Mazda has done a top job of capturing the minds of Australia's car buyers with its strong 'Kodo' design language.
It's a genius move. Everything from an almost $70,000 top-spec CX-9 to this car, the sub-$20k Mazda2 - the cheapest vehicle Mazda sells - share a familiar face, delicate bodywork and classy trim.
Look closely, though, and there are some chinks in this little car's attractive armour. What should be a fleet-special appears to flounder in the face of the Hyundai Accent, a car so old it's about to be de-commissioned.
So, are the fleets on to something? Even at this bargain-basement price, is the Mazda2 Neo a tall order? A bait and switch, if you will, for the apparent crowd favourite - the up-specced Maxx.
Stick with me, and we'll find out.
Mazda 2 2019: NEO (5YR)
Regular Unleaded Petrol
Does it represent good value for the price? What features does it come with? 6/10
The Mazda2 Neo is incredibly cheap.
Not only is it the cheapest Mazda on sale, but it's also one of the cheapest mainstream cars in this class. Arriving at $17,320 (MSRP) for the auto as tested here it seems to be a pretty good value proposition, no matter which way you cut it.
Only, Thera are a few rather glaring issues. The first is the Neo's media screen. It doesn't have one.
The wheel is one of the better ones in this class in terms of its look, but the acrylic finish is truly nasty.
You get this lovely, clearly tacked-on, single-line dot-matrix display, controlled through some clumsy buttons and a single dial.
Obviously, it comes with rudimentary connectivity (forget fancy stuff like Apple CarPlay) and is so difficult to use I actually couldn't figure out how to change the clock when daylight saving ticked over.
You won't get alloy wheels, LED lights, automatic high beams, automatic anything (like folding mirrors or headlamps) or leather-bound anything. The idea is you'll immediately notice a difference jumping into a $20,080 automatic Maxx, with its media screen and much better materials.
There are a few rather glaring issues. The first is the Neo's media screen. It doesn’t have one.
Thankfully, the Neo does come with some important quality-of-life items that are missing on some competitors, like cruise control and auto-off lights.
You also get city-speed auto emergency braking, which is an important value add at this price. More on that in the safety section.
Few cars in this segment or price point can compete. Too bad about those steel wheels.
Is there anything interesting about its design? 7/10
What draws most people to the Mazda2 in the first place is its great looks. Mazda don't patronize entry-level buyers with a sub-par econobox that doesn't reflect the rest of its range. It shares all the 'Kodo' design language that has become so prevalent on Australia's roads.
That consists of a tastefully executed exterior, with a sophisticated grille, classy chrome touches and strategically placed smatterings of black plastic. Around the side, there's the brand's signature swooping lines, making for a sporty silhouette, toward a slick and resolved rear end. Few cars in this segment or price point can compete. Too bad about those steel wheels.
What draws most people to the Mazda2 in the first place is its great looks.
It shares all the 'Kodo' design language that has become so prevalent on Australia's roads.
Around the side, there's the brand's signature swooping lines, making for a sporty silhouette, toward a slick and resolved rear end.
Inside, the design is just as good, but it's the materials which unfortunately take a dive. Good stuff includes the multi-textured surfaces, with tastefully applied contrast surfaces of chrome and carbon texture.
The dot-matrix multimedia control panel is a bit of a sore spot and is hardly ergonomic to reach across and use.
Inside, the design is just as good, but it's the materials which unfortunately take a dive.
There's great switchgear, with a tasteful but simple dash cluster.
There's great switchgear, with a tasteful but simple dash cluster. The wheel is one of the better ones in this class in terms of its look, but the acrylic finish is truly nasty. The same goes for the functional but sub-par touchpoints across the doors and rear seats. A centre-console box for resting your elbow on is a $479.35 option.
One personal gripe, which I've heard from other folks in the office as well as private Mazda2 owners, is the odd placement of the wing-mirrors. They're too close to the driver and seem to give a narrow angle of view, leading to a significant blind spot.
Mazda has done a top job of capturing the minds of Australia’s car buyers with its strong ‘Kodo’ design language.
How practical is the space inside? 6/10
The simple fact is, there are far more practical options in this segment. The Mazda2 has a small boot, zero amenities for rear-seat passengers, and limited on-board space.
