Finalist Mazda 2

IN A LESS COMPETITIVE YEAR, THIS COULD HAVE BEEN ANOTHER MAZDA WIN

NATHAN PONCHARD

ASMALL car that champions agility, mixed with the sophistication of a larger one.

That’s the new-generation 2.

As Mazda’s latest SkyActiv superstar so capably proved at the You Yangs Proving Ground, you don’t need an expensive entry ticket or a premium badge to expect engineering and dynamic excellence. And in the right application, you also don’t need a turbo to endow a petrol engine with amazing tractability.

It was this attribute, so expertly displayed by the six-speed manual Genki, that deeply impressed the COTY judges on the Gippsland road loops.

Just like last year’s Golf 90TSI manual, the three-pedal Mazda 2’s flexibility was tested from the tiny town of Kongwak, heading uphill from a 60km/h zone to greet hilly curves and an instant 100km/h limit. From 1500rpm in sixth gear at the bottom, the Genki hauled itself effortlessly to the top, cresting the last few bends at the posted limit. And yet leaving the manual 2 to labour in a high gear isn’t something its gearchange encourages you to do. Beautifully oiled, precisely defined and mechanically delicious, it’s worthy of a $100K sports car, let alone a sub-$20K hatchback, and bodes well for Mazda’s new-generation MX-5.

The excellent six-speed automatic Maxx didn’t escape high praise, either. Tied to the same sweet-revving yet wonderfully elastic 1.5-litre ‘SkyActiv-G’ four, the Mazda 2 auto demonstrated why it’s a class leader for transmission response and shift quality, especially when having a punt with Sport mode engaged, activated by a fiddly toggle at the base of the gearshift selector – a non-ergonomic action that, along with the primed transmission’s occasional over-eagerness to hold onto low gears, attracted some negative comment.

Away from the extremes of the proving ground, the mid-spec Maxx drew attention away from its funkier Genki stablemate.

Wearing the same brand of low-rollingresistance tyre (Dunlop Enasave EC300+) but in a slightly taller size (185/65R15 versus 185/60R16) with a lesser speed rating (T versus H), both the Maxx and Genki generated concerns about the firmness of their low-speed ride. But beyond residential-area speeds, both 2s markedly improved as surface challenges increased and velocities grew.

What became noticeable was the Maxx’s reduction in tyre noise and the superiority of its ride. Less favourable was the even tardier turn-in of the 15-inch-wheeled model. As with the larger 3, Mazda has deliberately lessened off-centre steering response and, until you become familiar with it, the result is not enough lock and more understeer than desirable when entering a corner. Drive around this trait and the 2 is a super-entertaining handler, especially the 16-inch-wheeled Genki, but the initial impression is one of favouring lazy comfort over the sporting immediacy its superb leather-wrapped steering wheel promises.

Riding up front in the 2’s mature yet characterful cabin is definitely where time has been spent on development. Its seats are supportive, especially the driver’s with height adjustment, and its driving position is excellent. Best of all is the superb instrument panel in mid- and high-grade 2s, with stitched materials in intelligent places and a general aura of being far more upmarket than its sticker price

86 wheelsmag.com.au “ Besides the 2's entertaining handling (on low-friction tyres even!), the best part is its drivetrain. Finest SkyActiv petrol yet, with brilliant tractability” NATHAN PONCHARD

Safety in numbers

DESPITE being quite a bit larg er than its predecessor – most notably it s 160mm inc rease in lengt h – the base 2 Ne o weighs only negl ig ibly more at 1027kg.

Tor sional rigidit y i s up 22 p erc ent, and t he use of u ltra-high-tensi le steel has i ncreased from 10 to 30 p ercent. Lighter doors also contribute to the 2’s t rim kerb weight. While the doors feel and sound light if you f lex t he handle, they close wit h a sol id thunk.

MAZDA 2

BODY Type 5-door hatchback, 5 seats L/W/H 4060/1695/1495mm Wheelbase 2570mm Track (f/r) 1495/1485mm Boot capacity 250 litres Weight 1027-1058kg DRIVETRAIN Layout front engine (east-west), FWD Engines 1496cc 4cyl (79kW/139Nm); 1496cc 4cyl (81kW/141Nm) Transmissions 6-speed manual; 6-speed automatic CHASSIS Brakes ventilated discs (f), drums (r) Tyres 185/65R15 – 185/60R16 Spare space-saver ADR81 fuel consumption 4.9-5.5L/100km Greenhouse emissions 114-128g/km Front airbags Side airbags Curtain airbags Knee airbags Collision mitigation OPT Crash rating n/a Prices $14,990 – $21,990 3-year retained value 73-76% Service interval 12 months/10,000km

Power games

88 wheelsmag.com.au T HERE are two engine tunes for the 2’s fizzy 1.5-litre SkyActiv-G four-cylinder a 79kW/139Nm V-P5 version wit h a four-into-one exhaust header in t he base Neo, and an 81kW/141Nm F-P5 version with four-into -two-i nto-one header for t he Maxx and Genki. Not only does the more intricate and freer-flowing exhaust deliver slightly more gr unt, it also improves fuel consumption. During t he road loops, the Genki manual averaged 6.9L/100km while the Maxx auto achieved 8.1L/100km. f – fo N a M in s c G t

would suggest, despite the reliance on hard plastics. Only the Maxx’s ludicrously tiny digital tacho drew persistent derision.

It’s almost totally illegible in the daytime, which surely undermines the effervescence of its brilliant engine.

Moving to the rear, you enter through quality-sounding doors and immediately notice that the 2 favours styling over packaging efficiency. But considering its sporty shape and athletic focus, the Mazda’s headroom, toe space and general seating comfort were all deemed more than acceptable for adults riding in the rear. And ditto its boot space; not classleading in size, but deep and reasonably accommodating for the 2’s station in life.

As for the road rumble and the hiss of the rear tyres on rough surfaces, perhaps children would be more forgiving than Wheels' hardened hacks!

In such a sterling COTY year, though, the tiniest fumble could well see the gong snatched out from underneath what may have been a winner in other years. And so it proved with the Mazda 2. Everyone fell in love with its drivetrain, its handling balance and terrific interior presentation, but Peugeot’s larger 308 with its more powerful 1.2-litre turbo four used less fuel on the road loops. Admittedly, the difference was minimal – 6.9L/100km versus 6.7 for the manuals – and the Mazda can survive on regular unleaded, but then it counters a fixed-price servicing deal with more frequent 10,000km visits.

Crucially, when matched against Honda’s bargain-basement Jazz, the same-price Mazda 2 Neo’s lack of cruise control availability, and the $778 cost of having a reversing camera fitted (which also includes MZD Connect) to Neo and Maxx dented its value appeal. And while the manual Genki entertained at its dynamic limit and impressed during static appraisal, refinement and ride shortfalls alongside the cheaper Maxx left everyone pin-pointing the mid-spec Mazda 2 as the model to go for.

So this fabbo supermini didn’t quite have the silver lining needed to deliver Mazda its seventh Wheels Car of the Year win. But among such an amazingly accomplished field, the 2 demonstrated that Mazda’s ‘SkyActiv’ engineering philosophy and distinctive ‘Kodo’ design aesthetic are each going from strength to strength.