Light on its feet: the Mazda2 is one of the nimblest in its class, with a distinctly European feel.
By shaving more than 10 per cent from the Mazda2's weight, its makers may well be starting a beneficial and long-needed trend, writes DAVE MOORE.
It looks delightful, drives with nimbleness and aplomb and feels as well made as any car in its class, but the big story about the new Mazda2 is that it is 100kg lighter, or more, depending on the version, than its boxy little predecessor.
Now 100kg may not sound like very much, but next time the check-in people remark that they'll let your bulging "only just over 20kg" suitcase through at the airport, multiply that by five and figure out what effect it could have on your car's performance and economy. Simply put, the greater the weight a car has to propel, the greater the amount of fuel it will need.
The Mazda design people carved most of the Mazda2's 100kg weight saving from its bodyshell. A fifth of the shell's weight is now ultra-high tensile steel, which is expensive, but offers more strength by weight than other steels. Thus, weight savings can be made from non-load-bearing areas, while the higher-tensile material reinforces such places as where the suspension meets the bodyshell, as well as for creating a solid link between the two front suspension towers and to reinforce key areas of the floorpan.
Additional body stiffness and weight saving has been made by raising the rear load lip and eschewing the previous models deeper hatch. Making owners lift their luggage a few extra centimetres is the only real compromise to be found here. So that the lighter body doesn't transmit too much road noise, Mazda has stamped large dimples into the floorpan, lowering the resonance rates and at the same time stiffening things up in this area. The suspension, exhaust system and a simplified rear-seat mechanism have also been on a diet, and everything from the car's stereo speakers to its trim, dash and console have been fettled for simplicity and lighter weight.
It's worth mentioning that despite many makers offerings "blowing-out" in terms of weight over recent years, usually in the name of safety and home comfort, it appears that the Mazda has managed to carve a chunk out of its avoirdupois without compromising space, equipment and safety levels. In fact, on that last count, the company is confident that the Mazda2 will achieve a five-star rating when it is crash-tested by Euro NCAP at the end of the year.
Crash resistance, stable handling, and noise, vibration and harshness levels can all suffer if a car's strength and rigidity are compromised, and it would be true to say that a quiet, agile and smooth-riding small car is displaying all the tell-tale qualities of solid, well-thought-out design and engineering.
A car with less than satisfactory body rigidity is more difficult to insulate against engine and road noise and this is one of the reasons why heavier, larger cars are more hushed at high speeds. You can detect when a car's suspension is compensating for shortcomings in its chassis stiffness. The car will be easily put off-line by bumps, it will wallow and feel insecure when cornering.
Which is what makes the Mazda2 so uncanny when driving it hard. This car shows no weight-saving compromises like those I've described. It changes direction with resolute precision and lack of drama on one of the most devilishly contrived test tracks it has been my pleasure to experience. Off-camber bends conspired with unnaturally radiused curves to attempt to overload the car's suspension and impose as much twisting action as possible on the body itself.
There wasn't a creak nor a wobble, and trust me, on a closed track it's possible to expose a car to far greater loads than is possible on public roads.
The car uses electric power steering and it is one of the better of its type: accurate, responsive and obviously fuel-saving by not causing drag from the engine. It also has better feel than most electric systems - important if you want fun to be part of the driving equation.
Not distracted by negative influences on the car's handling and ride quality, I was able to concentrate on other aspects of the new Mazda. The 76kW 1.5-litre engine is smooth enough and doesn't mind revving, but this is possibly just as well, for it felt a little short of mid-range torque for my liking.
Mind you, I had to be reminded that this is a common or garden variety of Mazda2, not a special, performance-enhanced version. I'd probably been conned into expecting more from the engine because the chassis was so good. In fact, it's the very first Japanese small car that drives, handles and rides like a grown-up one. This is going to charm the socks off the down-sizers out there and it might just hit the funny-bone of younger new car aspirants, too, for no used import ever felt as good as this in the driving pleasure department.
It looks good, too, as you can see, displaying a similarity to Mazda's stunning Sassou concept shown at the Frankfurt show almost two years ago. The Mazda2's designer Ikuo Maeda says his five-door baby was signed-off some time before the show car, though.
The Mazda2's dominant visual element is the front to rear rising waistline, which links a complex headlamp design and RX-8-like front quarters wings to a neat little up-kick flourish at the confluence of the rear pillars. It should be no surprise that the car has a slight RX-8 influence, for the clamshell-doored sportster was also penned by Maeda-san. It is all a far-cry from the taller, boxier old Mazda2, which probably didn't look as well as it drove.
Inside, there are other RX-8 design cues, such as the circular, centre-mounted entertainment cluster, with its main controls arranged above and below a diametric bar that extends either side of the circle. It's simple and elegant.
Another neat touch is a glovebox that can be opened like a conventional one, but which contains an upper slot that allows you to stow or access maps and magazines without having to pop the lid.
In between the front seats is a neat shelf for handbags or small notebook bags, keeping them well away from the floor. The seats themselves have obviously been contrived to hold and comfort drivers against the car's not inconsiderable potential cornering forces. Out back, passengers will enjoy slightly above segment-average legroom, and well-shaped seat bases. However, it's not such great news for big luggage items, as the boot is 17-litres smaller than the previous model's and as well as that higher loading lip, the albeit simpler rear seat folding mechanism leaves a considerable step when deployed and scant sliding space for heavier boxes and cases.
But you don't buy a car this size as a load carrier. It's a close to entry point mode of transport, with the emphasis on style, verve and desirability, and it's unlikely that those beguiled by the car's design, gamin and top-notch quality will turn it down on the basis of its boot.
No, with silkily textured interior materials, whether they be fabrics or vinyls, to match the delightfully organic body design, which is cinched very tightly together by the way, the Mazda2 has just about every box emphatically ticked.
When the Mazda2 reaches New Zealand in September, there will be Classic and Sport models, each with the 76kW 1.5-litre engine and with a choice of five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions. Each version will be air-conditioned and will take front, side and curtain airbags and ABS as standard, while the Sport will add electronic stability control, alloy wheels and a subtle body kit, that the Mazda2's designer says was created to enhance and not to ruin the car's engaging good looks.
The timing of the new Mazda2 is perfect for its maker. The albeit effective but slightly frumpy old Mazda2 stuck out like sore thumb in the company's showrooms among such elegant fare as the Mazda3 and Mazda6, not to mention Maeda-san's gorgeous RX-8. In contrast, I reckon the Mazda2 will probably be seen as the prettiest model in the company's line-up, and I know from its designer that its design signature is the precurser of upcoming redesigned Mazda6s and Mazda3s over the next couple of years. The good news is that the Mazda2's visual appeal is more than skin-deep. It's matched by its talent and quality. It's the best Japanese small car I've ever looked at or driven and I'll be pleased to put it up against the cream of the Europeans. Watch this space later in the year and we'll find out if it's the best small car of all.
VERDICT: The new Mazda2 is the first and only Japanese small car to offer European driving standards, and its new lighter-weight design should surely be a bandwagon that other carmakers will leap on to. A segment-changing car.