Just five years ago, the 2011 Mazda 2 would have been unthinkable. Back then, hybrids were no more than a Hollywood fad, Toyota was renowned for its quality and subcompact hatchbacks were a curiosity to be savored only on a European vacation. Were it not for a troubled economy and a new obsession with downsizing from carmakers across the globe, Mazda would never have considered importing its most diminutive asset.
But times are different now, and late in July 2010 the Mazda 2 will join the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit and Scion xD in the class of cheap and cheerful cars that Europeans call "superminis."
Mazda is keen to suggest that the 2011 Mazda 2 is everything it knows, only writ small. The marketing slogan is "Zoom-zoom concentrated," and while this sort of American sales-speak makes those of us in Britain roll our eyes, we are prepared to like any small car that drives with the dynamic enthusiasm for which Mazda has become noted even over here.
Mazda Did the Dirty Work
Mazda did all the dirty work for the forthcoming 2011 Ford Fiesta, engineering the small, front-wheel-drive DE platform and putting the car into production in Japan as the Mazda Demio in 2007. (It subsequently won recognition as the 2007 Car of the Year.) The Mazda 2 is available as either a three-door hatchback or a four-door hatchback around the world, but in America the 2011 Mazda 2 will be available only as the four-door version with a 1.5-liter engine and the choice of a five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic.
Since the car's introduction in Europe and Australia, the cutesy shape is aging well. It might be small, but it doesn't look like the budget-price alternative to something else you actually wanted. The shapely rump is particularly appealing and there's some neat detailing around the rear three-quarters.
The styling similarities with the larger Mazda 3 are self-evident, although the 2 is the more interesting of the two. The only criticism might be that it's a little girly, perhaps because in Europe these superminis appeal mainly to female buyers. It will be intriguing to see whether the 2 will seduce Chuck and Larry as well as Mandy and Brandy, although this criticism could equally be applied to the 2011 Ford Fiesta, too.
The People Package
Let's get straight to the point: This is a small car. Remember that when it was introduced, the Mazda 2 was widely hailed as being shorter by 3.9 inches than the Mazda model it replaced, as well as being a useful 132 pounds lighter. At 153 inches overall and 66.7 inches wide, the 2011 Mazda 2 is actually 2.2 inches shorter and 1.1 inches narrower than the Ford Fiesta, even though both ride on essentially the same 98-inch wheelbase. Most important, the Mazda 2 four-door hatchback is a full 27 inches shorter than the Mazda 3 four-door hatchback.
This, inevitably, has an impact inside the cabin. For the driver, there's little concern given the tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel. But if the driver is 6-foot-even or more, you can expect plenty of grumbles from those in the rear seat. The Mazda 2 is fine for journeys around town, but it's not a practical family car in the Ford Taurus sense. You don't want to be taking a bunch of stuff with you, either, as 8.8 cubic feet of cargo space is all you can expect, which compares to 17 cubic feet behind the Mazda 3 hatchback's rear seat.
If you can live without the room (as most people will), the Mazda 2's cabin is a pleasant place to be. The organic curves of the exterior are echoed by a dashboard that's neat, contemporary and logical. The equipment list for the U.S. models of the Mazda 2 has yet to be finalized, but this European example came with the kind of premium features that fit Mazda's product philosophy, including cruise control, stability control and iPod connectivity. Even in the mainstream market, the days when buying small meant buying basic are long gone.
The standards of quality have also improved dramatically in the supermini world. The Mazda 2 is well-built and doesn't feel like a budget car, even if the plastics aren't quite a match for those employed by the new Fiesta.
On the Road
Just as with the Fiesta, the 2011 Mazda 2 is simple but effective when you come to the greasy bits. There's your basic suspension with MacPherson struts in front and a space-efficient, cost-effective torsion-beam axle in the rear. With a car that weighs just 2,282 pounds in Sport specification for Europe, this is all you need to deliver an engaging urban runabout.
The five-speed gearbox is crisp and positive, the steering is impressively communicative given its all-electric power assistance and body roll is well checked. The Mazda 2 doesn't change direction with the alacrity of a Mini, but it can be hustled along at a good pace. There is a genuine pleasure to be had in exploring the comparatively modest limits of such a small, low-powered car, even if Mazda's claim that the Mazda 2 "draws much from the legendary MX-5" is ludicrously overstated.
The Mazda 2's ride quality at low speed is more forgiving than a Mini thanks to relatively soft spring rates. The car is pleasingly supple, although large bumps make the damping feel harsh. Ultimately, the brilliant Fiesta's balance between ride and handling feels better resolved, although the Mazda 2 is not disgraced by the comparison.
The Fiesta is also more refined at high speeds. It might be a function of the desire of the Mazda engineers to save weight, but the 2 is surprisingly noisy at highway speed. This, as much as the limited interior space, compromises Mazda's baby as a long-distance tool.
For the U.S. version of the Mazda 2, we'll see only the 1,498cc MZR inline-4, which is the largest of the gasoline engines sold in Europe. It delivers 102 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 101 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm, which Mazda says will be sufficient to get you from a standstill to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 10.4 seconds on the way to a top speed of 117 mph. The performance is therefore best described as adequate, although the little engine's willingness to rev helps make the most of it. A five-speed manual gearbox will be standard, with the option of a four-speed auto.
The World of Cheap and Cheerful
The fact that Mazda is bringing only one trim version of the 2011 Mazda 2 into the U.S. suggests to us that the company is not very confident that the supermini concept will catch on in a maxi country.
While the Europeans and Japanese have become accustomed to paying high prices for small cars, U.S. buyers are likely to be more hesitant. Mazda might compare the Mazda 2 to a "magazine-thin laptop," but there's a big difference between a computer designed to fit in a flight bag and a car required to carry corn-fed Americans.
In view of this, Mazda's conservative approach seems sensible. If Ford's marketing muscle can make the Fiesta a success, then a competitively priced and capable alternative should stand to benefit from a burgeoning market. The 2011 Mazda 2 won't change perceptions on its own, but it is a good car, and if you've got a desire to lead the downsizing revolution, then this car is worthy of consideration.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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