New Mazda2 is a stylish small city hatch that handles well on a track
Fun 2 drive The new Mazda2 looks as good on the outside as on the inside. -- PHOTO: MAZDA MOTOR

When the first official photos of the new Mazda2 were released, I thought it looked like a shrunken Mazda3 hatchback. But in the metal, the exterior design of the 2 is actually bespoke and the car is not just a downsized version of its sibling.

In his presentation, Mazda2 chief designer Ryo Yanagisawa showed how awkward (and distorted) the 2 would look if he merely shrank the 3 hatchback. He also revealed the "eye of a beast" inspiration for the 2's striking headlights, but this is more obvious with the high-spec four-lamp LED cluster than with the standard two-lamp halogen system.

Simply put, the new 2 looks good. It is less pretty, perhaps, than the previous 2 but its styling will appeal to both sexes and it is properly put together too.

The interior looks as attractive as the exterior, with an attention to detail that belies the 2's junior status within the Mazda range.

The dashboard, for instance, has a swathe of white leather right across, plus leather "knee pads" on both sides of the centre console (for the premium-grade model). It is a classy touch in a small car and is not available even in Mazda's costlier 3 and 6 models.

The funky upholstery pattern and made-in-Japan quality of the plastics and switches are the other attractive attributes inside the 2.

Compared to the 3 hatchback, there is less space in the cabin. Boot space is also limited to just 250 litres. But it is adequate for four Asian adults of average height, with decent legroom made possible by the significant 80mm increase in the 2's wheelbase to 2,570mm.

The seats have to be compact to fit within the cabin but they are comfortable, especially the front seats - with backrests and headrests that are taller than before.

It is easy to set my preferred driving position behind the wheel, with the wheel now equipped with adjustment of both rake and reach (the previous 2's steering wheel could be adjusted for tilt only).

Visibility is excellent through the front windscreen, past the A-pillars and via the mirrors.

Not that I had been checking those mirrors often at Tokachi International Speedway, where Mazda held the media test-drive of its latest subcompact. Driving the runabout on the circuit is like loading just two bullets for a gunfight, but the car's handling and acceleration are actually up to the task.

It is not fast, of course, with only 115bhp to play with from its 1.5-litre engine. But it is hooked up to a responsive six-speed automatic gearbox (the old model uses a four-speeder), complete with paddle-shifters and a well-placed Sport switch, the latter sharpening the response of the transmission and throttle.

The Sport mode is useful on the track but those paddles are not necessary because the gearbox gets the job done on its own, holding the gears "high" within the rev range and shifting promptly enough.

The new 2 feels so much sportier than the old one. It is almost a mildly hot hatch. Hitting 100kmh from a standstill takes 10 seconds flat, which is less impressive than how the car behaves around corners.

The steering, which is light on initial turn-in, becomes firm and positive as it negotiates the bend at speed, with the vehicle steadily following through.

The positivity of the steering, along with the stability of the chassis, the " Continental" confidence of the suspension, the bite of the brakes and the predictable grip from the 185/60 R16 tyres, make the 2 a cooperative companion on the circuit. Not bad at all for a city car destined to live its life far from any racing circuit.

The engine is energetic and willing, all the way to 6,000rpm. It is clearly heard when hard at work but it operates smoothly and there is no untoward vibration through the bulkhead. When the 2 is just cruising along, it is as calm, controlled and well-insulated as the 3 hatchback.

The supermini's equipment (depending on specification) includes Mazda's user-friendly infotainment system, a simple head-up display, effective auto air-conditioning, push-button ignition and a multi-function steering wheel.

Mazda's new fun-to-drive 2 will be in Singapore by the first quarter of next year.