Friday, November 20, 2009

Amazing Mazda 2 little fuel miser likely to be a hit


Lightweight Mazda2 has excellent ride and handling, and is sure to be popular in Canada

The slow, official rollout of the 2011 Mazda2 will finally begin in earnest next month.

In early December at the Los Angeles Auto Show, Mazda will begin parcelling out certain details about the North American version of the Mazda2.

We'll get the full nuts and bolts story on content, pricing and on-sale timing later next year, closer to the official launch date.

That's likely to be in the fall of 2010, though rumours have begun to circulate that the car will not actually hit dealerships until close to the end of 2010.

Mazda Canada, naturally, would like this front-wheel-drive car right now – and so would many Canadian consumers. Mazda's upcoming five-door hatchback, a car smaller than the Mazda3, is aimed at the Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Toyota Yaris, Chevrolet Aveo, Kia Rio and Nissan Versa. Subcompacts such as these account for about one-quarter of all new-car sales in Canada.

Yet by the time the Mazda2 hits showrooms, Mazda will be competing with not just a host of well-established models, but also the 2011 Ford Fiesta. Ford Canada plans to launch the subcompact Fiesta next summer in both sedan and hatchback versions, too.

Here's the twist: the Mazda2 and the Fiesta share the same platform, though the “top hats” – the body and interior – will be unique to each. Alas, Ford Canada may steal much of Mazda's thunder before the 2 is even launched.

Of course, between now and then, the current version of the Mazda2, the one I recently tested, will have received a modest makeover. After all, the 2 has been on sale in Europe and Japan (as the Demio) since 2007.

Expect the 2 to get a new front fascia similar to the Mazda3. Mazda is likely to upgrade the interior, too; it has been criticized for being too plain, too sparse and too noisy. My overseas-spec tester did have a rather uninspired cabin and it must surely be upgraded for 2011.

The cabin does not have to be any bigger, though. The little 2 is a surprisingly roomy five-seater, especially given that it is much shorter and lower than the 2009 Honda Fit. The 2 gets its big interior by matching the Fit for width and wheelbase.

Not only will the 2011 Mazda2 look different from the current car, it will differ radically from the Fiesta, too.

The Fiesta has a crisp “technical” look based on Ford Europe's “kinetic design” language. The Mazda2 is softer; it's a very good example of the “flow” theme expressed in Mazda concept cars.

I have my doubts about putting the Mazda3's aggressive nose on the 2. The current 2 has a curved beak with a prominent five-sided Mazda grille. The headlights are pulled back into rounded fenders in a way reminiscent of Mazda's RX-8 sports car. The rising window line gives a feeling of movement, a prominent lower-body “swoosh” is racy and the rear wheels pushed as far back as possible create solid proportions. These are all good elements and they hang together well in this car.

Design aside, we will also not likely get the full range of gasoline and diesel engines available in Europe to Mazda buyers. Too bad. Mazda's 67 horsepower, 1.4-litre turbo-diesel in Europe delivers low-speed torque perfect for city driving – not to mention excellent fuel economy. But our only choice could be a gasoline-powered, 1.5-litre four-cylinder.

This is not a bad engine and, in the car I just drove, it delivers 103 hp, 101 lb-ft of torque and 0-100 km/h in 10.4 seconds.

On the other hand, Mazda is planning a new 1.6-litre gasoline four-cylinder and it could be wedged into the Mazda2 in Canada and the United States – for performance reasons. This engine could easily produce 120 horses, nicely trumping the Fit and other class rivals.

As for body styles, we're getting only a five-door hatchback, not the three-door sold in Europe. On the other hand, the Europeans so far have been given just a five-speed manual transmission; here, we'll also be able to get a five-speed automatic.

But the biggest challenge of all for Mazda Canada will be pricing. Recently in England, I priced a well-equipped Mazda2 and, when converted from British pounds, the final number was more than $17,000 Canadian. That's a fairly steep price for a subcompact in Canada.

So Mazda Canada will be challenged to push the 2's pricing below the Mazda3. Blame currency issues. Our Mazda2 will be sourced from Japan, where the strong Japanese yen makes exports expensive for Canadians.

Ford will have less a problem here. North American Fiestas will come from Ford's plant in Cuautitlan, Mexico. That said, Ford officials expect the 2011 Fiesta to be a well-loaded – and not particularly cheap – subcompact, too.

The Mazda2's greatest single asset isn't design, though I like the looks very much. No, what earned the Mazda2 the 2008 World Car of the Year award are the dynamics of the thing – the ride and handling. The car is excellent here.

At a trim 953 kilos, the Mazda2 is a true lightweight. Let's hope it does not bloat up for our market. If it does not, the 2 will be one of the very lightest subcompacts on the market.

This trim little Mazda darts through traffic nicely and is quick in the corners thanks to its four-wheel independent suspension. Sure enough, Mazda has not reinvented suspension design here – the layout is a mix of front struts and a simple twist-beam rear axle – but it's tuned well and for fun. The electrically assisted power steering is responsive, too, though it needs more feel.

The brakes in my tester were a front-disc/rear-drum design and they were solid and reliable, if not particularly high-tech. Mazda Canada will almost certainly offer the same layout next year, with available antilock braking.

Mazda Canada has a year to plan the launch of the Mazda2, and that's plenty of time to get creative both with the vehicle and how it will be marketed and sold. In Canada, as long as the pricing fits, it is hard to see how Mazda can miss with this entertaining little fuel miser.

2011 MAZDA2

Type: Five-door subcompact hatchback

Price: Not available

Engine: 1.5-litre, inline-four, DOHC

Horsepower/torque: 103 hp/101 lb-ft

Transmission: Five-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel-drive

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): Not available

Alternatives: Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Chevrolet Aveo, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, Toyota Yaris

Like

Lightweight design is quick in traffic and easy to park
Exterior design looks smooth and well-proportioned
Big cabin for such a small car

Don't like

Noisy at higher speeds
Interior materials do not look particularly expensive
Steering is quick enough, but somewhat numb

source: theglobeandmail