Front passengers are treated to bottle holders in the doors, a conveniently phone-sized trench under the connectivity ports, a wallet-sized trench next to the analog handbrake and... well that's about it. The seat grants a nice low seating position, but is a bit flimsy, even for this segment.
Boot space is a rather limited 250-litres in the hatch.
Back-seat passengers get... not much. The seats have decent contouring to them, but there's only just enough leg and headroom for someone my size (182cm tall). There are no cupholders, no air vents and only a strange square trench atop the transmission tunnel for your loose objects.
Powering the Mazda2 is just one engine, a 1.5-litre non-turbo four cylinder.
How much fuel does it consume? 7/10
Mazda's claimed combined fuel usage figure for the Neo hatch is 7.2L/100km,and I recorded around 7.6L/100km over a week of testing. That's not far off the claimed figure, but it's a high number to begin with, many larger, turbocharged engines in heavier cars will produce better, or even lower figures.
The 2 drinks standard 91 RON unleaded fuel and has a 44-litre tank.
What's it like to drive? 7/10
The Mazda2's more traditional engine and transmission, combined with its small footprint and lightweight body, give it a spritely and agile feel on the road.
For better or worse, it's very mechanical, you still feel each gear change, and you're fairly connected to the road.
It beats most competitor set-ups in terms of feel and real-world power application, and has fast, accurate steering, making it easy to dart down alleyways, and park in tight spots in congested cities.
You won’t get alloy wheels, LED lights, automatic high beams, automatic anything.
It does so in decent comfort, but this is one noisy little car. Road noise and engine roar (from as little as 2500rpm) reach the cabin easily, and its lightweight bodywork gives it a bit of a tinny feeling.
The 2 is fun to drive, thanks to a low seating position and a suspension setup lets you feel closer to the road than something like a Kia Rio or Toyota Yaris, but the stiffness of the ride can also cause it to become unsettled over bumps.
As a driver's car, it's one of the better ones in this segment, alongside the Suzuki Swift. You're left with few options, though – given the Yaris, Rio and Accent are all more comfortable, but feel rather lethargic in comparison.
It's really up to personal taste whether you prefer refinement over fun, as you'll have to spend much more to get both.
Warranty & Safety Rating
5 years / unlimited km
ANCAP Safety Rating
What safety equipment is fitted? What safety rating? 8/10
Few competitors bother to pack this one key active safety item into their kit.
Regular safety refinements on the 2 include six airbags and the standard suite of electronic stability controls. There are two ISOFIX child seat mounting points on the rear outer seats. Sorry, long-range drivers, a space-saver spare resides under the boot floor.
Sorry, long-range drivers, a space-saver spare resides under the boot floor.
The Mazda2 is facing increasingly stiff competition on this front from the Suzuki Swift, which now comes with a suite of active safety items on the GL Navi with safety pack ($18,990). For only $1670 more than the Neo, you'll get freeway-speed AEB, active cruise control, lane-departure warning (LDW), and lane-keep assist. Not bad.
What does it cost to own? What warranty is offered? 7/10
Mazda offers a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty across its range, which is on par for most manufacturers. The Kia Rio leads this segment with its seven-year, unlimited kilometre promise.
Mazda matches its five-year warranty with five years of capped price servicing. Service intervals occur at 10,000km or 12 months, whichever occurs first. The program has a not-unreasonable average yearly cost of $305.60 and has reasonably priced extras like brake fluid and cabin air filters.
If you love the Mazda2 aesthetically, which is totally understandable, spend the extra money on a Maxx.
My advice is this: If you love the Mazda2 aesthetically, which is totally understandable, spend the extra money on a Maxx.
The Neo might have the Mazda hallmarks - a decent engine, good handling, killer looks and standard safety gear - but it's the extra multimedia and better-quality trim in the Maxx that make it more sense for your dollar.
If you're aiming for under $20,000, also consider a Suzuki Swift GL Navi, which can be optioned with better safety or a Hyundai Accent, which has a bigger boot.
Would you consider the Neo, or is it a little too bare bones? Tell us what you think in the comments below.