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We like to think of superminis as being ridiculously good fun to drive. And at first, the basic ingredients of a small hatchback do seem like they’d add up to a pretty exciting driving experience. A compact, lightweight body should make the car nimble, agile, manoeuvrable, with a tiny engine trading big power for a zingy, free-revving nature.

Of course, the reality is rather far from the truth, at least where Malaysia is concerned. Apart from the standout Ford Fiesta, small hatchbacks sold here tend to be tepid, rolly-polly boxes tuned more for comfort to suit the average commuter. This leaves the enthusiast buyer looking for a fun-yet-affordable machine with very little options to choose from.

Enter the new 2015 Mazda 2, which promises to “shatter your expectations of small cars.” Mazda is making monumental claims with its new B-segment hatchback in terms of driving dynamics, so is the new contender all hot air, or a complete revelation to drive? We went to Japan to find out.

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Judged purely by its looks, the new 2 is a success, with the company’s Kodo styling language fitting well onto the tiny body. At the front, the signature beak-like grille is accented with a red slat, and the sharp headlights feature optional projectors with four-piece LED daytime running lights. The rump sweeps down towards the Alfa-esque tail lights which contain U-shaped elements that mirror the headlights.

Special care has been made to ensure the car doesn’t simply look like a squished Mazda 3. There’s more volume centred behind, particularly around the delicious rear haunches, giving it the appearance of an athlete coiled up at the starting blocks. The intention, said chief designer Ryo Yanagisawa, was to project the feeling of bound-up energy at the moment of release, a look he calls “Pouncing Motion.”

Measuring 4,060 mm long, 1,695 mm wide and 1,500 mm tall, the new 2 is 15 mm taller and a whopping 138 mm longer than its predecessor, and is one of the few cars in its segment to break the four-metre mark in length. The wheelbase has also grown by a massive 80 mm to 2,570 mm, beating even the Tardis that is the Honda Jazz by a full 40 mm.

None of that considerable space increase shows in the cabin, however – interior space has actually shrunk compared to the older model, no thanks to the swoopy new design. The boot, in particular, is the biggest casualty, now measuring just 220 litres. That’s 30 litres less than the old 2 and well behind rivals such as the Fiesta (276 litres), the Volkswagen Polo (280 litres) and especially the Jazz (363 litres).

The attention, instead, has been placed solely on the driver. The A-pillars have been pushed back by 80 mm and the windscreen made slightly more upright for better visibility (this move also provides the 2 with a long bonnet characteristic of Mazda’s latest models).

Moving the front wheels forward by 80 mm has also freed up space in the footwell, allowing the brake and accelerator pedals to be positioned further to the right. The latter pedal is also now a floor-hinged organ-type unit that has been seen on all new Mazda models since the CX-5.

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There’s more – the steering wheel now has adjustment for reach as well as rake, the front seat backs and headrests have been increased in height to accommodate taller drivers, while the leading edge of the front seats are now shorter and softer to improve pedal operability for shorter drivers.

Stepping inside reveals a comfortable, almost plush ambience despite the decrease in space. Central to its appeal is a design that manages to be both sporty and airy at the same time. The driving environment is predictably a standout, with a cocooned cockpit-like sweep around the driver, twin circular air vents and an instrument cluster taken from its larger 3 sibling.

The front passenger, meanwhile, is faced with a minimalist horizontal dash with few buttons and a hidden centre air vent under the top panel. Even the hindquarters are serviceable for short- to medium-haul trips, although passengers miss out on door pockets and cupholders. All throughout the cabin, hard plastics are the norm, but they are pleasantly textured and are fastened together with reassuring solidity.

Brightening it all up are splashes of metallic trim, as well as the white-and-black leather-and-fabric upholstery of the test cars complete with gorgeous red fabric stripes on the seats. You can forget the soft-touch plastic and fake stitching on the Jazz and City, too – proper leather adorns the lower dashboard trim, door panels and the knee pads on either side of the centre console on top models.

Apart from a maximum of six airbags and stability control, the new Mazda 2 will also be available with the i-ActivSense suite of camera-based driver assist technology from its larger siblings, including automated city braking, blind spot monitoring and lane departure warning. Other optional toys include the i-stop stop-start system, the MZD Connect touchscreen infotainment system and even a head-up display.

Local distributor Bermaz has yet to finalise Malaysian market specifications and equipment, only saying that there will be low- and high-spec variants available. It has, however, confirmed that a sedan body style is on its way.

Engine choices are 1.3 and 1.5 litre direct-injected SkyActiv-G petrol four-cylinder mills and a new 1.5 litre “Clean Diesel” SkyActiv-D four-cylinder. The 1.3 petrol gets a 12.0:1 compression ratio and delivers 92 PS at 6,000 rpm and 121 Nm at 4,000 rpm, while the diesel has the same impressively low compression ratio (14.8:1) as its 2.2 litre sibling and produces 105 PS at 4,000 rpm and up to 250 Nm from 1,500 to 2,500 rpm.

