From the Desk of Mike (The Hammer) Garvin

Mazda2 - it's aimed at the iPod generation

By Dave Abrahams
Independent On Line

Mazda has lacked an entry-level car in its line-up ever since the demise of the 323 in 2003 and brand-conscious parents buying a first car for school-leaving children have had to look elsewhere.

But that's all changed now with the arrival in South Africa this week of the fun and funky Mazda2 hatchback, first seen at the Geneva auto show in March 2007.

It's an appealing combination of slightly quirky styling with sophisticated character lines, and practical features aimed straight at the iPod generation – and if I sound like an ad it's because I was more impressed than I expected to be.

It's actually smaller outside than its predecessor but remarkably roomy, with clever use of space for storage and/or head and elbow-room as required, and will seat four in comfort – or five at a squeeze.

It's available in South Africa in five variants, comprising four trim levels and a choice of two petrol engines, each driving the front wheels through a five-speed manual gearbox.

Mazda quotes 62kW at 6000rpm and 121Nm at 3500rpm for the 1.3-litre engine, with a 0-100km sprint in 13.2sec and a top speed of 172km/h. It's a willing if noisy little mill, needing – and enjoying – a fistful of revs to get moving in anything like a hurry.

The clutch doesn't help, however; it takes up very suddenly and lacks feel, while the gearshift action is a little stiff and unnecessarily notchy

Decent gear changes on a 1.3-litre Mazda2 take a bit of practice; I was just getting the hang of it at the end of the 140km launch drive, much of which was in heavy traffic, but the car acquitted itself well in its intended role as inner-city transport.

The 1.5-litre engine isn't a huge step up on paper, with a claimed 76kW at 6000rpm and 136Nm at 4000, but it pulls with considerably more authority at sea level (0-100km/h in 10.7sec and a claimed top speed of 188km/h) and if the difference is the same at altitude the 1.5 may be the one to go for if you live in Gauteng.

The clutch and gearshift are much the same as on its smaller sibling; practice is necessary to effect smooth take-offs and gear-shifts but the results are worth it.

The electric power steering is one of the best I've tried, precise and beautifully weighted with just the right amount of feedback. The suspension is conventional, Macpherson struts in front and torsion bar at the rear, and set up rather firmer than I expected for a "town car".

Solid but comfortable

The result is a solid-feeling but comfortable ride while running on the 175/65 R14 tyres of the 1.3-litre version but a little harsh on the low-profile (195/45) rubber fitted to the 16" alloy rims of the range-topping 1.5 Individual model I drive next.

Its road-holding, however, was impressive when we threw it into a few twisties; the Mazda2 is a lot of fun to drive and amply rewards a little extra concentration by the driver on the job in hand.

The brakes aren't particularly sharp — for a car this light they don't need to be — but anti-lock and electronic brake pressure distribution are standard across the range to ensure you don't get into trouble if you need to stomp on them, and I can vouch that they work.

The interior is plain and very simple but manages not to look too obviously low-rent; the broad, gracefully curved fascia helps in that regard.

Unexpectedly supportive

All the instruments and controls are small and very compactly laid out so there's a lot of empty space in the fascia but it looks spacious rather than under-specced.

The seats, upholstered in black fabric with silver accent, are both comfortable and unexpectedly supportive in spirited cornering

The trim levels are indeed generous; the base 1.3 Original model has a rev counter, rear fog lights, front power windows, a radio/CD player with MP3 capability and a jack for connecting an iPod or similar between the front seats — essential in this car's target market — remote-controlled central locking and driver and front passenger crash bags.

The Active trim only adds air conditioning but the Dynamic — available with either engine — is a whole new car with a different front bumper incorporating foglights and with side and rear skirts. It has 15" alloy rims with 185/55 tyres, power windows all round and audio controls on the steering wheel.

The 1.5 Individual not only sports 16" alloys but also has automatic air-conditioning, rain and light sensors, side and curtain crash bags, a six-CD changer and a somewhat primitive keyless start whereby the ignition lock on the steering column is replaced by a rather low-rent little knob.

Providing the remote locking transponder is somewhere in the car, you can start it by simply turning the knob in exactly the same way as you would the key in a more conventional set-up; all it does is make the transponder easier to lose than a key.