The new Mazda Demio went on sale this month, replacing the entry level 121 - a rebadged Ford Fiesta - which has been axed as a result of poor sales.
It takes the place of the first variant to hit UK shores from Japan in 1989 and Mazda predicts it will be able to sell 5,000 of the cars in a full year, which it claims to be a realistic total since 1,700 of its ageing predecessor were sold in the first three months of 2000.
There is a choice of two engines - both 16v petrol - the 1.3 62bhp and 1.5 74bhp - and three trim levels - LXi and GXi available with the 1.3 engine and the range-topping 1.5-litre manual or auto transmission GSi. The auto comes at a £700 premium in a range that extends from £9,000 to £11,700 on-the-road. The Demio, which comes in five-door format only, features a new-look front and rear, added refinements in the interior and safety and security enhancements, which together earn the car either a 3E or 4E insurance rating.
Demio is the latest model to show the new Mazda 'family face', with the five-point grille and the 'M' logo on the new front end. The body has more curved lines than its predecessor, from new headlights to a deep sculptured bumper at the rear. On the subject of safety, front and rear portions of the body house 'crushable zones' to absorb and disperse collision impact. Airbags are fitted to all models together with a deactivation system which senses when a passenger is not present or when a child seat is fitted. In the 1.5 GSi, ABS and electronic brake distribution are standard.
Security measures include a Thatcham category two immobiliser and from the 1.3 GXi upwards, an alarm. Thanks to its tall body, the car is easy to get in and out of and the seating position can be altered by dials on the side of the chair. The resulting elevated driving position gives excellent all-round visibility compared to competitors like the Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall Corsa and Peugeot 206 - without being too lofty. The instrument panel is new, set with two-tone colouring and large buttons. Here again the Mazda family identity has been extended with the fascia layout and design a direct copy of models like the new 323 and 626.
There is space in the car for four adults and up to 365 litres of luggage. The double folding 50:50 split rear seat creates 1,298 litres of space, which is almost as much as the 626 estate. As a driving experience, what the Demio lacks in looks by being less than sleek and sexy it makes up for in subtlety and handling. The 1.3 four-cylinder engine is extremely quiet at idle and there is little vibration through the pedals or gearstick. It's not a car that stands to be thrashed. With two people in, it will cope manfully with the cut and thrust of city centre driving, but on the open road will take a bit a patience to get up to speed. The performance is further impeded by a high payload so load-luggers would be better off with the more gutsy 1.5-litre version.
The Demio handles extremely well, as any supermini should, with tight turning and limited roll on corners. The driving experience is pleasant thanks to good seat positioning and easily adjustable dials and mirrors. The new Demio will win above its rivals among customers who demand value for money without scrimping on practicality - and this car has that in bucket loads thanks to its storage/luggage space and ease of access.
Plans for Mazda's continued European growth were revealed by Thomas Hajek, regional sales director for southern Europe.
Hajek said: 'In Europe our volume has increased each year for the last four years and we're planning to continue this trend with a target this year of a quarter of a million units. This is achievable, but no walkover with the current competitive situation and the impact of the Yen. In both Germany - with a market share of 2.9% - and Austria - with 5% - Mazda has maintained in the first quarter its position as the best-selling Japanese brand from last year.
'The arrival of new and face-lifted products will play a key role as will our strategies to cut costs and grow volume and revenue.'
Distribution operations also began in Italy and Spain, both in February. 'We're also planning to take a 50% equity in the Austrian business, which includes Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia, and we're setting up in Russia,' said Hajek. As a result of these developments, Mazda is confident it can achieve European volumes of between 350,000 and 400,000 in five years.
In recognising Mazda's exposure to exchange rate differences with single sourcing from Japan, Hajek said the company needs to source vehicles elsewhere and one option is European production - potentially in a Ford factory.
But Mazda UK's managing director Tim Tozer stressed that such an option could not have sustained car production at Ford UK's Dagenham plant.
He said: 'Ford has a problem with over-production, but while sharing its manufacturing facilities would have an important impact on our businesses in shortening the supply, it would have only limited impact on Ford's production.'