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First Oz drive: Modern Mazda2 has funky feel

To the Maxx: Mazda predicts the Mazda2 Maxx will be its biggest seller.

Mazda's revival continues with a convincing replacement for the 121

6 Dec 2002

THE ever-burgeoning mini-car choice just got that little more varied with the Australian launch of the Mazda2, the replacement for the 121 Metro.

A five-door hatchback only, the 2 comes hard on the heels of the Citroen C3 also launched this week, and just weeks after Honda's highly-lauded Jazz, the three of them pitched into the expensive end of the segment against the Peugeot 206, Renault Clio and Volkswagen Polo, the latter also launched this year.

Pushing the 2 further upmarket than its predecessor fits with Mazda's worldwide intention to recapture its image as one of Japan's most prestigious brands - an image it forsook with the old 121 Metro, the current 323 and the old 626, that was replaced here just months ago by the Mazda6 mid-sizer.

Next year the revival continues with the local launch of the RX8 rotary-powered four-door around mid-year. In early 2004 comes the replacement for the 323, the Mazda3.

But right now the emphasis is on the 2, a thoroughly conventional styling, mechanical and specification package distinguished by some thoroughly silly variant names. The base model is the Neo, the mid-spec the Maxx and the top-spec Genki, which apparently refers to spirit and joy in Japanese.

While shifting in their chairs at yesterday's press launch somewhat uncomfortably, executives of Mazda Australia defended the names as capturing the youthful spirit they want the cars to project. But they are not interested in projecting the names physically onto the cars.

No, in this entry level market the real interest is price and what you get for it. So Neo kicks things off at $17,790, the Maxx is $20,570 (and more expensive than the entry level $19,990 Mazda 323) and the Genki $22,195. Add $1750 if you want an automatic transmission, and then on-road costs to get the final total - no driveaway deals at this end of the light car market.

The base level of kit in Neo includes dual stage front airbags, anti-whiplash seats, air-conditioning, central locking, CD player and no-cost metallic paint.

Upgrade to the Maxx - which Mazda estimates will claim more than 50 per cent of all 2 sales - and you get a six-stack in-dash CD, 15-inch alloy wheels rather than 14-inch steel wheels, remote central locking, power windows and mirrors, wheel-mounted stereo controls and rear roof-mounted spoiler.

The Genki - which will claim only 10 per cent of sales from when it goes on the market in February - gets ABS brakes including EBD and brake assist (a first for a Mazda) and a bunch of cosmetic add-ons like a front spoiler, side and rear skirts and rear spoiler, and front foglights.

Inside, the cars are differentiated by their trim treatments. The Neo gets a conservative grey cloth trim, the Maxx upgrades with velour while the Genki pursues the sporty theme established outside the car.

Mechanically, however, all three cars are identical. They are based on a new platform shared with parent Ford's latest generation Fiesta - also expected to be sold here by 2004.

The 2 gets the standard suspension for the class - MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam at the rear - although this is a newly developed system that incorporates a lower A-arm at the front.

Power comes from a 1.5-litre four-cylinder all-aluminium engine from the new MZR family with double overhead camshafts, 16 valves and Mazda's S-VT continuously variable valve timing system.

It produces a very healthy, for the class, 82kW at 6000rpm and 142Nm at 4000rpm. That's 28 per cent up in power terms and 10 per cent up in torque compared to the 121's 1.5-litre engine. By the way, there's no engine to replace the 1.3 offered with the old 121.

No official performance figures are claimed but Mazda expects 0-100km/h times somewhere between 10 and 11 seconds for the manual, which is certainly competitive in the class.

It does claim a fuel consumption reduction in the city and on the highway, whether the MZR is mated to either five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions. Those gearboxes, by the way, are updated from the 121 rather than being all-new.

There's a new engine rev speed sensitive power-assisted rack and pinion steering system which has just 2.75 turns lock to lock, while the turning circle is a tight 9.8m. There's also larger and thicker disc brakes up front and wider drum brakes at the rear.

