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Mazda2 the key to global growth

New baby: The Mazda2 will be 25 per cent more frugal than the current model, thanks to its 1.5-litre SkyActiv petrol powertrain.

Much-improved Mazda2 set to drive global growth and take back local light car crown

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Mazda logo20 Aug 2014

By TIM NICHOLSON in JAPAN

MAZDA Motor Corporation is confident its new-generation Mazda2 will “shatter preconceptions” across the world about the capabilities of a compact car, and considers the fully redesigned light hatch a key element in the company’s quest for record sales growth and profitability this financial year.

Due in Australian dealerships at the beginning of November, the new-from-the-ground-up model carries improvements across the board over the current generation, notably on-road performance, refinement, fuel efficiency, in-car connectivity, advanced technology and all-round safety.

Although Mazda admits to being a relatively small player in global automotive terms, the Japanese car-maker posted a record profit last financial year (ending 31 March, 2014) of ¥135.7 billion ($A1.41b), on the back of an eight per cent sales increase to 1.33 million units.

Speaking at the international launch of the Mazda2 in Japan this week, MMC general manager of global sales and marketing Yasuhiro Aoyama said the company is targeting a further 18 per cent profit increase and a 6.7 per cent boost in sales to 1.42 million units by the end of this fiscal year, with the new Mazda2 driving the growth.

“Our aim in redesigning the Mazda2 was to shatter people’s preconceptions about what a small car could be. In every area – design, driving performance, functionality and so on – we aim to defy all expectations and I have no doubt we have done that,” Mr Aoyama said.

“If we can ensure the all-new Mazda2 is a global hit – just like our other new-generation products have been – then it will become a driver for further growth of the Mazda brand. We intend to make that happen.”

While MMC has high expectations for the new city runabout, the company’s Australian subsidiary is quietly confident the Mazda2 can return to the sales form it has enjoyed in its current generation, wresting back market leadership in the light car segment.

Mazda2 has slipped to second place behind the Hyundai i20 this year, and is now battling to hold on to this position with Toyota’s Yaris. The 2’s sales were down 21 per cent to the end of July (7633 units), while the i20 has defied the general downturn in the segment with 15.5 per cent growth over the same period (8721).

Mazda Australia senior manager of public relations Steve Maciver told GoAuto that while the company does not push for its models to rule their respective segments, he said the new Mazda2 has all the ingredients to return to the top of the table.

“Absolutely, the car has got every potential to be the best-selling light car in Australia, there is no doubt about it,” he said, pointing to improvements in terms of design, refinement, technology, safety and fuel efficiency.

Mr Maciver confirmed that the Australian-spec Mazda2 will be sourced from Thailand, which marks a shift from Japan, and that pricing – which is still to be finalised – would be “the right value offer” in the marketplace. “There is a lot of movement in that segment right now,” he said. “We are keeping an eye on what’s going on, we have got an idea of where we think ...

our pricing will end up.

“Needless to say we always have a vision of delivering good value to our customers and this car will absolutely continue that.” The movement in the segment includes facelifts or full-model changes for a number of players in the busy segment, including the Volkswagen Polo, Honda Jazz and Kia Rio this year and the i20 next year.

The new Mazda2 model range is also still to be confirmed but GoAuto understands three grades will be offered, mirroring the strategy Mazda took for the launch of the current model in 2007 before it reduced the range to two variants – Neo Sport and Maxx Sport.

The new hatchback gains Mazda’s MZD connectivity system, the HMI head-up display and the commander control in the centre console that links with a seven-inch display perched on top of the dash – and all will be offered at least on some variants in Australia.

Mazda’s i-ACTIVESENSE active safety system that features collision avoidance technology such as radar cruise control, lane departure warning, a rear vehicle monitor, forward collision warning and high-beam headlight control will also be available.

One area Mazda is keen to talk up is the exterior styling, with the Mazda2 penned using the company’s ‘Kodo’ design philosophy that has influenced the look of the Mazda3, Mazda6 and CX-5.

Chief designer Ryo Yanagisawa, who also sculpted the BT-50 ute, said the design team worked towards the mission of “no compromises” for the Mazda2, and added that the look of the hatch gave the impression of a cheetah ready to pounce.

While the silhouette appears similar to the current car, the front and rear styling is a dramatic departure from the existing model.

At the front, the headlights and grille are set low, in a similar manner to the Mazda3, while a thick chrome line that borders the lower part of the grille before jutting off into the headlights – Mazda calls it a ‘wing’ – gives a premium look.

Some higher-end variants will feature a red highlight that runs across the centre of the grille.

The headlights – LED on higher-spec variants – have a U-shape pattern that Mazda says gives a look of “the eyes of a beast”. This U-shape theme is repeated on the tail-lights that sit high up for a cleaner tail end.

