashings of classy satin chrome.
Also inherited from the 3 is Mazda’s MZD Connect infotainment system. Again reserved for more expensive variants, it comprises a 7.0-inch tablet-style floating display that is controlled by a dial on the centre console. It introduces a host of new technologies to the city car including Bluetooth connectivity, voice command operation, satellite navigation, and a series of web-based applications such as online radio services Pandora and Stitcher, and Aha, which can read the latest posts on the driver’s Twitter and Facebook feeds and ‘like’ entries, among other things.
High-grade variants also gain a head-up display unit above the instrument cluster, as well as a selection of advanced driver-assist safety features potentially including auto high beam, city emergency braking, blind spot monitoring and lane departure warning.
The prioritisation of the driver, along with the company’s commitment to the tight, sporty lines of its Kodo design language, means second-row occupants have literally taken a back seat in the new model. Mazda admits there’s less rear head, leg and shoulder room in the 2 than its predecessor, despite it being longer and taller and possessing a longer wheelbase. With my 180cm frame seated behind my driving position, my head narrowly avoids rubbing on the roof liner and my knees float millimetres from the soft front seatbacks. Back-seat passengers continue to miss out on door pockets, grab handles, a centre armrest and a light, though the seat itself is more comfortable than before and there’s now material lining the doors.
More disappointing than the tighter second row is the boot, which is 30 litres smaller at 220L, and soundly beaten by the Honda Jazz (350L), Renault Clio (300L), Ford Fiesta (281L) and Volkswagen Polo (280L).
Pricing and specifications remain the final pieces of the third-generation Mazda 2 puzzle. Mazda won’t announce those until the car’s local launch in late October, though we’re expecting a three-tier line-up with a circa-$16,000 starting price for the entry-level manual.
If it’s priced and equipped competitively and the localised tuning suits our roads, the all-new Mazda 2 will hit the spot, and challenge the best city cars in the country.