Unless you’re talking about an exotic sports car, driving something small has typically been an act of endurance – repayment for bad karma, perhaps. But there’s no reason a subcompact has to “feel like a cheap penalty box,” insists Dave Coleman, the product development engineer behind the new 2011 Mazda2.
The 5-door hatchback is the Japanese maker’s latest-generation subcompact, and the first Mazda2 to make it to American shores. A not-too-distant sibling of Ford’s new Fiesta, the Asian offering aims to tap into the growing demand for smaller, more affordable, more fuel-efficient vehicles. And if our time behind the wheel is any indication, Mazda just might pull it off.
In recent decades, Ford and Mazda have cooperated on a variety of vehicle programs, the Mazda2 just the latest. But those who believe Fiesta and Mazda2 are effectively the same car are in for some surprises. The two projects diverged early on, insists Coleman, who claims there are now only four parts shared between the two.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have some key things in common: like striking exterior design, as well as the reasonably efficient use of space that yields far more interior room than you’d expect from a traditional small car.
But where Fiesta and Mazda2 noticeably part ways becomes increasingly obvious when you’re flying along Skyline Drive, a tight and twisty stretch of tarmac that cuts through the forests and fields inland from California’s Central Coast. The Mazda2 is much more of a driver’s car than Ford’s offering – or just about any of its other competitors, domestic or foreign.
Now, let’s be clear: subcompacts still appeal on price, in this case, just $13,980 for the base Sport edition. So, there are going to be some compromises. There’s a lot of plastic on the instrument panel, for example, though Mazda designers did add a touch of refinement with the band of piano black that covers the audio system.
Back seat space, meanwhile, is on the mid-side of the pack, though there’s a lot of room up front. Cargo space is the big limitation, measuring barely half as big as the Honda Fit.
When it comes to Mazda2’s powertrain, don’t read too much into the numbers. The 2011 Mazda2 makes “only” 100 horsepower and 96 lb-ft of torque from its pint-sized 1.5-liter inline-four engine. But it’s no stone pony, offering a surprising amount of pulling power, especially if you opt for the 5-speed manual gearbox that comes as standard equipment.
A four-speed automatic is optional and will likely be chosen by a sizable share of Mazda2 buyers considering how few American motorists still know how to handle a stick. It’s not a bad choice, though we’d certainly prefer a 5- or 6-speed, especially under aggressive driving or when charging up a steep hill, like the one on Highway 101 where the little 4-banger seemed pushed to the limits. On the other hand, the automatic did very little of the gear-hunting that can drive owners of many other small cars crazy.
Mazda engineers did a credible job of giving their new subcompact a solid and well-built feel. There’s far less of the jouncing you normally expect from a car with just a 93.0-inch wheelbase. Road noise is held reasonably in check, as well.
A key target for the Mazda2 development team was keeping weight in check. They did a credible job, shaving more than six pounds from the wiring harness and more than five from latches and hinges. In the end, they turned out a hatchback that weighs in slightly lighter than a mid-‘90s Miata roadster.
Why does that matter? Trimming the fat, so to speak, yields both better performance and improved mileage. And the 2011 Mazda2 delivers fuel economy rated at 29 mpg City/35 Highway, with the stick, and 2 mpg less with the automatic. That about matches the 29/35 of the Toyota Yaris and exceeds Honda Fit’s 27/33.
Handling is where the 2011 Mazda2 outshines the competition, and really lives up to the maker’s Zoom-Zoom image.
Starting at less than $14,000, you’ll get a reasonably well-equipped five-passenger Sport edition that features such niceties as air conditioning, power windows and mirrors, tilt wheel, 4-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system and 15-inch steel wheels. Bumping the price tag to $15,435 gets you alloy wheels, foglights, chrome exhaust tips, a leather-wrapped wheel with built-in audio controls, cruise control and two more speakers.
There’s a modest list of accessories including a navigation system. Put an asterisk by that. What Mazda is offering is just a Garmin Nuvi, pretty much what you could find at any big-box appliance store.
One surprise was Mazda’s decision to limit its offering to a 5-door hatchback. (Ford opted for both a hatch and more conventional sedan for the U.S. version of the Fiesta.) That intentionally flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which suggests American buyers don’t like 5-doors, despite their functionality. We’re hoping the Mazda2 disproves that tired axiom. But the maker’s top U.S. executive, Jim O’Sullivan, tells TheDetroitBureau.com that Mazda will consider offering other body styles, including not only a sedan but also a sporty 3-door, if it senses the demand.
A half decade ago, the subcompact segment barely existed in this country. Today, it’s becoming an increasingly crowded and fast-growing niche. The Mazda2 should command some attention. It’s a more than credible offering. Though it’s not quite as roomy as some of the competition, its sporty nature is sure to win over those buyers on a budget who like cars that go Zoom-Zoom.