Expert rating: 83/100
Engine, drivetrain and chasis: 16/20
Price, packaging and practicality: 18/20
Safety and technology: 18/20
Behind the wheel: 18/20
Mazda has reintroduced sedan variants of the Mazda2 after an absence of about four years.
This time the importer is offering two levels of trim to broaden the car’s appeal.
The new sedan may account for as little as 10 per cent of Mazda2 sales – around 1300 sedans, based on last year’s VFACTS figures. However, Honda’s City sold over 2700 last year – setting a benchmark for the Mazda2 sedan to match.
Mazda was on a winner with its 121 sedan back in 1990. Anyone over 30 will remember the TV commercial – with a girlfriend tipping a bucket of water on her boyfriend from an upstairs window as he washed the car in street, all to the music of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
While the 121 sedan was a hit at the time, it was probably the last occasion a light sedan left an impression of that kind in the psyche of the Australian car-buying public.
Since then hatchbacks have become the dominant force in the light car segment, despite being noisier than sedans and frequently lacking boot space.
Furthermore, there’s an argument that extra sheet metal jutting out ‘behind’ a sedan might just save occupants (kids!) seated in the rear from serious injury in a nose-to-tail collision.
Hatchbacks aren’t without aces up their sleeves, however.
They’re (very) slightly easier to park, and you can actually transport a 120L bar fridge in the back of one with the seats folded down, as I know from personal experience.
The Mazda2 sedan won’t cart around a bar fridge, but it does provide plenty of luggage capacity – 440 litres – for porta-cots and prams, so it’s a serious consideration for small families.
The 60/40 split-fold seats fold down for even more volume by yanking on two cable releases in the boot.
They don’t fold fully flat or flush with the boot floor (and naturally there’s a limit to the height of items that can pass through from the boot into the cabin) but the 2’s boot itself is deep and features a low loading lip.
Room is maximised by the use of a space-saver spare wheel.
Rear-seat accommodation is pretty typical of modern light cars.
Headroom is border line, and kneeroom is marginal for adults.
In effect, the rear seat is best reserved for kids.
Those of average height could probably endure short trips.
At least there is plenty of room under the front seats for rear-seat passengers to park their feet.
Accommodation in the front suits adults much better.
The seats, although firm, are comfortable and well shaped.
Behind the wheel, the dashboard layout and controls are pretty standard ergonomic practice from Mazda and identical to the hatch variant.
While the speedo is large and easy to read, the minor instruments flanking the speedo are harder to take in at a glance.
Major controls are where they should be and operate appropriately.
For the Mazda2 Maxx, a large (seven-inch) colour touch screen sits slightly proud of the dash top and provides immediate access to different infotainment facilities via Mazda’s single-point controller.
Mazda calls the system that this interface operates ‘MZD Connect’.
It’s this infotainment screen and the red detailing across the dash that readily set the Mazda2 Maxx apart from the Neo model.
The entry-level Mazda2 Neo makes do with a smaller, monochrome infotainment display, but is well equipped for the price, regardless.
Switches for the heating and cooling system (rotary dials and buttons) are conventional units that are large and clearly labelled.
Both cars, curiously, feature two conventional eyeball vents for the driver and one (outboard) for the front-seat passenger.
There’s a rectangular vent located in the dash for the front passenger.
It visually complements the styling of the centre fascia and dash top, but is at odds with the three round vents.
On the move, the sedan’s extra length and rearranged weight distribution seemed to have little impact on the Mazda2’s cornering ability or ride quality.
Noise and vibration were generally well suppressed, although rough stretches of bitumen did bring out more road noise.
As with many light cars, the Mazda2 seems built for people who find twirling the steering wheel to be demanding at the best of times.
The light electric power steering delivered more consistent feedback in the Maxx.
Both cars turned in adeptly, but the Maxx was that little bit easier to place on the road, thanks to the extra feel.
There were limited opportunities available to assess the Mazda2 sedan for roadholding and handling, but the overall message received was one of safe but ‘nippy’ dynamics.
