Light car sales may be down an alarming 16 per cent this year, but they’re still big business. Here we pitch two of the better contenders against each other, one a new kid on the block and the other a well-established leader of the pack.
They are the newly launched Skoda Fabia Monte Carlo — a niche player known by relatively few — and the well-loved Mazda 2 Genki, consistently one of the top sellers in this class.
Why compare this pair? Because the market here is often driven by image, and the quirky Czech Skoda comes with something very important — a point of difference. But is this enough to tempt buyers away from the familiar Mazda?
Price and equipment
The Mazda 2 Genki and Skoda Fabia Monto Carlo are the range-toppers of their respective line-ups, meaning shoppers on a strict budget can get behind the wheel of either for much less, in de-specced forms.
The Mazda in this guise costs $22,690 plus on-road costs, while the Skoda is $23,490. Therefore, both cost more than base-level vehicles from the class above, but counter with much more equipment, and nippier ‘personalities’.
Key standard features common to both include six airbags, the maximum five-star ANCAP rating, ISOFIX, trip computer, rear-view camera, touchscreen, Bluetooth/USB connections, cruise control, steering wheel buttons, cloth seats and daytime running lights.
Unique to the Mazda 2 are a great little flip-up head-up display, rear parking sensors, climate control (as opposed to manual air conditioning), push-button start, rain-sensing wipers and LED headlights.
On the other hand, unique to the Fabia are autonomous emergency braking (AEB), multi-collision brakes, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto phone mirroring, panoramic glass roof and 17-inch alloys, as opposed the the Mazda’s 16s.
Additionally, our test Skoda came with a few options. These were the loaded $1800 Tech Pack (push-button start, rear parking sensors, radar cruise control, climate control, light and rain sensors, DAB+ and auto-dimming rear-view mirror), and the $950 sat nav.
Tough call, with the Skoda winning in terms of safety. But the Mazda’s lower price and equally long list of unique features is nothing to be sneezed at.
Mazda has developed a habit of making extremely classy cabins, and its smallest car doesn’t break rank. It brings superb quality and fit-and-finish to the table, as well as a simple, though oddly asymmetrical, design.
Most of the brand’s hallmarks are here, from the floating 7.0-inch tablet screen with BMW-style MZD Connect infotainment rotary dial, to the chunky and well-made air conditioning dials, damped switches, chunky leather steering wheel and classy gauges.
Most people who own a car this size (a smidgen over four metres long) rarely carry more than one passenger, and as a two-person city runabout there’s very little better this side of a much pricier Mini Cooper. And that glass head-up display with digital speedo and map guidance may look chintzy on a Mazda 6, but it fits the Mazda 2 perfectly.
Where the Mazda 2 isn’t so crash hot is in rear seat accommodation, which is at the bottom end of the class. It’s not a patch on the Honda Jazz, and also offers inferior space and outward visibility to the shorter Skoda Fabia. Mazda’s packaging leaves something to be desired, which is a factor on most of its cars.
The 250 litres of cargo space is also short of many offerings, down at the bottom end of the class alongside the Suzuki Swift. You’ll get a big suitcase or a few travel bags in the back, but not much else. There’s also only a temporary spare wheel under the floor.
The Fabia’s most immediate unique feature is the huge panoramic glass roof, which doesn’t slide like a conventional sunroof, but which nevertheless lets the sun in. The sliding shade is a little flimsy for an Australian summer, though.
In some ways the Skoda trumps the Mazda. It lacks the fancy MZD dials, but its smaller 6.5-inch touchscreen has Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, which are welcome features, and partially offset the lack of standard sat nav (you can use Google/Apple maps instead).
That said, no amount of red stitching and multi-coloured trim hides the fact the material quality falls behind its little Japanese rival. It looks sporty and cool, but lacks the premium edge of the Mazda.
Where it wins is in the amount of cabin storage on offer, which makes it eminently practical. Small touches such as mesh pockets in the side of the well-bolstered seats make a big difference in everyday living. It has a thumping little sound system too.
