Mazda2 — Modern minimalist fun

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Looming government mileage standards that have the industry scurrying to adjust their fleet numbers skyward and a stubbornly sluggish economy have combined to fuel the reemergence of the small car in America.

While we watch helplessly as the economy inches to some sort of recovery and as we wonder whether the government is moving too far too fast in its aggressive gas consumption mandates, we applaud the return of the so-called B segment vehicle.

We have always enjoyed small, fun-to-drive little cars especially if there was a hatchback attached. We liked the price and we enjoyed the economy, but perhaps even more, we relished the driving experience. The feeling to truly be one with a car, to dart in and out of traffic and to simply enjoy the smallness cannot be duplicated in bigger machines. To us it’s the real joy of driving.

These so called entry-level vehicles no longer fall into the somewhat dubious category of econboxes and strippers, the not-so-attractive labels slapped on them in the past.

One such new entry coming from across the ocean is the Mazda2. Sold in its current iteration since 2008 in Japan and Europe, we found the smallest Mazda to be a delight during a couple of weeks of test drives.

We find the Mazda2 one of the neatest small-car designs to be offered for the 2011 model year. Its front fender bulges and a shoulder line that gives definition to the side set the tone for the little car. The only sour note is the trademark big mouth Mazda grille. But we figure most people have come-to-terms with that design statement.

Owners must do with relatively low horsepower — based on 2011 standards — but there’s enough forward thrust on hand to keep the car percolating; and the amenity level is definitely adequate with such modern “must haves” as power windows and doorlocks, a decent-sounding audio system, air conditioning, and a full gauge package; all standard equipment for a starting price of $14,975.

The Mazda2 comes to the U.S. in only one configuration — a 5-door hatchback. There are only two trim levels, Sport and Touring, and only one engine option;  a 1.5-liter inline 4-cylinder engine that produces 100 horsepower and 96 pound-feet of torque. It can be mated to a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission.

The Mazda2 shares most of its underpinnings with the just-released Ford Fiesta is an easy to toss about fun-to-drive treat that makes you relish the drive. At first blush you might think that 100 horses are just enough to keep the car out of the way of oncoming traffic, but when you figure in the Mazda’s diminutive curb weight of 2,300 pounds, it's quite enough, especially when mated to the manual shifter.

We enjoyed running through the gears, pushing into the upper reaches of the rpm band to get the most out of the little car as we accelerated to highway speeds — and beyond.
This does yield rather course engine noises, especially over the 5,000 rpm mark, and don’t expect rocketship performance from the little engine. Fun and fast do not always go perfectly together. In the case of the Mazda2, expect these near-full-throttle launches to yield something over 9 seconds to reach 60 mph.

The manual shifter is light and direct and the clutch is easy to modulate. Even drivers not adept at manual shifting should find little problem smoothly pulling away from a traffic light.

Most people these days will lean toward the four-speed automatic and in this setup the auto shifter does not produce the same results as the manual. Performance is dulled, but for all but a few the automatic will be sufficient. We think if Mazda would have sprung for a five-speed, it would have added to performance, and increased gas mileage as well.

As it is gas mileage should please most, although we think mileage should be a bit better based on horsepower and weight. The little car is rated at 29 mpg city and 35 mpg highway with the manual and 27/33 with the automatic.

Inside the Mazda2 has a very handsome, sculpted dash, instrumentation is very helpful for the “hard of seeing” and the audio and HVAC panel is user-friendly and highly-intuitive. Something sorely missing are the inside armrests for the driver and front-seat passenger.  

The Mazda does have adequate storage areas up front, something even some high-dollar offerings lack. A 12-volt power plug is stationed at the front of the floor console adjacent to a bin, just the right size for a cellphone.

The front seats are comfortable, and the driver’s seat proved friendly on our longer drives.

But like the Ford Fiesta the Mazda2 is tight in the rear quarters. Adult passengers will have to appeal to (beg) their front seat counterparts for some leg room.

While cargo space is good for a small hatchback, it is not quite up to some of the competition including such vehicles as the Honda Fit and Nissan Versa. Luggage capacity behind the seats is 13.3 cubic feet and cargo space with the seats folded is 28 cubic feet.

Mazda is definitely a price leader in this segment. As noted above standard equipment includes virtually everything people take for granted these days including the ability to unlock doors from a key fob.

Standard safety includes four-wheel antilock brakes, front-seat side airbags and full-length side-curtain airbags and traction and stability control.

Additional items on the upscale Touring model (add $1,215 to the price of a Sport) include cruise control, trip computer, alloy wheels, fog lights, better grade upholstery and an upgraded audio unit. What we don’t like is that a satellite radio system is not available. That’s a serious faux pas.

We drove the Touring with manual transmission, pearl paint ($200) and a cargo net ($40) for $16,430 including destination.

Base price: $14,975; as driven, $16,430
Engine: 1.5-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 100 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 98 pound-feet @ 4,000 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 98 inches
Length: 155.5 inches
Curb weight: 2,306 pounds
Turning circle: 32.2 feet
Luggage capacity: 13.3 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 28 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 11.3 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 35 mpg highway, 29 mpg city
0-60: 9.8 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta, Toyota Yaris

The Good:
• Considerable standard features for base price
• Fun driving experience
• Well-styled exterior

The Bad:
• Some popular options such as satellite radio not available

The Ugly:
• Tight rear-seat accommodations