Mazda's U.S. product planners have been involved in the development of the next Mazda2, based on the Hazumi concept, shown, meaning it should come with more features and technology.

Photo credit: REUTERS
RYAN BEENE

Mazda concept signals a more polished Mazda2 on horizon

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Ryan Beene is a West Coast reporter for Automotive News.
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LOS ANGELES -- Less than a week after christening its new assembly plant in Salamanca, Mexico, Mazda has lifted the veil on what will eventually be the second vehicle built at the factory.

The subcompact Hazumi concept car Mazda showcased at the Geneva Motor Show is a near-spitting image of how the next-generation Mazda2 is expected to look on the road.

After all, the Mazda6 and CX-5 designs are just lightly toned-down production iterations of the Takeri and Minagi concept cars that came before them.

It'll be the same story for the Mazda2, which starts rolling off the assembly lines at Mazda's Mexican plant in the second half of this year alongside the Mazda3 being built there now.

The Hazumi concept shows something more than a strong hint of the Mazda2's sheetmetal. Mazda has rethought the role its smallest mainstream car will play in its biggest market.

The current Mazda2 was something of an afterthought for the United States, arriving here about three years ago as part of the car's midcycle freshening for Europe.

Mazda's U.S. product planning team had little say in the car's initial development. Its responsive, sporty suspension and dialed-in steering endeared it to enthusiasts who appreciated the pint-sized Mazda's "tossability" despite the scant 100 hp created by its 1.5-liter engine.

But it was still a basic car with a spartan interior that lacked high-end bells and whistles such as seat warmers, leather and navigation that competitors such as Ford and Kia soon began offering on their subcompacts.

The next Mazda2 should be different. If the production car's sheetmetal is even close to the sculpted, athletic Hazumi, the Mazda2 will take a big step toward a more exciting design than the current car's dowdy dressings.

Second, Mazda says its U.S. product planning team has been involved in the car's development from the beginning, meaning it should come with more of the features and technology that makes downsizing from a larger, better equipped vehicle more palatable for consumers.

The Hazumi concept also includes Mazda's Connect infotainment system that debuted on the Mazda3, suggesting that the automaker doesn't plan to go cheap on the technology side.

As for its underpinnings, the Mazda2 will ride on a scaled-down version of Mazda's Skyactiv platform architecture and is expected to get a new 1.5-liter engine from the same line of high-compression, fuel-efficient Skyactiv powertrains that helped the Mazda3 get 41 mpg highway.

The big question: Will consumers buy it? The subcompact segment in the U.S. market is more vibrant than a decade ago, but it's hardly on fire.

Subcompact deliveries were flat last year and are off 1 percent through the first two months of 2014. Mazda2 sales total just 1,606 units through February, down 38 percent, and placing it firmly in the basement of segment.

Mazda's has found some success in trying to position itself, in Mazda-speak, as an "alternative to premium." Sales and transaction prices of the Mazda6 and CX-5 are rising, and dealers say Mazda3 sales should pick up soon after a slow start since the redesigned 2014 model went on sale last fall.

We'll have to wait and see whether the Mazda2 will become more of a player in the segment. Because of the tough segment it's in, the Mazda2 still won't put up big volumes as long as gas prices remain affordable and steady.

But as Mazda aims to hike U.S. sales to 400,000 in its fiscal year ending March 31, 2016, it will need all the help it can get -- especially from a small car.

You can reach Ryan Beene at rbeene@crain.com. -- Follow Ryan on Twitter

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