Ride quality was impressive in most circumstances, but there was enough crash-through over potholes to remind you that this is a light car.
Like other cars in the segment, the Mazda2 is fitted with drum brakes at the rear.
Of the two engines available, the higher-output unit in the Mazda2 Maxx is easily the more refined.
Both engines deliver handy torque from relatively low revs – even the Neo’s engine will run down to below 1500rpm in gear without labouring.
Two extra kilowatts and two added Newton-metres aren’t immediately apparent in day-to-day driving, but the 81kW/141Nm (Maxx) engine is a bit sweeter to run up to redline than the 79kW/139Nm (Neo) powerplant.
There’s a slight coarseness through the mid range in the Neo engine, but it smooths out at higher revs. It’s an engine that is better to use closer to the redline – if that’s your preference – or short-shifting before 3000rpm.
Certainly, the Neo engine is more enjoyable with the standard manual transmission than with the optional automatic.
That might be due to the closeness of the ratios in the manual.
The manual transmission shift action is light and precise in both variants.
It’s an object lesson for a couple of European brands in how to engineer a car with the right sort of shift quality.
On the subject of transmissions, the Mazda2 is one of relatively few sedans in its segment to offer a six-speed manual transmission.
Others are often five-speed jobs, the Hyundai Accent being one other exception.
It’s a similar story with automatics; the Mazda unit is a six-speed, when Toyota is still selling the Yaris with a four-speed automatic.
For its part, the Mazda2 Maxx seems equally satisfying with manual or automatic.
Both engines deliver easily-tapped power, although as with most 1.5-litre light cars, the performance can be on the leisurely side – particularly in higher gears.
Fuel consumption varied wildly across the different variants driven, but never went above 10L/100km.
The Mazda2 Neo with automatic transmission returned a figure of 9.7L/100km after a fairly spirited drive through the Adelaide Hills.
A quieter run (mostly downhill) on the final leg of the drive program saw a manual Maxx get down to 5.1L/100km, according to the trip computer.
In more realistic driving around town the next morning, the Maxx auto turned in a respectable figure of 6.4L/100km.
Mazda packages the Mazda2 Maxx with i-Stop auto stop-start to save fuel.
Mazda says the ADR combined fuel figures are 5.4L/100km for the Neo and 5.2 for the Maxx (both manuals).
All things being equal, the higher-grade variant should also use less fuel in the real world.
Build quality is on par with the Mazda2’s rivals in the light car segment.
It’s a case of ‘near enough’, with tell-tale signs here and there that the car has been built down to a budget in order to compete with other cars similarly budget-constrained during the design process.
You’ll notice little things like the gap at the base of the tablet-style infotainment screen, the squeak from the glovebox lid and its uneven panel gaps, or the hollow sound from knocking on the metal door skins, or the flimsy headlining that yields to a prodding finger.
Overall, however, the Mazda promises to be durable for many years.
It’s just that in this price bracket the Mazda2 sedan will be judged against rivals from Europe such as the new Skoda Fabia and the VW Polo, on the strength of finer quality details.
But considering the price, the practicality and all the ‘zoom-zoom’ appeal of the new Mazda2, it’s bound to be on the shopping list of buyers in the market for a light sedan – and with good reason.
2015 Mazda2 Neo pricing and specifications:
Price: from $14,990 (plus on-road costs)
Engine: 1.5-litre petrol four-cylinder
Transmission: Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic
Fuel: 5.4L/100km manual, 5.5L/100km auto (ADR Combined),
CO2: 126g/km manual, 128 g/km auto (ADR Combined)
Safety rating: TBA
What we liked:
>> Driving dynamics
>> Commendable ride comfort
>> Highly practical boot
Not so much:
>> Steering feels inconsistent in the Neo variant
>> Fit and finish is nothing special
>> Bit tight in the back seat
>> Honda City (from $15,990 plus ORCs)
>> Hyundai Accent (from $16,990 plus ORCs)
>> Toyota Yaris (from $17,490 plus ORCs)
This article was originally published on Motoring.com.au. All images from Motoring.com.au.