The Mediocre Middle Man on a Miserly Mission
The 2011 Mazda 2 is not a breakthrough performance. Rather, it's a fine small car — not bad, but not great. Its interior is decent. Its acceleration and handling are on pace for the segment and it's big enough to get the job done.
But it's not a class leader. It's not the roomiest, it doesn't have the nicest interior and it isn't the most utilitarian subcompact sold in America.
But average has its place. Somebody has to be average. Where would the Indy 500 be without John Andretti? And what would Hollywood do without Nicolas Cage and Gerard Butler? Remember, it is precisely this undistinguished middle ground that defines good and bad. Without the average they can't exist.
What surprises us most about the 2011 Mazda 2 — a new entry from the carmaker in this segment — is that we've rather come to enjoy the middle.
The Basics of a 100-Hp Car
Perhaps you're looking for a more practical review of this car. Maybe you'd like to know how comfortably it will seat four people? How it rides, how much cargo it will hold or if it wanders about needlessly on the freeway? And we plan to tell you. But let's observe some fundamentals first.
Under the hood of every 2011 Mazda 2 there's a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine cranking out 100 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 98 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. It's a bit below average for the class. The 2011 Ford Fiesta yields 120 hp from 1.6 liters, while Honda's Fit manages 117 hp from its 1.5-liter engine. A five-speed manual transmission and a four-speed automatic are both available. Our Touring model tester, which offered alloy wheels, a six-speaker sound system and cruise control, was equipped with the former.
A summary of the test numbers proves that the Mazda 2's modest power isn't a huge disadvantage in a class where there's little emphasis placed on moving out rapidly. It managed 60 mph from a standstill in 10.3 seconds (10.0 seconds with a 1-foot rollout like on a drag strip), which is 0.7 second behind the Fit and 0.3 second behind the Fiesta. Its 17.5-second quarter-mile at 77.9 mph is 0.6 and 0.3 second behind the Fit and Fiesta, respectively. Still, all of these numbers are quicker than the last Toyota Yaris we tested.
There is better news. Like the fact we recorded a combined fuel economy of 32.9 mpg while covering 873 miles. That's a tiny bit better than we did in the Fiesta (32.7 mpg) and measurably better than the last Fit we tested (30 mpg). The EPA rates the littlest Mazda at 28 city and 35 highway mpg with a combined rating of 32 mpg, which ties it with the Fiesta and betters the Fit by 3 mpg.
How's She Drive?
There's even some of Mazda's typically sporty driving dynamics in the 2011 Mazda 2. How important that is to subcompact buyers remains to be seen, but we can say that its control feel and responses are better than most cars in this segment. Even its electrically assisted power steering manages to offer better feedback than similar systems from other manufacturers.
We did occasionally sense the 2's diminutive stature. Its 98-inch wheelbase (the same as the Fit and Fiesta) in combination with narrow tires gives it a tendency to follow the road more than we'd prefer on Southern California's rain-grooved freeways. And its rear end liked to wiggle a bit during full-ABS stops as well.
Still, we found the little green car a decent drive — fun, even. Toss it into a corner and there's enough Mazda here to satisfy any realistic subcompact buyer. Sure, it could do with a little more wheel travel and it's a bit buzzy when wrung out, but so is almost every other car in the class.
Overall, the Mazda 2 is a respectable machine from behind the wheel. Handling tests proved it to be as good or better than the competition. Lateral acceleration, at 0.84g, is better than both the Fit and Fiesta, and its speed through our 600-foot slalom was between the two at 63.9 mph.
Braking from 60 mph required 129 feet, which is 6 feet shorter than the Fit but 10 feet longer than the Fiesta. As with most Mazdas, pedal feel was firm and responsive.
Use It Daily
But pretending anyone shops this category for acceleration or handling is like pretending people see Jessica Biel movies because she's a great actor. The real reason the 2011 Mazda 2 exists is to offer cheap, utilitarian transportation. And when measured using that yardstick, it's less successful.
