Ford-controlled Mazda has unveiled its fully redesigned Demio subcompact in Japan and analysts are already saying the new car – unveiled in near-production form at the Geneva show last March – could be the troubled company’s saviour in Japan’s booming small car market, writes deputy editor Graeme Roberts.

The new Demio will also be a significant weapon in the restructured Mazda Motors Europe (MME) arsenal. A similar-looking version sharing a joint Mazda/Ford-developed platform is scheduled to go into production at a Ford plant in Spain early next year, making the Demio (to be called the Mazda2 outside Japan) the first European-built Mazda.

MME is pinning its revival on taking over full control of its distribution companies (it replaced the independent UK importer with its own subsidiary late last year) and substantially improved new products.

The Mazda6, which replaced the lacklustre 626 a few months ago, has attracted much favourable comment from Europe’s notoriously parochial motoring press and the company will surely be nervously hoping for a similar verdict for the 2003 Demio replacement.

Japanese-market names for the new Mazda Demio – Cozy, Sport and Casual – sound surprisingly sensible to western ears considering the Demio comes from a company which sells a minivan (thankfully only in Japan) called the ‘Bongo Friendee’.

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On sale throughout Japan at Mazda, Anfini and Autozam dealerships, the monthly new Demio sales target is 7,000 units, compared with 2,500 for the larger 6, already selling strongly ‘at home’.

Mazda is claiming improved interior packaging, a strong feature of the previous model sold worldwide, and says exterior design and interior quality are now “one rank above the rest” [with] “class-leading driving performance, and enhanced safety features”. We’ll see.

Mazda also says the Demio was designed to a “3-cars-from-1” concept and the three ‘lifestyle’ versions offered in Japan, priced between 1,070,000 yen and 1,535,000 yen (about $US8,850 to $12,690), are aimed at different customer groups ranging from young families to single men and single women.

A more luxurious Super Cozy model is also available as an option package featuring leather seats and a white wood-like leather wrapped steering wheel.

Tellingly, the company refers to European driving requirements in the Demio press material, saying: “The new model meets the needs of a wide variety of customers ranging from drivers who traditionally prefer the dynamics of European cars to drivers looking for an easy-to-drive runabout with sense of security.”

Fully restyled inside and out, the Japanese-market Demio has newly developed MZR 1.3- and 1.5-litre engines, both with the now obligatory double overhead camshafts and technology new to the Demio including a long intake manifold, continuously variable valve timing (called S-VT for Sequential Valve Timing) and stainless steel long-branched 4-1 exhaust manifold.

The 1348cc unit develops 67kW (91PS) at 6,000rpm and 124N-m (12.6kg-m) of torque at a sensible 3,500rpm – hopefully the days of Japanese family car torque peaks circa 5,000rpm are over.

The 1.5-litre engine (actually displacing 1498cc) delivers 83kW(113PS) at 6,000rpm and 140N-m (14.3kg-m) at a slightly peaky 4,000rpm.

Five-speed manual transmission comes as standard but, illustrating the vast difference between the Japanese and European markets, the Sport comes with the MZR1.5 engine coupled to four-speed ‘Activematic’ transmission for “sporty performance”, according to Mazda. European buyers would not agree. This model also has HID headlights, 15-inch alloy wheels, and ‘aero’ bumpers plus a dark blue interior with metal-like accents.

Front (1475mm) and rear (1450mm) tracks are said to be the widest in the class.
The MacPherson strut front suspension with torsion beam rear suspension with mono-tube damper has been completely revised and stronger brakes are specified.

All Japanese market models are equipped with the 4W-ABS, brake assist and EBD(Electronic Brake Force Distribution System) while DSC (Dynamic Stability Control) is optional on all automatic models.

All models are also fitted with Mazda’s dual-stage frontal SRS airbags which activate depending on impact intensity, while SRS curtain and front side airbags are optional.

Mimicking a GM Europe innovation the new Demio also features an intrusion-minimising brake pedal to limit the incidence of lower leg injuries to drivers.

Other innovations across the range include a newly-developed “White Canvas Top” for the Cozy model.

This uses semi-transparent woven polyester laminated with a durable fluorocarbon resin and the closed roof is claimed to fill the cabin with a soft light “similar to that of a white awning-covered open-air café”.

The roof is also claimed to restrict ultra-violet rays from penetrating the cabin and heat build-up in the cabin in the same way as a normal roofed car.

Boasting “unprecedented” open air dimensions of 727mm in length and 636 mm in width, the roof opens to a limit behind the eye point of rear passengers and a collapsible deflector reduces wind noise and buffeting while driving.

Also new are damper-assisted centre console switches for ease of use, a large centre armrest that can be set at different angles – a Japanese market first in this class, apparently – and a 50:50 split rear seat back that can be collapsed with a one-touch levers reached from inside the rear doors or from the tailgate.

The spring loaded mechanisms pull up the entire rear seat and fold it behind the front seat backs while there is no need to remove the headrests to achieve a flat cargo area.

The new Demio is 3,925mm long, 1,680mm wide and 1530mm high (1,545mm with the canvas top or roof rails on a 2,490mm wheelbase so it can fit in just about any Japanese tower parking station.

The 2003 Demio has a roomier interior with wider front seats and concave door trim, longer front seat slide range and, again reflecting planned European market sales, a stepless ratchet operated driver’s seat height adjuster which tilts the seat cushion as well. There’s still no telescopic adjustment for the steering column, though.

The new square rear luggage space enables two complete mountain bikes (with front wheels fitted) to be loaded thanks to a non-protruding suspension tower design.

Copying Citroen’s recent innovation, Mazda has come up with an optional removable folding board that sits between the two rear wheel housings and splits the luggage space into upper and lower sections. It also folds in half, allowing items placed on the floor to be easily reached.

All models have a rating of E-LEV (“Excellent Low Emission Vehicle” designated by the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport) by achieving a 50% reduction in exhaust emissions from 2000 regulatory levels, and clear Japan’s 2010 fuel-efficiency standards and all are also eligible for special tax breaks under Japan’s Green Tax Law.

Mazda has also achieved recycling efficiency of more than 90%.The new Demio couldn’t have arrived at a better time for troubled Mazda whose dealers both at home and in export markets have been starved of good new products.

Meanwhile, the opposition has ‘zoom-zoomed’ ahead with hits such as the Toyota Vitz/Yaris/Echo, and ist, Honda’s Fit/Jazz and Nissan’s March/Micra (also due out in Europe, courtesy of Nissan’s UK plant next year).

All these Japanese makers have beady eyes focused on European small car buyers doggedly loyal to the likes of Ford, Fiat, VW, Opel/Vauxhall et al; when the Mazda 2 launches next year the battle should really start.