Review: Manhandling The Girly Mazda Demio DE

Fun things come in small packages, some say. This might or might not require verification for certain things, but in the case of Mazda’s littlest hatchback, all you need to see the truth is take it for a little spin around the block. More popularly known as the 2, locals identify it more easily if you call it a Demio.

I am the former owner of a Mazda Demio, so the drive for me is a reintroduction to the brand. While my own steed was the more staid DY platform, the current drive is the later DE and there have been changes, the most obvious being the looks. It is  no longer the smoothed-off rounded blockiness of the almost van-like form that I had got used to; now the car looks purposeful, the purpose being to appear pretty. The aim of a hatchback is to be less a transporter and more a lifestyle statement.

It looks like a Vitz, which is the definitive hatchback in Kenya. This is both good and bad: good in that it really is pretty, but bad because 1. The car loses identity in adopting the generic soap-like shape of the current crop of cars, and 2. The car loses practicality. Gone is the boot that made the former car more of a station wagon. Now the car is just a trendy hatchback with five nominal seats, only four of which are realistically usable.

Ground clearance is quite low.  The car was running on relatively orbital 185/65/15 tyres but still, anything rougher than a regular murram road will risk scraping the lip,  the belly, or both. The low stance and the aerodynamic bias in the design language make for a sharp and very appealing look.

The changes to the inside are more dramatic. The feel, layout and deployment of material feel more European than anything else and that is a good thing, because the Mazda 2 is a direct relation to the also-popular Ford Fiesta. The arrangement of controls and instruments is more scientific than artful, but there isn’t a lack of soul in it either. Sitting there before firing it up, one cannot help but think that this car was built for enthusiasts by an enthusiast, and they actually did put a lot of thought into it, girly appearance notwithstanding. One cannot help but gleefully notice the presence of paddle shifts behind the steering wheel.

The whole idea behind sitting in the car is to thrash it around and see what it is made of. You don’t necessarily need a sledgehammer horsepower slam to make the hair at the back of your neck stand up. Towards that end, our test route is a heavily potholed, lonely road.  And we will be doing this in the dark. What we need is not top-end firepower but initial pickup, midrange torque, good brakes and a balanced suspension. We have all these, plus the added bonuses of compact dimensions and light weight. I am driving a very comfortable 5-seat go-kart.

The go-kart pretensions extend to the transmission. The DE comes with a CVT with seven preset ratios. That is not what I have. A 5-speed manual is also available. That is not it either. I am in a 4-speed boggo autobox car, and before anyone laments the prehistoric nature, let me tell you the one advantage of having an automatic with fewer ratios than the current standard: there is less hunting of gears and for budding helmsmiths, there is the satisfying sensation of feeling the power build as the tachometer sweeps the wide arc between idle and the red line. It might not make for wild acceleration , but the gaps in pulling power are well covered up by the torque converter. This car can accelerate if you want it to.

So away we go in the Demio, headlights stabbing the darkness as we seek out the potholes. The ruts are fearsome enough to break a shock absorber or eat a tyre, so I am doing a lot of dodging. Initially adopting the sensible power-off-stab-the-brakes-twirl-the-tiller-power-on technique of the novice, the sharpness and responsiveness of the car soon has me dancing around the holes under full power. The nose does not wash wide, grip is ample. Body roll is there but not to alarming levels: comfort has to be maintained as well as handling. The linearity of the acceleration, the soft damping of the primary controls and the subdued thumps that reach me when one or two potholes get the better of my targeting abilities is distinctly European; if anything, it reminds me of the entry-level Jaguar XE saloon, which is high praise for a little Japanese runabout. The drive only lasts for 20 minutes, but 20 is all I need to be convinced that the Demio is still the connoisseur’s weapon of choice if you want a city-bound daily driver that will not bore the hell out of you.

THE BORING STUFF

The engine in the DE is a 1.5 litre MZR four-cylinder, which is the top-of-the-range power unit in the lineup. Very smooth and quiet in the usual Mazda way, it does not lack for torque and is good for 111hp. This is the same engine I had in my DY, and while the smaller units may be more economical for really dedicated traffic-intensive deployment, what you really need is the 1.5. It will still return the desired economy figures, it is urgent when need be and it can hold its own out on the open road without having to mash the firewall to keep up with more powerful transportation.

As stated earlier, the gearbox  is a 5-speed auto, again ideal for city use. I can say with some confidence that the 5-speed manual would be more engaging for the adventurous types, but the autobox is in no way a letdown. It holds on to gears longer, preventing hunting, and it shifts without any jerks or surges.

The front-drive platform is fairly obvious; but less obvious is the absence of an AWD version. Does this car really need an AWD? Hardly; 111hp is not enough to compromise drivability. The tyres can, and will ,break traction when launched mercilessly but only briefly so before grip is regained and tractability resumes.

ACQUIRING ONE

Local dealers are selling six or seven-year old sub-100k units at about Sh700,000, which is a lot. You’d probably rather bring one from Japan yourself and pay less, say roughly half a million if you are lucky. For this outlay you get a sweet little hatchback that you will have a hard time parting with, but in case you do, the  resale value will be a concern. The misplaced belief that Mazdas have rare and costly spares means the used-car market is not strong.  The car is quickly catching on, though, as more  people discover what a gem it really is.

The upturn in desirability means at one point the demand will go up ever so slightly, increasing used prices before coming down again once the market is flooded with them. This is no Toyota: buy it because you want it; don’t buy it in the hopes of recovering your money three years down the line.

Would I buy one? Certainly.

THE COMPETITION

First up is the Vitz, which is the benchmark car for this segment. Being a Toyota, it is not only a cliché but is also the butt of many jokes. An alternative would be the European Volkswagen Polo, which has now entered production in Kenya. For double the Demio’s used asking price, one can avail oneself of a brand new Polo. Fellow Japanese rivals are the Mitsubishi Colt, which is a fairly boring car unless you opt for the fire-breathing and unsubtle Ralliart version. Nissan has the Note, which comes nowhere near the Demio’s beauty, refinement and handling. Another Toyota alternative is the Passo. Of this lineup, I’d say only the Polo rivals the Demio outright.

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