The old Mazda 323 of the late ’80s was adored by many for its simple utility, great fuel mileage and bombproof reliability – in fact, one of my colleagues expressed her ever-lasting love for them, having owned five in her lifetime. But it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a Mazda of that size and sparseness on this side of the Atlantic. But while 323 begat Protegé, which begat 3, each successive generation got larger, heavier, more powerful and complicated.
So Mazda’s recent announcement that its World Car of the Year-winning Mazda2 – the company’s three-, four- or five-door entry-level car in Europe and Asia – would arrive on our shores for sale next year was met with a hearty dose of nostalgia. The company threw itself a celebration by planning a cross-Canada road trip, driving the little car from St. John’s, N.L. to Victoria, B.C. and inviting journalists along to help log the kilometres. The leg MSN Autos Canada was scheduled to join – from Winnipeg, Man. to Regina, Sask. – was called off at the last minute. But, Mazda got the car in our hands once it was home from its sojourn.
Same attitude, smaller footprint
Discovering that this True Red press vehicle was sourced from Russia generated a few post-Soviet chuckles, but the styling is modern hatch with a few neat touches thrown in, including a belt line that’s actually lower than the previous-gen 2 to better aid outward visibility. The Mazda cues are obvious, and a recently revealed facelift adds a tamed version of the infamous Nagare smile that’s spreading like an infection through the company’s line-up. The rounded fenders remind you of both the CX-7 crossover and the RX-8 sports car, while the 15-inch alloy wheels fill the wheel arches nicely.
The Mazda2’s dimensions are compact; 300 mm shorter than a Honda Fit, but their wheelbases and widths are nearly identical, so the Mazda provides the same cabin room with shorter overhangs and a smaller footprint. The Fit is actually taller than the 2, but they provide similar headroom thanks to the Mazda’s lower seat height.
Less weight means more fun using less fuel
However, where the Mazda makes its mark is in weight, being nearly 200 kg lighter than the Fit thanks to some clever engineering of the suspension, exhaust, body shell and wiring harness. It’s also 100 kg lighter than the last Mazda2, which in modern times is a major miracle thanks to ‘feature creep’.
The featherweight helps in other areas, most notably allowing a smaller engine with modest power to feel adequate on the road. The 1.5-litre MZR four-cylinder engine uses variable valve and induction timing to make the most of its 102 horsepower. A five-speed manual transmission comes standard and helps the little Mazda get from 0-100 km/h in a reasonable 10.4 seconds, but our test car featured an optional four-speed automatic, which blunted acceleration slightly. Fuel economy on this Euro model is rated a 5.7 L/100 km combined, which compares nicely to the Fit, Nissan Versa and Toyota Yaris.
While the suspension follows a tried-and-true combination of MacPherson struts up front with a simple torsion beam out back, the level of work that went into spring and damper tuning is amazing. The 2 drives like any other Mazda, meaning it feels light and sporty with involved steering, but its stability on the highway and resistance to potholes is incredible. You can hear the thumps from broken pavement, but the Mazda glides right over them. And not rusty-old-Buick glide. There are no big motions, no rolling waves, just tightly controlled wheels doing their job properly. Hopefully Mazda will leave that tuning alone and resist either tightening the 2 down in pursuit of ‘sportier’ handling or letting it delver further into float to suit American tastes.
Jam-packed with goodies
This particular mid-level model is equipped very well by our standards. Things like ABS, EBD, and traction and stability control help with peace of mind, as do the six standard airbags. Convenience features abound, including air conditioning, an excellent stereo system, power glass sunroof and heated seats. The interior design is arguably nicer than the revised Mazda3, but the 2 would need at least a second cupholder to pass muster here. The front seats offer a good amount of adjustment and are comfortable and supportive over long drives. Even the rear seat offers good headroom and legroom.
The only real complaint comes in the cargo area that’s smaller than most, and with rear seats that don’t fold completely flat. A couple more accessible storage cubbies couldn’t hurt either.
The Wait is Almost Over
Those wondering why Mazda has waited two years to bring the 2 to North America have to only look to Detroit for an answer. Ford – Mazda’s eternal corporate partner and former major shareholder – is spending the moolah required to regionalize its own excellent Fiesta for sale here in 2010. And like many similar arrangements, the 2 and Fiesta share the same platform, so Ford is indirectly breaking trail for Mazda.
Otherwise, the Mazda2 will no doubt cramp the styles of Honda, Nissan and Toyota when it arrives in a year’s time. It is one seriously desirable vehicle that will have a broader appeal than the more-focused Ford Fiesta. And if it can keep the lid on pricing compared to its rivals, Mazda will most certainly have a major hit on its hands. All we can do is pray it comes delivered with as few changes as possible.
Specifications and features of the 2011 Mazda2 have yet to be finalized and are subject to change.
by Mark Atkinson, MSN Autos