Of all the Japanese manufacturers, Mazda with its zoom zoom ethos has long time offered one of the most complete mix of exciting vehicles across their model line up. With one exception, the smallest vehicle of the range, the Mazda2.
But that's about to change.
Aiming to attract a dynamic new audience, the new 2 bears no resemblance to its practical but boxy predecessor. Sorry Nana.
The sharp exterior styling was inspired - by all things - an Italian paper knife. Sounds weird we know, but clean, flowing body lines and cutesy face give the littlest Mazda a character that will certainly appeal to younger buyers. This is especially true with the range-topping Sport model that offers a more aerodynamic bumper, fog lamps, side skirts and rear spoiler.
Mazda styling DNA is there, but a shame it's been diluted a bit from models like the RX-8, MX-5 or the new Mazda6 revealed at September's Frankfurt motor show.
Unlike most new models that put on weight as they evolve, the Mazda2 has impressively shed almost 100kg, when your talking superminis that's a lot. The car is slightly smaller though and 41mm have been shaved of the vehicle's length, 65mm from the height, although these dimensional reductions equate to only 40kg. The rest of the weight loss is a result of a gram-by-gram strategy as employed in the MX-5.
One could accuse Mazda's engineers of not having enough spare time; they tirelessly look for ways to lighten separate vehicle components. 22kg from the body shell due to new high strength, lightweight steels, 13kg from the suspension, 2.86 from the electrics, down to a freakishly fastidious 0.69kg thanks to thinner bonnet hinges and 0.98kg from the speaker magnets.
Being lighter means the 2 performs just as strongly as it always has, despite offering no real gain in power. In fact the official figure of 76kW @ 6000 rpm is less than the outgoing model, however this is mostly attributed to revised regulations that require output to be measured after (rather than ahead of) the catalytic converter.
The 1.5 litre power unit is carried over from the outgoing model, but receiving enhanced Sequential Variable Valve Timing (VVT) and variable intake tract to deliver a flatter torque curve and improved emissions. The engine is now Euro 4 compliant and emits 8% less CO2 (152 grams per kilometre).
Either the entry-level Classic spec or top end Sport offers a choice of five-speed manual or four-speed auto.
The manual powertrain option offers the best driveability in our opinion, feeling notably crisper and more responsive than the auto. Complementing the manual's sharper performance is a delightful short throw gearshift, precise and snicky linkages provide a sporty feel, not to dissimilar to that found in the MX-5.
In contrast, you really need to keep the rpm up to extract the most from the automatic.
Though impressively, refined noise vibration and harshness characteristics make for a quieter cabin than most of the 2's rivals.
The cabin is well appointed too, with a contemporary circular theme about the centre facia and instruments.
Cheap plastics are kept to a minimum and controls are so close to hand the steering wheel mounted audio controls (Sport model only) seem almost surplus to requirement.
A plunging rear window allows for excellent rear visibility and although not quite as practical as the square-ended model it replaces, boot space is commendable.
The occupant quarters feel less cramped up front, thanks to a slight increase in width, though taller passengers may miss the extra headroom of the old model when sitting in the rear.
Plenty of driving fun is at hand with a taut chassis for the class, the torsion beam rear end feels like the biggest limitation here, but in all it's lightweight glory the Mazda2 makes for an engaging drive. It also offers a refined ride, something you'd feel quite comfortable clocking up big mileage in on longer runs. A luxury once unheard of in small cars, but becoming the measuring stick for the class leaders in this category.
Active safety features include traction control and stability control, but only in Sport trim. The popular Suzuki Swift has shown that this is technology now affordable enough for manufacturers to include incorporate in a sub $20k small car. We see there being no real excuse for competitors not to follow suit, with the increasingly competitive market, even at this price point it's a feature that now belongs at standard entry level.
Passive safety however is as good as it gets across the board. Six airbags (front, side and curtain) are standard which is rare for the category. Incorporating a three-way load path design, impact energy is redirected away from occupants, while ultra high tensile steels in areas such as the A and B-pillars minimise the deformation of the core passenger cell. Official NCAP crash testing is yet to be carried out, but Mazda suggest a five out of five star rating can be expected.
Considering its entry price of $20,900 in manual Classic guise (a reduction of $570 over the outgoing model) comfort and convenience features are generous, and clearly geared toward a younger demographic.
The glovebox includes a small but handy magazine rack and there's an auxiliary input for your ipod. Don't worry, if you're so old fashioned you still listen to your MP3's on CD, the stereo will play them too.
The $23,100 manual Sport version exhibits the best value for money of the range, picking up audio controls for the leather wrapped steering wheel and an in-dash 6-disc CD player. Expect to pay an extra $1400 for an automatic transmission.