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Light car sales may be in decline these days, but that doesn't mean they aren't good vehicles.
The 2017 Mazda 2 is a prime example, combining stylish looks with upmarket technology and affordable pricing. It's these traits that help Mazda shift around 1000 units a month, only losing out to the Hyundai Accent and Toyota Yaris in terms of sales – though the 2 is more favoured amongst private buyers.
For the new model year, Mazda's little hatch and sedan range received a mild mid-life refresh, bringing autonomous emergency braking (AEB) as standard equipment across the range, along with the company's G-Vectoring Control system – which adjusts torque delivery to the front wheels, helping improve turn-in and make highway driving less of a chore by reducing the amount of subtle inputs needed to keep the car in a straight line.
The 2017 update also includes a sleek new multifunction steering wheel similar to the one in the MX-5 sports car, more sound deadening to improve NVH (noise vibration harshness) levels, along with an upgraded colour head-up display on higher-spec models, although that head-up display remains Mazda's flimsy-looking fold-up plastic screen as opposed to more integrated systems which project straight onto the windscreen.
On test we have the cheapest Mazda you can buy in Australia, the Mazda 2 Neo with the six-speed manual transmission (yes, James Wong is reviewing a stick shift), starting at just $14,990 before on-road costs. Opting for the more practical sedan body, with its tangibly bigger boot (440 litres against the hatchback's piddly 250 litres), doesn't add any cost over the popular hatchback, nor does the 'Deep Crimson' mica paint (new for 2017).
Despite being the budget model, the base Mazda includes the aforementioned AEB and GVC technologies, black cloth trim, air conditioning, cruise control, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, USB and AUX inputs, push-button start and rear parking sensors.
Unfortunately Mazda continues to neglect a rear-view camera as standard equipment on the base Neo, though it can be added as a mirror-integrated unit for $811.
Six airbags are also standard, as are ABS, stability control, brake assist, hill-start assist, seatbelt warnings for all passengers, traction control, along with ISOFIX child seat points on the two outboard rear seats. All Mazda 2 models wear a five-star ANCAP safety rating – though the stamp is based on 2015 tests.
Other features include a monochrome audio system – no 7.0-inch MZD touchscreen here, nor Apple CarPlay or Android Auto – and 15-inch steel wheels with wheel covers.
First impressions of the sedan-body Mazda 2 from the outside are pretty good, considering just about every light sedan in the past have looked awkward. The company's 'Kodo' design language still translates well on Mazda's smallest model, giving the sedan a classy and athletic look – despite the low-rent hubcaps.
Our tester's Deep Crimson exterior paint changes from burgundy to purple in the sunlight, which is a refreshing change to the usual whites and blacks we see on the road today, although it would look much better on the flagship GT with its LED headlights with LED daytime-running lights and 16-inch bi-colour alloy wheels.
Inside, the Mazda 2 continues to feel a cut above the majority of its rivals. The overall design of the interior is very upmarket, and although the plastics and finishes in the Neo are pretty much all hard, everything feels solid and well-screwed together.
The absence of a proper screen is really felt, with the monochrome audio display of the Neo looking pretty piddly compared to the 7.0-inch touchscreen of higher grades. Another annoying omission is the lack of a front centre armrest, though you can option one as an accessory for $440.
Up front the driver and passenger are treated to really supportive and comfortable seats, trimmed in a nice, high-quality feel fabric. All the main instruments and controls are within easy reach, while the circular air vents and faux carbon-fibre-look highlights add some contrast to the black-on-black colour scheme.
The fabric trim also extends to the door inserts, while the front occupants get rubberised, squishy elbow rests in the doors.
Taller passengers will find the second row a tight squeeze in terms of legroom, particularly behind drivers above six-foot tall, though headroom is pretty good even for taller passengers.
Interestingly, the sedan's interior features no extra space when compared to the dimensionally-smaller hatchback version, with the only tangible difference being the size of the boot – which continues to be a bug bear of the five-door Mazda 2.