The back seats in the Skoda are better, with superior legroom and headroom, and better outward visibility. Its 305L cargo area, and the full-sized spare wheel under the floor, also beat out the Mazda.
If you want class, you’ll be drawn to the Mazda. If you want space and sportiness, go the Skoda. Both are excellent.
Powering the little Mazda is a similar SkyActiv family engine to the base MX-5 roadster. It’s a 1.5-litre normally aspirated petrol four-cylinder with a peaky 81kW at 6000rpm and 141Nm at 4000rpm. Small outputs then, but countered by the modest 1047kg kerb weight.
It was matched here to the company’s in-house six-speed automatic transmission with torque converter, replete with a sports button that changes the mapping so lower gears are held longer, and pre-corner downshifts are chosen more aggressively. Nice.
The good thing about a normally aspirated engine, and a 6AT slushbox, is the sharp throttle response. It’s very ‘point and shoot’, urgent at urban speeds, and even more so under higher revolutions, which the decisive 'box sorts out when you need it to.
In the light car’s native habitat of small laneways and picking gaps in peak-hour traffic, this little engine is close to perfect. Under heavy throttle and at higher speeds, the refinement is hurt, though the buzzy-ness suits the car. Mid-range torque is only modest, as well.
On paper, the Czech Fabia whoops the Mazda. Its 1.2-litre engine is smaller in capacity by about 300cc, but its turbocharger gives it ample punch, as attested to by the Volkswagen Polo that uses the same unit.
Power matches the Mazda’s 81kW, but it arrives much earlier in the rev band at 4600rpm, through to 5600rpm, meaning you can get the most out of the engine with fewer revolutions, improving refinement.
You also get more torque or ‘pulling power’ — 175Nm between 1400 and 4000rpm. This broad spread of Newtons makes the little Skoda a relaxed cruiser, with the feel of a larger engine in terms of its rolling response.
The Fabia is certainly quicker to accelerate, despite being the heavier car. A 0-100km/h sprint of 9.2 seconds isn’t super quick, but if you want that, splash out another $4000 or so on a VW Polo GTI. Come to think of it, the German really is a steal… We digress.
Matched to the powertrain is the VW Group’s signature seven-speed DSG dual-clutch auto. This unit holds the next gear at the ready, making gear changes faster and efficiency superior, though it’s also occasionally hesitant from stand-still or after braking around town, like a puppy that thinks it’s in trouble. We’d appreciate paddle shifters on both cars, too.
The difference between claimed combined-cycle fuel economy is slim, at 4.9L/100km for the Mazda and 4.8L/100km for the Skoda, though the Mazda can run on cheaper 91 RON petrol, or E10.The Skoda needs the pricier 95 RON stuff. We tipped into low 6s in both.
Behind the wheel
Light cars need to exhibit a few traits. They need to offer quick steering, disciplined body control in corners and on the straight-ahead at high speeds, suspension that rounds off sharp hits and acceptable refinement that belies dimensions.
Both the Mazda and Skoda are whiz-kids, by these measures and almost any other.
The Skoda’s electric-assisted steering is light but offers decent feel from about 10 degrees off centre (it’s a little slow initially), while the car’s 9.8-metre turning circle matches the pointy Mazda.
The Monte Carlo features a tauter sports suspension tune that is designed to improve the handling of the car over the regular version, and it does to an extent. Mid-corner control is good, and body roll is minimal despite the high roof. Stability and refinement on highways is also great. Remember, this car is made for Europe and its higher speed limits.
The expensive Bridgestone Potenza tyres (215/40/17) are also reassuringly tractable. The firmer springs/dampers can cause the body to bottom out over big speed bumps, and jolt moderately over potholes. Still, it’s never overly brittle, and you have to keep in mind it has large 17-inch wheels on low-profile hoops.
