By Nick Kurczewski
The 2011 Mazda MAZDA2 four-door hatchback brings a cute new face to an increasingly crowded sub-compact market currently dominated by the Nissan Versa, Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris. Low-running costs and a bargain price-tag are the key ingredients in this company. And while it doesn’t have the same “zoom zoom” driving excitement you’ll find in a sporty Mazda Miata roadster, or the slightly larger and more powerful MAZDA3, the MAZDA2 does have some nice moves of its own.
For a base price of $14,730, the 2011 MAZDA2 does many things well and, in some cases, much better than the competition. In terms of exterior design, the MAZDA2 is a huge improvement on the frumpy Versa and potato-shaped Yaris. Mazda officials said they wanted to instill a coupe-like profile, to avoid the “mini-minivan” (Mazda’s terminology) look of the Honda Fit. Cute without being faddish, the MAZDA2 is one of the best looking subcompacts — though the 2011 Ford Fiesta is probably tops in the looks department.
However, if the Ford is a little too pricey (the base Fiesta is more than $15,000), the MAZDA2 is worth serious consideration. Remember, this is 2010, a time when excess and vanity is out of style; sorry to those outdated divas in Sex and the City 2, along with every HUMMER owner, but being frugal is now cool. For many car buyers, fuel mileage has become as much a bragging point as heavy-hitting horsepower and rapid 0-to-60 times. This is good news for the MAZDA2, which sips fuel and has loads of standard features, but doesn’t suffer from any excess of horsepower.
The standard Sport model comes with air conditioning, power windows and locks, anti-lock brakes, and safety features like stability control and traction control. The Touring model ($16,185) adds fog-lights, alloy wheels, sportier seating with red piping, and audio controls on the steering wheel. There is no ‘stripper’ model (as in, no frills or features, not pasties and pole dances). But unless you get cheap thrills from winding up your own windows, there’s really no reason to complain.
However, a few extra ponies under the hood would be nice. With its 100-horsepower 1.5-liter four-cylinder, the MAZDA2 is one of the least powerful cars on sale. You’d need the reflexes of a three-toed sloth to somehow get this front-wheel drive hatch slipping and sliding to engage the stability and traction control. Still, they’re nice safety features to have. And none of the MAZDA2′s competitors are exactly what we’d call pocket rockets.
Mazda has chosen a less-is-more approach, shedding weight from the MAZDA2 wherever and whenever possible. From the suspension components, to the chassis and wiring harness, every gram of extra poundage has been trimmed down. Even the door-speakers weigh roughly half of what they did in the last generation MAZDA2. Strange then that Mazda decided on a doughnut stop only 45 minutes into the test drive. After two jelly-filled and a large coffee, I’d probably undone some poor Mazda engineer’s hard work.
On sale since 2007, the previous MAZDA2 never made it to the U.S. Yet while living in Europe, I had the chance to drive the outgoing MAZDA2 in several trim levels, with a variety of gasoline and diesel engines. Nimble and easy to drive, Mazda was smart to leave the best attributes alone in the new model. Climbing behind the wheel of a MAZDA2 Sport, with optional 4-speed automatic ($800), I immediately felt at home and ready to dice with traffic.
The cabin is dominated by black and grey plastic, but the quality of the materials is good for the price-point and the controls are logically positioned. Too bad the cloth seats in the Sport model never did feel quite right. No matter where I positioned them, or how I wiggled around, my lower back started to ache after only a few miles. The vent for air recirculation also felt surprisingly cheap as I slid it back and forth, grimacing at the clunky feel and sound it made.
But you can’t argue with spacious seating for four (five in a pinch) combined with a 35 mile per gallon average during highway driving (with the 5-speed manual). This drops by a couple mpg with the four-speed automatic, but the trade-off is worth it if you’re routinely dealing with stop-and-go traffic. Mazda expects that nearly 80-percent of buyers will opt for the automatic — it’d be my choice, too.
After all the talk about approximately 200 lbs being shaved from the new MAZDA2, I probably expected a little too much from the steering. It’s precise and nicely weighted, especially for city driving. And for a sub-compact there’s much more driving pleasure here than you’d expect. Yet it didn’t feel much different from the MAZDA2s I drove in Europe which, to be fair, were always nice cars to zip around in.
So where does that leave the 2011 MAZDA2? It’s not a game-changer, though its cute looks and zippy handling offer lots of charm — along with a rare dose of driving pleasure in the sub-compact market. There is some actual soul under this car’s sheet-metal, even if some interior controls feel cheap and the stingy luggage space trails many competitors. The sub-compact market is heating up, economy is definitely in, and the MAZDA2 is a worthy addition to the field.