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The second-generation Mazda2 is available in the U.S. market—but the award-winning first-generation car hadn’t been. As Chris Hill, Mazda vehicle line manager, notes, this is, in part, a reflection of the shift of the tastes of consumers: “Opulence is out; sensible is in.”

While many low-cost cars have interior forms and materials that shout “low-cost” in a monotone, note the touches like the red piping on the seats and the bits of brightwork on the interior of the 2011 Mazda2.

The 2011 Mazda2: Bringing the Zoom to the B-segment

Although it is sufficiently common enough today on the road, consider the Mazda MX-5 Miata when it appeared on the U.S. market in May 1986.

Although it is sufficiently common enough today on the road, consider the Mazda MX-5 Miata when it appeared on the U.S. market in May 1986. Arguably, there was little like the two-seat roadster available from a mainline manufacturer then, or now. But the little car has moved forward through three generations, and with global sales of over 900,000 units, it is claimed to be the best-selling car of its type ever.

The Miata had its start in 1983, when Mazda engineers undertook a program to develop a lightweight sports car for production. And not only was the Miata an outcome of that work, but this focus on producing vehicles that are light has continued on throughout the company’s product development program. As Jim O’Sullivan, president and CEO, Mazda North American Operations (MNAO), puts it, “There’s a little Miata in everything we do.”

And in that respect, the 2011 Mazda2, the second-generation of a car that first appeared in 2007 in Japan, Europe and Australia, delivers.

That is, a Mazda2 with a five-speed manual transmission weighs just 2,306 lb., and one consequence of this relatively light mass are fuel efficiency numbers of 29 city/39 highway MPG for the car, which makes it the most fuel-efficient Mazda in the showroom. Of course, it is a B-segment car, or a subcompact. Still, Shigeo Mizuno, program manager for the Mazda2, said that he and his team worked to meet two objectives in developing the car: (1) to reduce weight and (2) to have a compelling design that would work around the world.

The weight reduction task, referred to as a “gram strategy approach” by Mazda product development engineer Dave Coleman, resulted in a car that is about 10% lighter than its predecessor, took on all aspects of the vehicle—although it should be noted that there was absolutely no compromise given when it came to safety: the car receives five stars in the European New Car Assessment Program, which is the greatest possible score. A fundamental reason why the Mazda2 is both light and safe is a consequence of the extensive use of high-strength steel in the body-in-white. According to Coleman, as a percentage of the total, this advanced steel represents 53%, a greater percentage than that of the recently introduced 2010 Mazda3. This resulted in a mass save of 50.7 lb. for the Mazda2.

But something along those lines is not in the least bit unexpected or really out of the ordinary, as an increasing number of vehicle manufacturers are making the switch to light-but-strong steels for their structures. Which is where the “gram strategy approach” provides a separation of Mazda from many others. For example, they used weld bonding—combining heat-activated structural adhesive and welds—around the rear hatch to reduce the amount of material required. They optimized the wiring harness layout, thereby saving 6.4 lb., and they even redesigned latches and hinges and associated bits for a weight save of 5.5 lb. The radiator was downsized for a savings of 3.75 lb. Even the shift lever was redesigned for a savings of 1.8 lb. They went after the suspension, too, making changes like developing the front lower control arm as a stamping that saves both cost and weight. Coleman: “Weight is the enemy, everywhere.” (They even switched the material used for the speaker magnets from ferrite to neodymium and redesigned the speaker frame, cutting the weight in half compared to the previous setup.)

All of that addresses the weight issue. But there is also that of design, the other aspect of the vehicle that needed to be addressed during development. As Derek Jenkins, director of Design, Mazda North American Operations, puts it, “It is difficult to get sportiness in a small package,” especially as that package is meant to be one that, unlike the Miata, is a sedan, not a roadster. Jenkins says that they worked at getting to a shape that wasn’t boxy, something with prominent shoulders, not slab-sided.

Unlike, say, the Honda Fit, the Mazda2 is a two-box design. That allows the creation of a wedge shape, indicative of forward motion, which is enhanced by the use of a fast A-pillar as well as a character line on the body side that cants upward from the front fender arch back to the tail lamp. The exterior design theme was “coordinated movement.”

Inside, there is a similar visual fluidity by combining form on the instrument panel (e.g., there is a strong horizontal line that bisects top from bottom) as well as spaciousness by having the instrument panel curve away from the driver and passenger at its left and right ends. There are strong metallic surfaced door pulls that speak of physical substance as well as a piano-black surround for the central instrument pod and various pieces of silver metallic trim (e.g., the steering wheel garnish), which indicates a sense of a higher-price-point vehicle, not an econobox (it should be noted that the Mazda2 starts at $13,980).—GSV