We like the Mazda's really well-sorted dampers and springs that round off most hits, and allow the body to float over low amplitude corrugations yet stay disciplined over bigger square edges and against lateral forces mid-corner. There’s a little softness there, yet plenty of rebound force meaning it cushions but doesn't wallow or ‘pogo’ afterward.
The steering is invitingly quick and responsive, coupled with a nicely balanced chassis giving eager turn-in. The Mazda always feels feels nippy and dart-like. More practically, the front apron isn't too low like it is on the mediocre CX-3 crossover, so sloped driveways won't cause you to scrape.
On the downside, while freeway stability is excellent, the suppression of engine and tyre noise is ordinary. Also, under aggressive driving (beyond eight-tenths, so perhaps not especially relevant) the tyres start to scrub and that spring softness takes the edge off body control. Finally, the blind spots to the rear thanks to the big C-pillars are a pain.
All told, the Mazda is that little bit zippier around town, and a little more supple over cobbles and co, so it’s more suited to the target demographic. But the Skoda is a great little steer that several CA staffers preferred.
The Mazda comes with a three-year and unlimited kilometre warranty, though roadside assist backed by the motoring clubs will cost you $68.10 per year for the basic package.
Service intervals are 12 months or 10,000km, whichever comes first. Based on the average annual driving distance of Australians, the 10K limit will come up very nine months or so.
At current rates, which are advertised publicly but apt to change with inflation and other cost pressures (this is the case for almost all car brands), the first six visits will cost $284, $312, $284, $312, $284, $312, plus some incidentals such as pollen filters.
This is not as cheap as some, but on the plus side, Mazda's dealer network is expansive, and it is usually atop customer surveys for service.
Despite being European (code, to many, for 'expensive'), the Skoda Fabia is cheap to own and run. The warranty matches the Mazda in standard guise, but roadside assist is provided at no cost for the term.
Service intervals are superior to the Mazda at 12 months/15,000km, though your visits aren't cheap. Current rates by visit are advertised as $279, $332, $459, $592, $459 and $332 plus incidentals.
Still, if you average 15,000km annually, the Skoda's longer intervals rectify things. The cost over 90,000km of ownership in the Czech at these rates (excluding incidentals) would be $2453 across six visits. In the Mazda, 90,000km with its intervals would be $2668, over nine visits.
The Skoda Fabia has a lot to like. It looks a million bucks with its black wheels, boxy silhouette and lowered suspension, has superior cabin space to the Mazda, outstanding safety and connectivity, good running costs and a notable point of difference. And its engine also has plenty of pep.
That said, the Mazda 2 has the classier interior (especially if you're an empty-nester who eschews car-loads of people), a more responsive drivetrain around town, a better urban ride and probably the better value equation. Just.
This is all the more impressive given the fact an updated Mazda 2 will launch here around April/May 2017, with some more standard safety features (potentially blind-spot monitoring and radar cruise), and possibly the company's G-Vectoring system which improves handling.
All the more reason to hunt a deal. We're giving the win to the familiar face, the Mazda 2. But it's extremely close, and there's at least one CarAdvice staffer who disagrees with my assessment. If you don't know much about Skoda, you should educate yourself a little.
|Mazda 2||Skoda Fabia*|
$22,690 plus on-road costs
$23,490 plus on-road costs
81kW (4600 to 5600rpm)
175Nm (1400 to 4000rpm)
4.9L/100km 91 RON or E10
4.8L/100km 95 RON
3 years with paid roadside assist
3 years with free roadside assist
Autonomous emergency braking
Daytime running lights
Rear parking sensors
7.0-inch with MZD Connect dial
No ($950 option)
Apple CarPlay/Android Auto
Regular air conditioning
Steering wheel audio controls
Panoramic glass roof
*Skoda Fabia Monte Carlo as tested had optional $950 sat nav and $1800 Tech Pack. Latter adds: Keyless go, rear parking sensors, radar cruise control, climate control, light and rain sensors, DAB+ and auto-dimming rear-view mirror.
Click the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.