Under the bootlid is 440 litres of space, some 190 litres more than the hatch, which is mighty impressive for a vehicle of this size. It easily swallows shopping or large sport bags, and is more than enough to carry suitcases or luggage for a weekend away.
Under the bonnet is a naturally aspirated 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, developing 79kW of power at 6000rpm, and 139Nm of torque at 4000rpm. It's slightly down on the Maxx and GT's 81kW and 141Nm, and also misses out on the more powerful engine's idle stop/start system – the latter resulting in a slightly higher fuel claim of 5.4L/100km, compared to the Maxx manual's 5.2L/100km. Drive is sent to the front wheels via a six-speed manual.
The 1.5-litre engine does a fine job at shifting the Mazda 2's 1043kg kerb weight, while the six-cog transmission offers slick shifts, helped by a light clutch and a short throw. It's one of the easiest stick shifts this reviewer has come across, and makes the 2 a perfect learning car or a first vehicle for manual-shifting P-platers.
It has no issues keeping up with the ebb and flow of Melbourne's city traffic, climbing up hilly roads of the suburbs, or getting up to freeway speeds.
At 100km/h the Mazda 2 cruises just fine in sixth gear, humming along at around 2250rpm, while engine noise is kept to a minimum. Speaking of noise in the cabin, the extra insulation Mazda has installed on the updated range really seems to have made a difference, with road and wind noise noticeably quieter than the old car which makes the 2 much better over longer journeys and on coarser road surfaces.
The Mazda also impresses with its competent ride and handling. Lumps and bumps like tram tracks and speed humps in the city are dealt with little fuss, while the 2 remains planted and stable at freeway speeds.
In fact, it feels like a larger car than it actually is, and it's really comfortable and relaxing to drive over the long haul.
The light, yet direct steering makes the Mazda fun in corners, while also making tight streets and shopping centre car parks a breeze. It's just such an easy car to spend time in.
Fuel consumption is pretty good too. We averaged an indicated 6.9L/100km over 413km of mixed driving, favouring urban roads and traffic. With more city driving, however, you'll see that figure climb to the mid-to-high 7.0L/100km.
Even after more than 400km, the Mazda 2's trip computer said we had over 200km of range left, meaning you could easily get well over 600km per tank with a mix of urban and highway driving.
Despite being over a litre higher than the company's 5.4L/100km combined claim, it's proven to be more economical in the real world than both the Kia Rio and Toyota Yaris – though both of those were fitted with four-speed automatics.
In terms of ownership, the Mazda 2 is covered by the company's three year, unlimited kilometre warranty, with roadside assistance commanding an extra $68.10 per year.
Scheduled maintenance is required every 12 months or 10,000km, whichever comes first, with the first five visits costing between $286 and $314 – meaning the Mazda 2 will set you back $1486 in servicing costs for the first 50,00km or five years, whichever comes first.
To conclude, it's clear why the Mazda 2 is still very popular despite the current SUV trend. It's cheap, comfortable, stylish and fun to drive.
In sedan form, it addresses a key complaint of the hatchback by offering a huge boot, while also offering something different in the light car class – its only real competitors are the Honda City and Hyundai Accent.
The entry-level Neo is a great urban runabout if you're on a budget – if you can live without a rear-view camera or a centre touch screen – and is also a really solid proposition for a first car buyer. However, it's not a good car for carrying rear-seat passengers regularly, but small children or booster seats will do just fine.
It's got pretty much everything you need, though the mid-spec Maxx (from $17,690) gets more power, alloys, the 7.0-inch touchscreen MZD infotainment system and a rear-view camera, making it a more well-rounded package.
For those on a budget, the Mazda 2 Neo is a great little car, though if you care about looks and technology, the near-$3000 climb to the Maxx could be worth every dollar if you can stretch that far.