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First drive: All-new Mazda2 sharpens up

Early look: The design of the next-generation Mazda2 was previewed by the Hazumi concept (left) from this year's Geneva motor show.

GoAuto takes a drive in Mazda’s sixth-generation light car ahead of October launch

Mazda logo30 Jun 2014

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

MAZDA is still to officially unveil its sixth-generation light car, but a drive in a prototype of the all-new Mazda2 in Japan has revealed a thorough overhaul with modifications to driveability, dynamics and control that are nothing short of a revolution.

Under the camouflage, the redesigned compact car – which is due in Australia in October – looks much the same as the current DE-series Mazda2.

However, the Japanese manufacturer has left no stone unturned with this DJ-series model that was developed over the past four years under the banner “communication between car and driver”.

Full specifications are still to be provided, but the new Mazda2 is longer and taller, much more sophisticated in terms of its engineering and technology, has a higher-quality cabin, feels more refined and composed from behind the wheel and carries significant powertrain improvements, including a new 1.5-litre engine in two states of tune.

In short, it feels like a shrunken Mazda3 – and that is no bad thing.

At Mazda’s Mine proving ground in Mine City, Yamaguchi prefecture, in western Japan a few weeks ago, the company revealed the first details about its new-generation light car.

Built on a modified version of the Mazda3’s platform – the Ford Fiesta connection is severed after two generations that started with the 2002 DY series – the body has grown significantly over its predecessor, busting through the four-metre mark at 4060mm long (+160mm) and 1500mm high (+25mm). Only the width at 1695mm remains the same.

Vitally, the DJ’s wheelbase is also longer at 2570mm – an 80mm stretch – to liberate more space inside.

Mazda is staying mum on interior dimensions for now, but we can confirm that there is palpably more rear legroom and cargo space.

Kerb weight is also still under wraps, and although the bigger dimensions and extra technology onboard bring extra kilos, Mazda has revealed that 10 per cent was cut from the body-in-white – among a slew of other areas.

When all is said and done, the new Mazda2 should weigh about the same as it does now, with the current entry-level Neo tipping the scales at just 1010kg.

An all-new 1.5-litre four-cylinder SkyActiv G petrol engine will be employed in two states of tune, with both expected to offer improved performance, better fuel economy and lower emissions.

While the base version will offer 79kW of power and 139Nm of torque, a more upmarket option on higher grades will employ more sophisticated technology such as the full SkyActiv ‘4-2-1’ exhaust system.

The same engine in the Japanese-market Mazda3 delivers 82kW at 6000rpm and 144Nm at 3500rpm, putting the new Mazda2 in front of the current model’s 76kW/135Nm 1.5-litre MZR engine.

As GoAuto has reported, a diesel engine – in this case, an all-new 77kW/250Nm 1.5-litre SkyActiv D four-cylinder unit – is not on the agenda for the Australian market.

In common with most entrants in the light-car segment, the suspension comprises MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam axle at the rear, while the steering is an electrically assisted rack-and-pinion set-up.

But everything has been comprehensively redesigned for its role underneath the new Mazda2.

“Our goal is to make the vehicle act precisely to the driver’s intent,” said Mazda Motor Corporation’s deputy program manager for vehicle development, Takeo Moriuchi.

“Suspension should be light yet flexible – no need to take away motion completely but just to match (the driver’s expectations).

“Acceleration must also match the driver’s sense … and the same is true with cornering and braking.

“It is like the relationship between horse and rider as one.” Dynamic benchmarks included the Fiesta and Volkswagen’s Polo, while the Honda Jazz and Toyota Yaris were name-checked as yardsticks in other areas of the vehicle.

As with the latest Mazda3, the interior has been completely overhauled, with the focus being on the car-maker’s “human-centred” philosophy.

The front A-pillars are thinner and positioned 100mm further back for improved visibility, plinth-mounted exterior mirrors reduce blind spots, the seats are softer yet more supportive and a new ‘organ-style’ pedal set-up avoids wheelarch intrusion.

There is now tablet-style touchscreen availability, the switchgear is simpler yet more ergonomically sound, instrumentation is clearer and better positioned, and significant measures have been undertaken to reduce noise, vibration and harshness (NVH).

As per the Mazda3, there will also be a raft of new driver-assist technologies available to help make the latest 2 safer than before.

These should include radar cruise control, low-speed autonomous braking, higher-speed autonomous brake-impact mitigation, lane-change warning, forward obstacle warning, blind-spot monitoring, automatic high-beam dipping and a cross-traffic alert system.

Sitting in a pre-production prototype with none of the finishes or garnishes that will be deployed on the final, the new Mazda2 still makes a great first impression.

Gone is the twee cheap-and-cheerful look of the current model for a more contemporary effort that, while still youthful and even a bit playful in its presentation, now has a greater quality feel.

There is elegant symmetry to the horizontally focused fascia, the tablet-like touchscreen (on higher-spec versions) is instantly appealing and, hallelujah, the Mazda2 has also finally gained reach adjustment for its steering wheel, helping the driver find a natural and comfortable position.

There is plenty of storage where you expect it and the rear seat is roomy enough for this class, although the fixed-position rear seat cushion reduces cargo-carrying versatility compared to some rivals.

On the road, however, the new Mazda2 seems to have taken a massive step forward in terms of refinement and composure.

We are always cautious about delivering a verdict based on a drive around a car company’s proving ground, with the home-turf advantage showing the car off in the best possible light.

But there is no mistaking that the new DJ – which looks much the same as the still-pretty seven-year-old DE series – drives and feels like a very different beast We dove a Euro-spec Mazda2, meaning there is more of an emphasis on higher-speed stability than the all-round comfort that the other two set-ups prioritise (US and Japan).

For our market, a bit of cherry picking will take place where the “best of what’ s available” will be implemented, according to Mazda Australia.

We hope it’s as good as what the Europeans will enjoy, because the littlest Mazda turns in cleanly and carves through corners with impressive finesse.

The impression we gained is that the chassis feels lighter and more agile on its feet yet significantly more substantial in terms of control.

And we drove on Michelin 185/65 R15 tyres that we expect will be the standard rubber spec in Australia.

It was downright impossible to ascertain both ride quality and road-noise intrusion – being a Mazda we’re always expecting to be disappointed with the latter – so we’ll have to wait until a drive in Australia before we can make a definitive judgement there.

But, boy, are we sure looking forward to it! Australian-spec engines were unavailable, leaving us to sample the Euro-market 55kW/130Nm 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine paired with a five-speed manual gearbox (ours will be six-speed as standard).

What we ended up with is a smooth and willing unit that impresses with its quiet operation – up to a point. This engine seemed to have a strange power drop-off accompanied by a bit of harshness around the 4500rpm mark.

Yet the gearchange’s slickness is a delight – and we’re told that the six-speeder feels identical – while the helm feels planted yet fluid from the get-go.

On first acquaintance, the new 2 may look superficially similar to what went before, but the modifications to driveability, dynamics and control are nothing short of a revolution.

Mazda’s goal, “to put a smile on the customer’s face – anytime, anywhere” seems to have been achieved.

Stay tuned. The reigning Polo may have just met its match!

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