Precise steering, responsive throttle and brakes, decent ride, chipper styling.
Outdated automatic transmission, barely habitable rear seat, so-so fuel economy.
These days, it's not often you see a new car touted for its light weight, because almost every new model launched is heavier than the vehicle it replaces. Mazda, the maker of some of the sweetest-handling cars and crossovers around, has for a long time preached the virtues of light weight, and with the all-new 2011 Mazda 2 subcompact hatchback, engineers worked hard to chop the pounds and ounces wherever possible. Less weight gives the Mazda 2 agile responses and makes it entertaining to drive, but doesn't offset the meager output of the car's engine and doesn't translate into anything more than competitive fuel economy.
Enthusiasts of the brand clamored for Mazda to bring the tidy Mazda 2 to the U.S. as soon as the first versions of this generation went on sale in other world markets in 2007. The fuss to bring the Mazda 2 Stateside became more intense when it was named World Car of the Year for 2008.
Now that it's here, the 2011 Mazda 2 has to mix it up with some well-established rivals, including Honda's popular Fit, the Nissan Versa, Scion's xD and, most notably, the 2011 Ford Fiesta, which is based on the same platform as the Mazda 2 -- a platform that Mazda developed and likely is to be the last shared by these two companies now that their long relationship has come to an end.
The not particularly ambitious 100-horsepower output from Mazda's 1.5-liter four-cylinder doesn't do much to reinforce Mazda's zoomy brand image and makes for pretty snoozy performance. And when you ask for this engine's utmost -- which happens often, considering max power doesn't hit until 6,000 rpm -- things get coarse and noisy as the revs climb.
Worse, though, is the ignoble four-speed automatic transmission. Yes, there are other automakers with more expensive cars still using four-speed automatics, but that doesn't make it right, even for inexpensive small cars like the Mazda 2, when most buyers likely will go for the automatic. The four-speed makes some driving maneuvers, like entering a freeway from a looping on-ramp, a downright raucous exercise as the transmission rudely cranks down from 3rd gear to 1st. It also probably robs the hatchback of three or four precious miles per gallon on the highway; the ratings of 27 city and 33 highway mpg aren't too impressive for a car that weighs just 2,359 pounds.
The Mazda 2's standard five-speed manual also could use another gear to be judged fully contemporary, but its shift lever is light and direct, and the gearbox ratios are a more pleasurable complement to the engine's power characteristics. The clutch effort is slightly stiff, but in addition to delivering a more involving connection with the engine, there's a payoff of another 2 mpg in both the city and highway driving cycles.
The 2011 Mazda 2 rides agreeably on its independent front and torsion-beam rear suspension, doing a particularly nice job of absorbing small surface irregularities and keeping the body motions to a minimum. The suspension doesn't like large obstructions, but few small-car chassis do.
The Mazda 2's best asset is the fluency and acuteness of its major controls. The power steering is electrically assisted, and many automakers make a mess of these fuel-saving systems. But not Mazda: The electric assist is progressive, predictable and consistent, responding with a rewarding and confidence-inducing precision. The same can be said for the brakes and even the throttle, where Mazda engineers took specific pains to ensure gas pedal inputs don't result in jerky engine reactions.
Mazda says many subcompact cars are bought to transport one or two occupants at the most -- and we say that's a good thing, because although the Mazda 2 is comparatively comfortable for those in front, we wouldn't want to spend much time in the back.
Contorting through the inconveniently angled rear doors, you'll perch on a backseat with a seat cushion too short to support the thighs, a backrest that stops well below shoulder level even for an average-height person and rear headrests that have to be jacked up to their maximum height just to keep them from rabbit-punching your shoulder blades. The "armrests" in the rear doors are quite short and shallow cutouts useful for little more than pulling the door shut.
Things are better up front, where the cloth seats have an insert with raised wedges that provide "natural" ventilation, improve grip and create some contrast in what is a stark sea of dark plastics and cloth. The seats themselves could use some extra lower back support but are good enough at this price point, while the driving position is straightforward, with manual adjustment of the seat fore and aft and a handle to raise the seat height. The steering wheel tilts but doesn't telescope.
What's sort of refreshing about this class of cars is that there aren't a lot of features and interior gadgets that forever require adjustment. There are just two gauges straight ahead of the driver: a large, dominating speedometer in the center and a tachometer to its left. On the right in the Touring models is an LCD display window that shows less critical info like odometer info and readings for fuel.
The Touring model is worth the $1,400 extra, also bringing a nice leather-covered steering wheel with audio controls, not to mention cruise control, which, sadly, doesn't come on the standard Sport trim.
But the Mazda 2's comparative old age (it's new to our shores, but not an all-new model) shows in the lack of onboard Bluetooth connectivity, no USB port and no built-in navigation capability. Mazda is offering Bluetooth and navigation as "attachable" accessories, but that's a weak solution that pales, particularly compared with the Fiesta, which offers Ford's superb Sync connectivity option.
Yep, the 2011 Mazda 2's signature design feature is the same over-expressive grille "grin" that generated controversy with the Mazda 3 and Mazda 6. Get past that, though, and the Mazda 2 has engaging character in its front fender bulges and a shoulder line that gives extra definition to the body sides. Flat and slabby sheet metal used to define this segment, screaming to the world that you bought a cheap car, but the Mazda 2 thumbs its nose -- or maybe just grins with that grille -- at that outdated convention.
We'd like to say that same sense of adventure travels to the interior, but except for a flourish here or there, the Mazda 2 is utterly conventional inside. Designers are proud of the strip of "piano black" trim that surrounds the round radio display, but it's a tiny island of differentiation in a vast expanse of black and mostly rough-grained plastic. The Touring trim brings an extra center console with some storage trays and slots, but it's all hard plastic, certain to rattle whatever's thrown in there.
The 2011 Mazda 2 is an affordable option for younger people in college or a first job, and also could be an ideal second or third car for families with several driving-age members. Subcompacts also are fuel-efficient alternatives for empty-nesters who don't usually travel with anyone spending much time in the backseat. The Mazda 2 is fully up to the demands of interstate driving but would do its best service as a suburban runabout.