If you are thinking about buying a supermini then cars like the Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall Corsa, Renault Clio and maybe a Volkswagen Polo or something else from the VW group come to mind.
One car that might be slightly off your radar is the Mazda 2. Despite Mazda’s growing UK market share, you don’t see many of them around.
In the supermini class, the Mazda 2 has always been something of a brilliant underdog. The last generation model shared its underpinnings with the current Ford Fiesta. Although the Ford massively outsold the Japanese car, many of those in the know preferred the Mazda variant.
Mazda 2 review: Stepping up its game
Since its divorce from Ford a few years ago, Mazda has stepped up its game – completely renewing its range of cars, with self-developed models that share nothing with Ford and which every time we’ve driven we’ve greatly enjoyed.
The latest Mazda 2 was launched in 2016 and it approaches this class quite differently to its competitors. Instead of their sub-1-litre turbo-charged petrol engines, you get a comparatively large 1.5-litre petrol unit (or Skyactiv-G in Mazda speak) – but no turbo.
The Mazda 2 is big for its class, too, measuring over 4-metres long. And where Minis, Clios and Corsas play up the personalisation factor and crazy colourways with contrast roofs, mirrors and wheels, the extent of personalisation excitement you can get on the 2 is Mazda’s trademark Soul red paint.
With its snub nose, its short rear overhang and – in this trim – small-looking wheels, the Mazda somewhat misses the cool corner of the class. You can’t have it as a 3-door either. For those thinking about image first, we can see why a Clio or Corsa might be higher up your list.
However, to dismiss the Mazda 2 based purely on the fact that you don’t perceive its image as cool would be to miss out on what is one of the best put together cars in this class – and also one of the best to drive.
Mazda 2 review: Peeling back the layers
The 2’s qualities don’t reveal themselves immediately – in a test drive style environment, for example. But over a week with the car you’ll find it peeling back the layers of its hidden talents, such as the pilant ride, sharp steering and Porsche-lite control weight consistency.
And the impressive and easy-to-use sat nav and media system offer touchscreen capability when stationary but a less distracting scroll-wheel and shortcut button system for when you’re on the move.
You’ve got to be prepared to give it some time, though, because if you’re used to something from Germany, or some of the more youthful European products in this market, the tinny clang as the doors swing shut will come as a surprise. As will the unremittingly black-and-grey cabin, with its grey seats and plasticky switchgear.
But those seats are comfortable, even on long journeys, and all that plasticky switchgear falls easily to hand and is logically placed – with perhaps the exception of the button panel on the lower fascia, just inset of the door jam.
These panels are a growing phenomenon, and they tend to cluster together the controls for the driver assist systems such as lane-keep assist, smart city braking and so on. What’s notable is that these advanced safety systems are included on a mid-range model at this level. What you miss out on in cool design, Mazda more than gives you back in standard equipment.
Mazda 2 review: Kitted out
In fact, our SE-L Nav spec car – which in its 1.5-litre, 90bhp format costs £14,495 – comes with almost everything you could wish for from a small car. If you’re upgrading from a supermini that’s five to 10 years old then you’re in for a real treat.
Of course you get the usual for the twentyteens kit – remote central locking, electric windows, a host of airbags, Bluetooth and a DAB radio. But you’ll get the safety support stuff too – hill hold assist, smart city emergency braking, lane keeping assist and electronic stability control.
And you can add to that cruise control with a speed limiter function, air conditioning, and the MZD-Connect media system which consists of 7-inch touchscreen, with the aforementioned rotary/shortcut controller on the console – which runs SatNav (with 3 years of European map updates included), Aha and Stitcher Apps for internet radio and social media integration – and keeps a CD player alongside the USB and Aux ports.
At this level, we think where the Mazda really scores is not in just offering so much as standard, but making its on-board technology so easy to use, non-distracting and generally quick-responding and accurate. We far prefer using it on the move compared to any of its rivals’ comparative touchscreen systems.
The only thing you might long for is CarPlay or Android Auto integration – they’re coming, says Mazda – although a search of internet forums suggests that Android Auto is likely to arrive before CarPlay, with Mazda possibly working on a software update to the current system that may make integration possible down the line. Don’t hold us to that, but given this is becoming an important facility for many people making buying decisions, we feel it’s worth mentioning.
Mazda 2 review: SkyActiv
While the infotainment system is a strong reason to buy the Mazda (if you can cope with aforementioned lack of CarPlay/Android Auto), it’s not the primary reason we’d be drawn to the Mazda 2.
Instead, it’s the way this car drives that proves to be its most compelling quality. The 2 is built with Mazda’s SkyActiv suite of technologies – shorthanded, this equates to a lighter overall body weight, and the 1.5-litre, non-turbo petrol. You can get this in three states of tune – 75bhp, 115bhp and, as we tested here, 90bhp.
As standard, this engine comes with a 5-speed gearbox (many rivals – and indeed the 115 hp version – come with 6-speed), but the lack of ratios isn’t an issue because the box is slick and even at realistic UK motorway speeds, the little Mazda doesn’t feel strained or particularly un-refined.
It feels spritely, if not fast – running 0-60mph in 9.4-seconds, against CO2 emissions of 105g/km (£20/year road tax). Official combined fuel economy is 62.8mpg, but in a mix of 100-miles of heavy urban traffic and 200-miles of motorway journeys, we averaged just under 50mpg. Bear in mind that we’re relatively heavy footed.
Punting the Mazda down the average road is just enjoyable in a way many cars in this class aren’t. It’s fluent, it rides well, it turns in crisply, the throttle response is pretty sharp and there’s generally a lack of slack in the drivetrain that marks it apart from many current French cars, for instance.
The only issue some drivers might have is that the 1.5-litre needs revving to give its best. Compared to the punchy low-down delivery of the modern turbo units in rivals, it needs a slightly different style of driving.
The Mazda 2 is something of a jeckyll and hyde car. Whether you’ll get on with it will depend on your priorities, attitude and driving style.
The 280-litre boot isn’t the biggest, the rear seat doesn’t offer the space of something like a Honda Jazz, while the lack of fun, youthful personalisation options will put off some buyers too.
But otherwise, the Mazda 2 delivers the many qualities you need to make a car liveable from day-to-day in spades. It drives better than many of its competitors, which is the ultimate reason to consider it.
However, on a simple dealer visit or test drive you might dismiss it. For the first two days we had the Mazda 2, we wondered why you’d buy one over a Fiesta, a Clio or a Corsa. However, as the week drew on, as journeys varied and as we travelled more, the Mazda’s driving dynamics, easy interface and high level of engineering quality really shone through.
Just like the last generation, the Mazda 2 is the dark horse of this class. To dismiss it, would be to miss out on what’s one of the best cars in the class to live with, in the long term.