I'm a thirty-something father of two looking for a second car and the Mazda 2 caught my eye because it seemed to fulfil the following requirements: a small, affordable (under $20k), reliable car with good handling and the ability to occasionally handle school-run duties.
It also had to be a manual. A proper ones with three pedals.
I couldn't find any reviews of manual Mazda 2s out there, so I had to take a trip to a dealer to feed my curiosity. I guess I liked it a lot - I ended up with one in my garage along with some newly acquired pearls of wisdom to share.
We'll start with the gearbox, of course. It's a sporty little 6-speed unit with short travel and a nice-looking knob. The box is a completely new design too (if the brochure is to be believed).
It also happens to be one of the better manuals I've used; with a very precise, mechanical (as opposed to 'rubbery') feel.
The gates are spaced far-apart enough to prevent you from accidentally shifting from 5th to 2nd, for example, but require little travel to actually slot into each gear. It wouldn't be out of place in a sports car twice its price.
First gear is geared a little high, though - great for rapid starts, but will make for jerky progress if you don't shift to second early enough during regular, sober adult driving.
At the other end of the spectrum, the 6th gear is allows you to cruise at 100km/h with the engine spinning at around 2400RPM. Good for economy and for keeping the noise in check.
It is also worth mentioning that the 6-speed manual is available as an option across the Mazda 2 range, which is something to be applauded when you consider how other manufacturers are either completely omitting manual boxes or offering them only on the base poverty-spec models.
Moving to the rest of the drivetrain, the clutch bites at about the right point and has just enough progression. You don't notice it much, which means it's good. Thankfully, there's enough room to the left of the pedal to rest your foot (though it's just a bit of raised carpet rather than a solid platform).
And since we're talking about pedals, I should mention that they're all positioned well for regular driving – the throttle is hinged from the bottom, which I like and the brakes are very progressive and have a lot of feel.
But if you're planning to do some spirited driving, you'll find that the accelerator pedal is positioned too far back relative to the brakes, which makes heel-and-toe downshifts next to impossible. A bit of a shame, especially when you consider how good the gearbox is.
I should probably talk about the engine now. It pulls strongly from mid-range and has very linear power delivery, so you don't feel like you need to downshift every time you meet a hill. It is well-matched to the gearbox too and, combined with the low kerb weight of 1,037kg (gosh these brochures are handy) make for a very drivable, zippy car.
The engine is very quiet during normal driving – I often have to check the tachometer to see if it's still running when at idle. However, it has a nice roar on full throttle, probably the nicest-sounding 1.5-litre engine I've ever heard.
The only annoying thing about it is the auto start/stop system (dubbed i-Stop). It's ridiculous for use in a manual because it cuts the engine whenever you've come to a complete stop and have the clutch fully depressed. As you lift the clutch to move, you'll find that there's no power and the engine is about to start itself. Thank heavens there's a big button that lets you turn it off each time you get into the car, though I wish it would default to off instead.
The rest of the car has already been described in detail by other reviews and most of what they say rings true – it's a good-handling, fun-to-drive car with a good driving position and a classy interior but with slightly compromised practicality.
I'd like to add to that last point with some complaints of my own.
Firstly, the rear cabin is very cramped. I'm 187cm tall with a long torso and short legs, and can't fit in the back seat because my head presses against the ceiling. If you are long limbed instead, you'd probably fit but would have to fold yourself in half.
Secondly, while I can fit my kids' booster seats in the back, they can't fasten their belts by themselves because of the position of the buckles – deeply recessed and located too close (laterally) to the base of the boosters. Even worse, I can only reach the buckle for one seat by reaching across from the door on the opposite side. If you're planning to use a Mazda 2 to transport a pair of three- to eight-year-olds, do test it with your booster seats at a dealer.
Thirdly, rearward visibility is a bit poor. It's fine for looking out for traffic and making lane changes but it can be a bit hard to judge distances when reversing. The mirrors are ok, but the thick C-pillars and rising shoulder line do get in the way. You don't need a reversing camera, but I'm a bit sore that I had to pay about $700 for parking sensors.
And lastly, there aren't any hooks for your grocery bags in the tiny boot. So if you hear a “crunch!” during aggressive cornering, it's probably your carton of eggs.
Truth be told, I probably wouldn't have bought the Mazda 2 if it was to be my only car – it's far too impractical and lacks a lot of the little touches that make other small cars better suited for small families. But as an affordable, fun-to-drive second car where rear accommodation is only an occasional requirement, it's a good buy.