The new model is 160mm longer and 20mm higher than the outgoing model, but maintains its 1695mm width. The wheelbase has been stretched by 80mm, with the wheelhouse pushed further forward, but it seems to have had a negative impact on legroom.

Space up front for occupants’ legs is down by 5mm and it drops by 4mm in the rear. While it does not make a dramatic difference, it is surprising. The movement of the wheelhouse further to the front means there is 20mm more space in the driver’s footwell.

In terms of interior design, Mazda said it took some inspiration from European cars, and the most obvious contender here is the Audi A1.

The dash is clean and well executed and the circular aeroplane-style air vents are a stylish touch but very Audi. There are four air vents across the dash but one of the centre units has been integrated into a line that runs across the fascia to maintain the clean look.

There are small amounts of chrome and some carbon-fibre patterns on the console panels, and the seven-inch screen sits neatly atop the centre stack. However, we drove the Singapore-spec model and will not know for a little while whether Australian cars will match this.

The high-grade model we drove featured a two-tone cabin with faux leather across the dash which offered an appealing contrast to the darker tones and harder plastics, and super-comfortable cream leather seats that offer loads of support.

Mazda said its engineers worked hard to make the new car more enjoyable to drive over longer distances and the seats are a large part of this.

One key improvement is the addition of reach adjustment on the steering wheel, which the outgoing model does not have, and the only real negative for us was the lack of any storage for rear-seat passengers. No drink holders and no door pockets.

The front of the cabin was designed as two separate “zones”, with the driver’s area offering a cockpit-like feel. Overall, it is a huge leap over the current model. High-quality materials make for a premium European feel – in top-spec versions at least – and there is plenty of headroom up front and in the rear.

The new Mazda2 marks the local debut of the company’s 1.5-litre SkyActiv four-cylinder petrol engine which will be offered in two tunes for the Australian market – 81kW/141Nm and 79kW/139Nm, replacing the current 76kW/135Nm unit.

A 1.5-litre SkyActiv D diesel unit and a smaller 1.3-litre petrol engine have been ruled out.

Mazda Australia is saving fuel consumption figures for closer to launch but the company said to expect a 25 per cent improvement over the current model which drinks 6.8 litres per 100km in automatic guise, pointing to a figure close to 5.0L/100km.

If this is the case, the Mazda2 – which will feature automatic engine idle-stop – will be one of the most frugal entrants in the light car segment, but it could get pipped at the post by the new Volkswagen Polo that has an official figure of 4.8L/100km from its 66kW/160Nm 1.2-litre four-cylinder 66TSI.

The lightweight SkyActiv body is said to have improved rigidity by 22 per cent over the outgoing model, but Mazda is staying mum on kerb weight, for now.

Improvements have been made to noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels, thanks to the use of new sound insulation materials, while Mazda says the new SkyActiv Drive six-speed automatic transmission and changes to the chassis have also had a positive impact.

Our drive of the new Mazda2 was limited to a few laps on a race circuit in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, so determining the full effectiveness of the NVH improvements will have to wait for a more detailed review following the Australian launch.

The vehicle we drove was 4kW more powerful than the beefiest Australian version and we only sampled the six-speed auto, although a six-speed manual will be available on some variants here.

While the track was wet due to constant rain on the day, the Mazda2 shines, handling corners with ease and offering an engaging and thoroughly enjoyable drive thanks to its punchy little engine and strong dynamics.

From a standing start there is the tiniest amount of hesitation, despite the fact it is not a turbo, but acceleration is solid, particularly when you flick the ‘Sport’ button in the console that gives a bit of extra kick.

The little Mazda pulls up well under hard braking, and while the track did not throw up any uneven patches, any bumps we encountered were effectively smoothed out.

Mazda’s six-speed auto is smooth, shifting up and down without fuss and the manual-mode paddles offer an extra level of driver engagement.

Steering is linear and offers some weight without feeling heavy, and while the ride was composed, we are looking forward to judging how the Aussie version handles local roads.

Mazda says our car will be more like the European-spec models, which means the ride will be slightly stiffer and steering a little sharper than the Singapore-market car driven here.

There is little doubt that the redesigned 2 is a big improvement over the outgoing model, which itself is still an appealing package offering an enjoyable drive.

The light car segment is becoming increasingly competitive and experiencing pressure from other areas of the market, with more new models on the way and the arrival of a number of sub-compact SUVs.

But the Mazda2 is impressive on virtually all fronts – cabin quality, styling, promised fuel savings, engine performance, driving enjoyment and safety.

There is clearly enough here to remain a leading player on the light car scene.

Pricing might make or break the deal for many buyers, but the full package here is world-class that makes it a formidable contender against not just the big-volume players from Asia, but several European brands as well.

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