THE MAZDA 2 appears at first glance to be a more thoughtfully styled successor to the boxy-looking Demio. Indeed, on approaching the Mazda Motors showroom on Harcourt Road, Wan Chai, you could be forgiven for thinking you were entering a Ford dealership, since the Mazda 2 bears no small resemblance to some of its European peers and the Ford Fusion in particular.
The fact the Mazda 2 differs quite radically from its forerunner may be due in part to this connection. As one of the first of a new breed of Ford-influenced ranges (Ford is the majority shareholder in Mazda), the car has been developed to compete more ably with its five-door competitors in Europe while offering a little continental flair to its home market. From the outside it is easy to see the all-out people-mover styling cues of the Demio have been dispensed with in favour of the proportions of a more compact sports vehicle. On first impressions, the 2 appears more sleek and poised than rivals such as the Toyota Echo Verso.
From the front, the car embraces the new Mazda corporate image and is dominated by a five-point grille and a prominent badge centred between stylish, tapered headlights. Flared wings give rise to a strong waistline that rises across the flanks to the rear quarter lights, emphasising the broad track of the car - not unlike the Ford Fusion with which the Mazda 2 shares its underpinnings. Styling differs radically towards the back of the car, with curved rear wing arches and colour-coded bumpers and handles helping to soften the tail. The rear lights are tapered and angled in a look reminiscent of contemporary European designs such as the Peugeot 206 or Audi A3. All in all, the Mazda 2 manages to present the driver with an appealing exterior package.
It is equally obvious attention has been paid to the vehicle's ergonomics. Access to the front and rear seats is excellent, with generous foot and headroom assured by the combination of low sills and a high roofline - a welcome legacy from its predecessor. The cabin is well-appointed, with durable trim and appealing chrome touches to the fascia and dials lending a sporty appearance to the dashboard. A comfortable driving position commands an unhindered view of both the road and the simple-yet-functional instrument displays, with principal controls intuitively placed.
An otherwise exemplary driving set-up was only diminished by the lack of some form of seat-height adjustment. Internally, entry-level models of the 2 come well-appointed with air-conditioning, dual airbags, central locking, electric windows as well as a CD player all as standard. Small touches such as the wheel-mounted audio controls, removable glove-box lining and cup holders are thoughtfully positioned and have a quality feel to them.
Most significantly for practical buyers, the car offers exceptional versatility in terms of space. Access to the boot is second-to-none as a low tailgate ensures easy loading to and from the luggage compartment. The rear seats slide and fold forward, offering a flat boot space that could accommodate two mountain bikes, and the front passenger seat can fold flat to make room for longer objects. For the less energetic, the manufacturers have designed the front and rear seats to fold down flat to form a sleeping compartment.
As a people mover, the Mazda 2 could adequately ship four to five adults or accommodate a family of two adults and three children with limited luggage without feeling cramped.
On the road, the car feels responsive with taught steering directing the alloy wheels reassuringly, helping to validate the marque's claims that the Mazda 2 has a sporting pedigree. The test car, the more powerfully optioned 1.5-litre, 16-valve automatic, feels firm in its handling from the outset, even in the unforgiving morning traffic around Wan Chai and Causeway Bay. On bumpy side streets, the Mazda is solid and rattle-free, with minimal engine or road noise seeping into the cabin at speed. The car offers excellent forward and side visibility when overtaking, but rear visibility is limited by the height of the rear windscreen - a problem shared by many compacts.
Body roll through corners is suppressed well by the MacPherson front suspension and there is little slide from the rear end on tight turns, assisted by Mazda's newly devised torsion beam rear axle. A simple brake test effectively demonstrates the presence of the anti-lock braking system and electronic braking distribution assistance (which comes as standard) with near eye-popping results.
Acceleration at low speed is competent but on open stretches of road, the Mazda 2 was notably brisk, accelerating strongly through the mid-ranges of the automatic box and maintaining its line well. The city-friendly dimensions of the car assist an improved sense of control, unmatched by peers such as the Honda Jazz or Toyota Echo Verso.
The sensation is one of driving a nimble medium-sized car rather than of piloting a small van, which is admirable considering the compact's dimensions.
Overall, the ride is extremely comfortable and respectably swift, with bumps in the road noticeable at very low speeds being the only compromise made for such firm handling and road-holding.
If, as its strategy seems to suggest, the Mazda 2 is attempting to be all things to all people (in all continents), then the model pretty much lives up to this ideal. As comfortable transport for a small family, a first car with sporty abilities or as a transporter for a small business, the Mazda 2 will provide reliable motoring. The 2 may lack some of the more ingenious touches seen recently in the more expensive Opel Meriva, but neither the Ford Fusion in Europe nor the Toyota Echo Verso offers nearly so much for the price.
Distributor Mazda Motors: 2893 1112. Prices: 1.5-litre: $109,900; 1.3-litre $89,990