That's a good move considering the 2 is bigger in every external dimension than the 121 and heavier as well, weighing in at a minimum of 1068kg and a maximum of 1097kg - an increase of 100kg or more. Mazda also says the 2's body architecture is stronger and is confidently predicting "at the least" a four-star NCAP rating.

The body has been styled at Mazda's headquarters in Horishima and is a combination of evolution from the old car - still retaining its upright boxy shapes - plus some new corporate styling identifiers like the five-point grille, slim head and tail-lights and heavily sculpted bonnet, which is already a feature of the 6.

Inside there's further evidence of corporate style passed over from the 6, like the metal-look plastic centre console with integrated heating and audio controls and round air-conditioning vents.

But in these small cars it is the flexibility which is also a big issue and the 2 has it in spades, thanks to a rear bench seat that slides for and aft 100mm, split folds 50:50, double folds, has a recline function and, with the front seats, folds flat to create a double bed.

Minimum boot space is 280 litres and maximum is 1205 litres, with the capability of fitting in a couple of mountain bikes without taking the front wheels out - very important! Mazda Australia is keeping the lid on its expectations for the 2, forecasting 300 sales per month once the Genki comes on-stream next year. That's only marginally up on the old 121 which, even at the end of its life - albeit in run-out mode, was averaging 259 sales per month.

Pricing
Mazda2 Neo 1.5 man $17,790
Mazda2 Neo 1.5 auto $19,540
Mazda2 Maxx 1.5 man $20,570
Mazda2 Maxx 1.5 auto $22,320
Mazda2 Genki 1.5 man $22,195
Mazda2 Genki 1.5 auto $23,945

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

WHILE the exterior is pretty straight-forward and unexciting - in contrast to the angular challenges of the Jazz and the rounded cuteness of the C3 - get inside and the 2 really makes an impact.

There is a real feeling of modernity, funkiness and quality. The T-shaped dash with its bespoke metal-look centre console evokes the look of a home stereo and there's round air-conditioning vents at both ends of the dash similar to those seen in the 6.

Our sampling at the Melbourne-based launch was limited to the Maxx, which is cheery inside with a significant light-dark contrast in trim and plastics colours. All the fittings seem well matched and executed, but it is somewhat deceptive when you actually touch it - hard as a nut. No soft plastics in this environment.

Still, grasp the small, sporty, three-spoke steering wheel, fire the 2 up and head off and it is quickly apparent the cost cutting has not extended to the driving experience. As thoroughly conventional as the 2 is, it is also thoroughly convincing.

The engine is lively, smooth and quiet through most of its range, only penetrating the cabin significantly when revs rise beyond 5000rpm. It mates well to the clean-shifting manual gearbox and as well as can be expected to the auto, not hunting too much or taking too much edge off the performance.

The expected performance estimate is certainly believable given the engine's clean, revvy nature.

The chassis performance is equally good. The ride is supple and controlled - although the roads we sampled the car on lacked the brutality of the Sydney tarmac we have driven C3 and Jazz on recently.

The steering is poised and confident without any nasty kickback or noticeable torque steer, the 2 pointing in quickly and following the driver's chosen line without degenerating into tyre-squealing understeer.

The 2's increased dimensions have also liberated an impressive amount of interior space, with the sliding rear seat in particular ensuring that full-grown adults can be seated comfortably in both rows of seating for an extended amount of time.

Height adjustment on both the steering wheel and the seat - via a clever pump-action handle - ensures the driver can nestle in comfortably as well, and vision out of the cabin is good.

Overall, the 2 continues the direction Mazda introduced with the 6, developing a thoroughly conventional car that is impressive at virtually everything it does, including offering competitive value and performance against its rivals.

Yes, it adds further choice to the premium light category - and it's a choice certainly worth considering.

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