Mazda2 has plenty of positives, but ultimately disappoints as a supermini contender

Mazda2 has plenty of positives, but ultimately disappoints as a supermini contender

The supermini segment is positively bursting with little gems right now – and I don’t mean of the lettuce variety.

Always one of the most competitive markets there is in the automotive sphere, the supermini class of 2020 is actually exceeding all reasonable expectations right now with a variety of sexy, fun, great to drive and practical runabouts clogging the market.

Take a run though some of the jewels on offer here – first up you have – as expected – the class-leading Ford Fiesta and the Volkswagen Polo; then you get to the French entrants, the brilliant new Renault Clio and the top-notch Peugeot 208 (which we will be reviewing here very shortly, not to mention the closely related Opel Corsa which thrilled last week).

And then you have stuff like the truly excellent SEAT Ibiza, or even the bombproof Suzuki Swift and, a car which until very recently I would have reckoned to be among the best, the Mazda2.

Some time ago I even bought one for the mother-in-law and she loved it; sadly, May passed away while the car was still in its youth and we subsequently sold it to a friend and said vehicle is still serving dutifully on the highways and by-ways of West Cork and is, more than ever, dearly beloved.

Mazda has pedigree in the supermini category

The Mazda supermini has been with us in one shape or other since 1996, but the ‘2’ nameplate only really came into being in 2002. There have been two further generations of the car since and only just recently a third, which has taken the car into a new era of hybridisation – at least of a mild variety.

Now, for model year 2020, we have the latest version of the 2 and the test model we tried recently was the 1.5 Skyactiv-G petrol mild-hybrid version with 90 bhp and, on the face of it, this car should be right up there with the many leading superminis out there right now.

Truth is, I was a bit shocked to find that it was not.

Certainly, the Mazda has a lot going for it and much of that has rightly been praised in these columns in recent years. The ‘Kodo’ design elements which have turned out a wonderful-looking machine which is just about as sexy as it gets in the segment – even though Mazda has not had to revamp much in the looks department for this make-over.

Mazda2 has plenty of positives, but ultimately disappoints as a supermini contender

Impressive kit will please tech fans

The tester was also fitted with a rake of kit you don’t normally expect at this level, including a lane departure warning which you could actually turn off, and things like cruise control and steering wheel handy-to-thumbs controls. All tecchie requirements were equally accommodated.

Not to mention the multi-adjustable driver seat, a decent thing not always seen in small Japanese cars, a decent boot and five-door practicality.

On the face of it then, the 2 appears to have everything it needs to be competitive in what is already a terribly cut-throat segment.

And then …

On the motorway to Dublin – having set the cruise control to the legal limit – all of a sudden and in sixth gear as one would normally be, the car starts running out of gasp. Like an oxygen-starved mountaineer grasping for a summit, it wanted to do it, but couldn’t.

I was a little shocked, to be frank. As speed died, the dash gear-change indicator recommended a shift to fifth; either the cruise control system wasn’t up to scratch or this is not a good engine. As I was about to be creased from behind by a barrelling truck, I took fifth and pulled into the slow lane.

The manner in which this engine goes about its general day to day business is wonderful and that it also rides and handles with class-leading aplomb is another feather in its’ hat. You can also soak in the salon-quality décor and the other clever stuff that should make this a great car.

But then, when asked to do a brief long-distance job, it did a lot of things you never – ever – expected it to do. That you have to motor it in fifth gear when even approaching a mild crest – when the car is telling you to do so – it is something to which I am not completely at one with.

I mean, the Cork-Dublin road is hardly the apogee of motoring Armageddon; it is not the road of death, like the one in the Andes, with terrifying climbs and descents and horrifying, endless, drops off the unguarded road surface. No, the trip between the two capitals is a rather mundane affair.

But if you have to drop from sixth to fifth just to get up the hill from the Jack Lynch tunnel to get to the top of the Glanmire by-pass, or to cope with the, er, dizzying climb from Fermoy to Mitchelstown, it suggests someone has got something wrong here.

It may not even be that the 1.5-L Skyactiv-G engine, which pumps out a genuine 90 bhp, will complete the 0-100 kph dash in 9.7 seconds and has a top speed of 190 kph, is all that bad. That it is capable of this performance – not to mention the fact it will return some 5.25 l/100 km (53.3 mpg) and with 120 g/km of emissions, costs €180 a year to tax – tells you this is not a bad power plant.

The performance of the engine is not the issue here, however. It is the gearbox which is the problem. Fourth, fifth and sixth gears are way too long and so, when you hit even a minor incline, you have to change up to extract the most from what is actually a very willing and enthusiastic engine.

Indeed, during my motorway spin, I felt I could have left the thing is fifth altogether and ignored sixth completely. That, assuredly, is not how things should be. Sure it is good to drive around town – a must for any supermini – but when asked to do something different (also a must) it was found wanting.

I wish I could blame something else – the mild-hybrid element of the engine, for example – but I cannot. Unfortunately, whoever signed-off on this gearbox has to shoulder the responsibility.

Here we had a car which we came to with huge expectations – driven mainly by experiences of the past and a huge degree of respect for Mazda’s design and engineering history. Sadly, we left it with a degree of disbelief and an inability to credit what we had been witness to.

This was a car we expected to be mixing it with the best of the Fiesta, Polo, 208, Ibiza and Corsa gang. It actually delivered on those expectations in many areas, but it fell down on the most important one – driving it. I have the highest regard for all things Mazda, but I came away from this car puzzled, mystified and perplexed.

Mazda2 has plenty of positives, but ultimately disappoints as a supermini contender

Colley's verdict

The Cost: From €19,755 - €22,155 as tested.

The Engine: The engine’s great, but badly let down by the gearbox.

The Specification: Absolutely top drawer.

The Overall Verdict: A terrible disappointment.

Star Rating: **

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