Athletic Mazda2 debuts as test on many levels, Mazda Motor Corp. unveiled a more athletic fourth-generation Mazda2 hatchback late Wednesday, deploying its latest Skyactiv drivetrain and chassis technologies into the subcompact segment.
The upgrade is sorely needed to keep the pint-sized car relevant in an increasingly competitive field against such upstarts as the hot-selling Chevrolet Sonic and Ford Fiesta.
It is the fourth Mazda vehicle with the full Skyactiv package: a high-compression, direct-injection engine, overhauled six-speed automatic transmission and a sportier, lightweight chassis.
The Japanese carmaker also spiffed its smallest car with the company’s new wavy Kodo design language. The front gets a more chiseled, boxier look. The rear exudes a more planted stance, while the cabin borrows the new look’s rear-slung proportions.
In Japan, the next-generation Mazda2 comes with a 1.3-liter direct-injection gasoline engine, mated to a six-speed automatic or five-speed manual. Mazda also will offer an all-wheel-drive version and a diesel version with a new 1.5-liter engine.
The incoming car is a tad longer and heavier than today’s.
Lower fuel economy?
But despite the top-to-bottom Skyactiv makeover, the next Mazda2 actually scores lower fuel economy than the current version, under Japan’s testing regime. That is partly because, in Japan, the current generation offers a Skyactiv engine, though the car lacks the new transmission and platform.
Mazda hasn’t released U.S. fuel economy figures, but don’t expect the mpg to drop.
The next-generation Mazda2 will be a much bigger leap over its U.S. predecessor. The current U.S.-spec Mazda2 comes only with the older multiport 1.5-liter engine and four-speed automatic transmission.
The Skyactiv setup should deliver big improvements all around.
Big test for Mazda
The Mazda2 is a key test in several ways for its maker.
First, the U.S. version will be mainly manufactured at Mazda’s new assembly plant in Mexico. The plant opened in January, and adding Mazda2 to the Mazda3 sedan already being made there will help shore up operating margins at the factory.
Furthermore, the next Mazda2 will be a litmus test for possible future cooperation with Toyota Motor Corp. Mazda will supply its giant rival with a Mazda2-based small car for sale in the U.S.
The Toyota car will be styled differently on the outside, but the inside will be all-Mazda. Toyota just won’t be calling the mechanics “Skyactiv” because that is Mazda’s branding pitch.
Toyota will use the project to see how well it can work with Mazda. It also serves as an observation post from which Toyota can assess the payoffs and pitfalls of running its own assembly plant in Mexico someday. Toyota has only a small knockdown factory now and may be looking for something more.
Finally, the Mazda2 will test whether Mazda can gain traction in the subcompact segment. The niche accounts for just 9 percent of the U.S. market. And the Mazda2 ranks 11th in the field.
That is despite a 55 percent surge in sales to 11,112 vehicles through August, as dealers cleared the outgoing model.
Even subcompacts such as the Chevrolet Sonic and Ford Fiesta, offerings from Detroit brands that traditionally trailed their Japanese rivals in small cars, are now outselling Mazda’s entry.
Mazda was originally so unsure about the Mazda2’s prospects, it didn’t bother selling the car in the United States until 2010.
U.S. sales peaked at 19,315 in 2012; last year, Mazda sold 11,112. Global sales of the Mazda2 topped out at 212,144 in 2011 but had dropped to 144,091 vehicles by last year.
Now, emboldened by faith in the Mazda2’s overhauled engineering and fetching design, Mazda has gambled on building the car in Mexico for sale on both sides of the border and in Canada.