Mazda2 GLX: Base model does the business.

The entry level version of Mazda’s smallest hatch lacks for little.


For: Excellent engine, well-sorted chassis, updated safety credential.

Against: Needs full sized MZD screen.

NO other Japanese car brand is punching so far above its fighting weight at the moment as Mazda.

Barely in the fight a decade ago, the Hiroshima operation has staged a remarkable comeback by overhauling its entire product line-up, gaining technologically with its Skyactiv development platform, expanding its offerings in fast-growing SUV and crossover segments and casting itself as a mainstream brand with a near-premium image.

That SUV/crossover push has potentially been too successful; when the CX3 first came out, the Mazda2 was the brand’s kingpin small product. Now the tables are turned and no reversal of fortune is expected.

Even so, the Mazda2’s recent refresh – which times closely to a mid-life refit for the CX-3 – will likely revitalise interest; a car that has always rated well for drive quality, ride, handling and excellent suburban agility has been enhanced with some timely updates, one of the most important being the implementation of autonomous emergency braking (Smart City Brake Support in Mazda-speak) to further strengthen its already five star credential.

In addition to a feature which helps lessen or prevent low-speed collisions by automatically applying the brakes, the model also picks up the G-Vectoring system that finely controls engine torque based on steering and accelerator inputs, to improve the car's cornering.

It’s a technology leap that looks especially smart on the entry GLX, surprisingly provided for test in its cheapest format.

Manual gearboxes aren’t as rare in this category as in some others, but it’s still intriguing that not only the base Two but the next-step-up GSX comes with this option.

How brave is that? Possibly it’s not such a risk. Staff at the dealership where the car was delivered to say there’s been something of a resurgence of interest in the three-pedal models and suggest it isn’t simply due to the $1750 saving over the alternate six-speed auto. There’s also recognition that this is a lot of new car for $21,945, not least when Mazda’s warranty and service plan comes into account.

What also abets the irresistibility of the value is that it doesn’t especially present as the budget choice.

The spec includes air conditioning, Bluetooth phone connectivity, hill launch assist and a reversing camera, and while you’re buying into cloth trim it’s far from basic in feel or appearance.

Well, with one concession. This model lacks the MZD infotainment screen – the one that’s looks like a pop-up but is in fact fixed. Instead, you get another display, much smaller and far more minimalist, and without the scroll wheel controller. It feels a bit weird going without a feature that now proliferates all other current Mazda models.

The ‘big screen’ is not without its flaws and foibles, but it’s funny not having it there. Every time you reverse, you look for the rear view camera display – then realise that it’s coming through in a wee screen that shows up in the rear vision mirror, rather than in the usual spot. It’s not a big deal because – and this seems to be the Mazda way these days – the mirror-integrated screen is better than most.

Mazda2 was the first full SkyActiv vehicle, so immersed completely into the philosophy of being efficient and enjoyable to drive. This applies to the completely redesigned body, the fresh platform and chassis, the transmissions and the 81kW/141Nm 1.5-litre four-cylinder naturally aspirated petrol engine which powers the whole line-up.

Driving this car in manual format is no hassle. The gearbox is easy to use with its light clutch and quick shifts and it relates well to an engine that is especially zesty for the class.

Even so, it’s no one of those mills that makes the hands-on aspect of a manual unnecessary. Hit a winding road or the hills and you’ll find plenty of opportunity to stir the stick, changing down to find higher revs and more power and torque. Cruising at 100kmh it pulls an easy 2200rpm in top, so is quiet and resolved and quite thrifty. Mazda claims an optimal 5.2L/100km. The engine not only burns lean when it has to, but is also backed by i-Stop which turns off the engine when the car comes to a standstill, it is put out of gear and the clutch disengaged. It starts again when the clutch is depressed.

The impressive engagement this car delivers begins with the driving position. Mazda’s engineers have done a great job with this, having not just meted the steering column with reach adjustment but also centring the pedals so they are in line with the driver’s body.

There is more legroom in the front thanks to the wheelbase being extended by 80mm, but rear legroom is down 4mm, which means someone of my size doesn’t fit comfortably behind his driving position despite the thin-backed seats.

It’s another small car with big ambition: Comfort and support over long distances was a high priority in designing the seats and this has been achieved. The steering is well-weighted, the chassis has a nice, solid, squared-to-the-road feel and the suspension (MacPherson struts up front and a light-weight torsion beam in the rear) provides quite reasonable ride, though it’s firmer than the Kia. The 185/65R15 Dunlops provide good grip and it has decent brakes. One of the mid-life changes has been to add extra sound insulation. It’s a worthy move, though some road roar still comes through.

For all that, if it came between choosing this car and the platform-sharing CX3 for a long distance run, I’d probably still prefer the crossover, simply because it feels even better tailored for that.

For nipping around town, though, the Two is hard to beat. A turning circle of just 9.4m alone makes it impressively useful in tight city streets where the car will most likely a fair chunk of time.