Back to basics

After a flotilla of sports and prestige cars, Inwood joins the mainstream

ALEX INWOOD

OH, HOW the mighty have fallen. Iím sitting in my driveway at the wheel of my new long term Mazda 2, grappling with what can only be called a reality check.

Since joining Wheels two and a half years ago, Iíve enjoyed a golden run of long termers. Even as the office junior I managed to wangle a Toyota 86, then a Range Rover Evoque, and most recently a Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance.

Lofty heights, youíll agree, so the news that my next long termer would be a Mazda 2 Ė a budget city car Ė was difficult to swallow.

Granted, this makes me sound like a massive snob. I shouldnít have worried; this Mazda 2 is seriously impressive.

The model I have here is the range-topping Genki, which, thanks to $200 of premium paint costs $20,190. Thatís a five grand hike over the base $14,990 Neo, but thereís plenty of bling for your buck, like 16-inch alloys, automatic wipers, an enormous and intuitive 7.0-inch infotainment display, cruise control, Bluetooth, sat-nav and the same head-up display system as an up-spec Mazda 3.

It also has one of the best small-car interiors around. It might be a Ďlight carí, but the Genkiís carefully executed interior is wonderfully premium. The dash design is a masterstroke, as are the digital/analogue instruments and leather multi-function steering wheel. Even the Audi-esque circular air-con vents scream class.

The exterior design is a highlight, too. The old 2 was a soft, feminine thing to look at, but this new car, infused with Mazdaís Kodo design language and a new, angular front, is suitably handsome.

Where the 2ís magic really lies, though,

Model split

THE top-spec Genki we have here might bristle with high-tech toys and a stunning interior, but Mazda says the most popular variant will be the base $14,990 Neo (left), which will account for a whopping 60 percent of sales. Mid-spec Maxx and Genki models will each draw 20 percent of buyers. Neo models make do with a lower-output 79kW/139Nm 1.5-litre atmo four, roll on 15-inch steel wheels and, thanks to a plastic steering wheel and different instrument layout, lack the Genkiís interior sparkle.

OurGarage

is under the bonnet. After six months in the king of all Golf GTIs, I feared the 2ís engine would feel gutless. Again, I was wrong.

Genki and mid-spec Maxx variants run a higher output, higher compression (13.0:1) version of Mazdaís new 1.5-litre naturally aspirated four and itís a gem. Muscular, flexible and almost unbelievably tractable, itís easily one of the best applications of Mazdaís SkyActiv engine tech.

True, given its modest 81kW and 141Nm outputs, the Genki is no powerhouse, but select the right gear and it never feels underpowered, even on hilly roads. And swapping cogs in the 2ís crisp six-speed manual íbox is no hardship. In fact, the beautifully oiled, mechanical-feeling gearshift is so sweet Iíve found myself changing ratios unnecessarily, purely for fun.

The one glaring chink in the Genkiís armour is the lack of a reversing camera, which is a $420 option. This oversight is a shame, not only because competitors such as Hondaís base $14,990 Jazz include one as standard, but because the 2ís narrow, sweeping glasshouse and thick C-pillar mean gearshift you really need one. Reversing out of angle parks is a rather tricky experience.

Still, I can honestly say that, so far, Iím rapt in the little Mazda. Itís so convincing that if Iíd just dropped $20K of my own hard-earned on it, I wouldnít be disappointed. It not only boasts remarkable value and an involving, economical drivetrain, but thanks to its stylish new look and superb interior, it has character and personality, too.

Reality check? Pah, seems my golden run of long termers continues.

PEDAL POWER

Mazda moved the pedals 20mm further into the footwell to optimise what is an excellent driving position

Is bigger better?

NEW Mazda 2 is larger than its predecessor everywhere except width. Overall length has grown 160mm, itís 20mm taller and the wheelbase is 80mm longer. Its wheels now sit closer to the carís corners, and while the new 2 isnít necessarily roomier, itís a lot more comfortable. Front seats, which come from the Mazda 3, are wide yet supportive, as is the rear bench.

MAZDA 2 GENKI

Date acquired: February 2015 Price as tested: $20,190 This month: 1047km @ 5.9L/100km Overall: 1047km @ 5.9L/100km