The sole option we’ll be getting is the 1.5 litre petrol, which as tested has the same stratospheric 14.0:1 compression ratio as on the 2.0 SkyActiv-G engine already available locally on the Mazda 3. Peak output is 115 PS delivered at 6,000 rpm and 148 Nm of torque at 4,000 rpm, while fuel consumption is quoted to have been improved by as much as 25%.

The six-speed SkyActiv-Drive automatic and SkyActiv-MT manual (which we are unlikely to get) transmissions replace the outdated four-speed auto and five-speed manual of the current model. Both drivetrains have been made smaller and lighter than their counterparts on larger models to fit the tighter engine bay of the 2. The automatic gearbox also gains a new Sport mode, a first for Mazda.

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Under the skin is the new SkyActiv-Body that is 22% stiffer than the outgoing model thanks to straight frame structures, ring structures around the body, increased bonding efficiency and optimal thickness of the high-tensile steel sheets. Weight figures have yet to be released, but the new 2 is expected to be lighter than its already featherweight predecessor.

Suspension remains the same MacPherson struts at the front and torsion beam at the rear, but a softer setup and revised rear mounting points are aimed to improve comfort. The front castor angle has also been increased for better stability, and the electric power steering now features a quicker ratio.

Mazda has also worked hard on improving engine response for a more linear and responsive power delivery, not only for a sportier feel, but also for smoother everyday driving. Overall, the company claims the new 2 features the highest level of car-and-driver connection, or jinba ittai (horse and rider as one) among the latest generation of Mazdas, which is a very big claim indeed.

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On test at the Tokachi International Speedway in Hokkaido were two Singaporean-spec, pre-production Mazda 2s with the 1.5 litre petrol engine and the automatic gearbox. We were allotted two laps on the high-speed track, followed by a lap on a smaller course that mimicked the conditions of real-world driving.

Out the gate, the engine felt sprightly, masking its modest power with a decent slug of low-end torque. The powertrain responded instantaneously and linearly to the slightest modulation of the throttle, making it incredibly easy to mete out the exact amount of acceleration needed.

The transmission was, like other SkyActiv-Drive ‘boxes, exceedingly eco-minded, shifting to the highest gear possible, but thumbing the Sport rocker switch below the gear lever made it hold onto gears for longer and downshift automatically under braking. In either mode, flooring the throttle produced an instant kickdown.

Full manual shifting (yes, no automatic upshifts at the redline) through the steering wheel paddles proved hugely enjoyable, although the shifts themselves weren’t as fast as they should be. Downshifts, however, were crisp and smooth thanks to the blipping of the throttle when rowing down the gears, which is a nice touch.

The chassis of the new 2 felt up to the task to a full neck-wringing around a track. The quick, light, accurate steering is matched to a cornering stance that is sharp and eager, yet stable and predictable, although some body roll has crept in. Despite the torrid conditions (it was raining), grip levels remained high throughout, with understeer only setting in through excessively high corner entry speeds.

Even with the rain pelting down and the track completely soaked, wind and road noise remained relatively low while travelling well past highway limits, and high-speed stability was impressive along the main straight. Braking performance was well up to snuff on the wet track despite the fitment of rear drum brakes.

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A quick blast through the rutted service roads on the smaller course revealed a ride that is still a little stiff compared to the best in its class, although it improved considerably the faster we drove. Mazda also brought along a Thai-spec, previous-generation Jazz for us to test on the smaller course, and while the Honda still had the measure of its Hiroshima rival in terms of ride, out on the track there was no contest.

The i-VTEC mill, itself no heavy, lumbering slouch of an engine, felt slightly sluggish on full throttle next to the new 2, hesitating briefly before shooting forward with a burst of torque. Regular standing starts was also a little more jerky than on the Mazda, while in the corners the Jazz exhibited a lot more roll, a lot less body control and a much more abrupt shift from understeer to oversteer.

Leaving the race track, it was hard to shake off the feeling that Mazda is being shrewd here. It evidently knows it cannot beat the Jazz at its own game (space and versatility), so it has deftly moulded the new Mazda 2 to provide the biggest smile for your buck, because that’s what the company knows best.

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A more road-biased test beckons, of course, but on first blush the new 2 really does appear to have the driving dynamics to challenge the best in its class, with sweet handling and a decent ride. It’s not spacious, but it’s handsome, has a lovely interior atmosphere and stands out in a crowd of me-too competitors, which might appeal to a certain niche in the market.

The only problem concerns its pricing over here. Bermaz has admitted that, imported from Thailand, the 2 is unlikely to be priced below the RM100k mark due to the complex and expensive SkyActiv technology. This puts it above virtually all its rivals and beyond the reach of most B-segment buyers. Indeed, the pricing conundrum has already caused the local launch to be delayed from later this year to early 2015.

Will Bermaz be able to justify the premium? We’ll just have to wait and see, but one thing is clear – the new Mazda 2 certainly doesn’t want for talent.

 

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