Take, for example, the Honda Fit, which is easily the most utilitarian car in the class — if not in the world. The Honda distinguishes itself with multiconfigurable fold-flat rear seats that provide cargo space for tall or long items depending on their arrangement.
With the rear seats upright, the Mazda is down 7 cubic feet to the Fit (13.3 vs. 20.6). Fold the seats flat and that gap increases to nearly 30 cubes (27.8 vs. 57.3). What's more, the Mazda lacks the Honda's flat-folding ability that greatly increases usable space. We were able to fit one international-size suitcase behind the 2's upright rear seats, nothing more.
Still, we packed our 6-foot-2 Detroit editor into the green machine and insisted he try the backseat after setting the driver seat in his preferred position. Headroom was a bit tight and his knees touched the seatback, but remarkably, he admitted he'd be comfortable back there for short trips. And if this American, large in stature and attitude, can make it work, we'd guess most everyone else will find the space acceptable.
Helping the cause up front are a tilt steering wheel and seat tracks long enough to accommodate mutants. Notably, though, both the Fit and Fiesta offer a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel.
Hit and Miss Interior
Our 2011 Mazda 2 was a Touring model equipped with steering-wheel-mounted audio controls. However, the fact that it lacks a dedicated iPod or USB jack is an inexcusable oversight in its interior. There's a generic auxiliary jack, but both the Fit and Fiesta offer a USB port, allowing you to control an iPod through the car's audio system.
There's a large open-top center console composed of usable small-item trays and cupholders too shallow to be of any real value. Fortunately, the door pockets integrate bottle holders that can securely hold most soda-can-size beverages.
Materials and assembly are at or above class standards. Plastics offer a pleasing grain and panels fit together well on our test car. Almost ironically, Mazda's press materials list the 2's urethane parking brake handle as a comfort and convenience feature. We're not sure if it's either. Unless, of course, it's genuine urethane. Because it was a Touring model, our car had a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
Trimmed with red piping, the front seats are comfortable and reasonably supportive. But the giant speedometer leaves little room for the tachometer in the instrument panel.
The price tag on our 2011 Mazda 2 Touring model test car was $16,185. A similarly equipped Honda Fit Sport will shrink your account by an additional $935. But it's hard to build a solid case for the Mazda 2's cost of entry when a Ford Fiesta SE Hatchback — essentially the same car with more power, similar fuel economy and a nicer interior — can be had for $15,795.
So we find ourselves split on the 2011 Mazda 2. Part of us wants to love it for being a decent small car with ample room and genuinely good manners. And the other part is annoyed that Ford will sell us the same thing for less green.
Still, we would certainly choose it over a Toyota Yaris or Nissan Versa. And that — as you may have gathered — makes it exactly average.
Edmunds.com Executive Editor Michael Jordan says:
The Mazda guys tell us that they actually kept a Lotus Elise in the basement while the Mazda 2 was being developed. You can tell, because the Mazda 2 is the automotive concept stripped to its core, not just in terms of weight but also in terms of function.
Every little mechanical detail has been reshaped to minimize the impact of weight, even down to the plastic bits under the hood. The process of shaving ounces might seem like more trouble than it's worth, especially since this sort of thing soaks up a lot of expense in the engineering process even as it saves money during the manufacturing process. It's kind of like building a racing bicycle for the Tour de France; it seems stupid to spend so much money when what you get is less than what you started with. But you get the benefit every time you go somewhere, as if a great weight has been lifted from your shoulders.
The same sort of minimalism also enhances the way this Mazda 2 drives. It has to do everything well, so there's no room for frivolities. The Mazda 2's highway ride is remarkably resilient, far more composed than you find in screaming cheap cars from other carmakers, although it has a kind of springy character instead of the heavily damped, hydraulic feel that I prefer. And the Mazda 2 is pretty balanced in the corners, able to put all four tires to good work instead of following only the fronts around as if you were in some kind of dog cart (which is the cheap way to do front-wheel drive, as dynamics engineers will tell you).
A minimalist car appeals to me because it makes you think hard about the things you really need in an automobile. The Mazda 2 might seem like less, but it really is more.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.