Driven: 2011 Mazda2

By John Beltz Snyder

August 31, 2010

—Monterey, California

There exists a tendency, without having driven the car, to try to compare the new Mazda2 to cars one is already familiar with. After all, it shares DNA with the Mazda3, and even the Ford Fiesta. Beware these comparisons, as they will mislead you. The 2 is its own entity, occupying a new space in the company’s North American market, a segment which seems to be ballooning as drivers seek value and practicality. And this economy car is coming from a manufacturer that understands that the best cars are also fun cars. In a Venn diagram, picture the Mazda2 in the shaded area where pragmatism and enthusiasm intersect, and you’re off to a good start.

The first thing you’ll hear people nag about when they see the Mazda2’s specifications on paper is the low output of the conservatively small, 1.5-liter engine. It makes a maximum of 100 horsepower and 98 pound-feet of torque. That seems pretty bad, until you look at the weight, a feathery 2306 pounds for the base model. Think for a second about Mazda’s history with creating compact, low-output, lightweight cars, and suddenly the Mazda2 shows a lot of potential for fun before even getting behind the wheel.

Yes, if you must compare the Mazda2 to another vehicle, for the sake of fairness, let it be the MX-5.

Mazda’s 1.5-liter four actually feels just right in the diminutive 2 package. For its segment, the 2 isn’t terribly slow or buzzy, especially when one factors in the effortlessly achievable high fuel economy numbers. The five-speed manual transmission is pretty standard fare, but it is nicely short of throw. The gearing from first to second is a bit wide, and wringing the motor out almost to the redline is necessary to place it in the heart of the power range of second gear. A small quirk, and not a bad one, once you learn it. The car teaches you quickly to keep the motor revving for peak performance.

We also got some time with the four-speed automatic transmission. We were skeptical of it at first; often in these low-powered cars, the auto box really limits the amount of power you can squeeze from the engine, particularly when there’s no option to shift for yourself (the Ford Fiesta being a recent example). This really wasn’t the case in the Mazda2. It delivered power well, and rarely stumbled to be in the proper gear. While we still prefer to have complete control of the shifts, the automatic certainly wouldn’t be a deal-breaker, were the manual out of the question. Kudos, Mazda.

We spent a great deal of time pushing the Mazda2 through the low mountains that separate the southern San Francisco Bay area from the coastal area surrounding Santa Cruz. Though once or twice we had to downshift when climbing the foothills, once we were in the thick of the redwood forest, we kept the revs high as we snaked along the narrow, undulating two-lanes. With grip limits feeling high in the spiraling corners, we were able to keep a good pace, only braking occasionally before entry, or as we gained downhill momentum. While the trees generally blocked the view of the next turn, whatever was unobscured by nature was easily visible. Even with the sharp raking of the windscreen, the relatively thin A-pillar did little to impede front-quarter visibility. There’s just so much openness from the big windows that we were always able to see where the car was placed within the lane.

The 2’s steering was suited well to the task at hand. Steering inputs are direct and intuitive, especially once turned away from dead center. We were able to quickly switch direction with the wheel, without any real sense of play or lag in how the vehicle responded. The wheel telegraphed just enough vibration to the hands to give a fair sense of what was going on between tire and tarmac. All this is pretty impressive, considering it’s all done through an electronic system. Mazda’s secret, it seems, was not to over-tune the steering, and the result is a quick, natural feel in the tiller.

But the suspension also gets some of the credit in the Mazda2’s nimbleness. Body roll is barely there, making the transfer of weight from left to right a controlled, instantaneous process. Not having that much weight to shift from side to side to begin with is also, without a doubt, part of the simple magic to the 2’s handling. When combined with the visibility on offer, along with no real weight hanging beyond the wheelbase, we felt really encouraged to keep our speed up, confident the car would stay planted wherever we placed it.

For many miles, we flung the little Mazda2 through the hilly forest, and we couldn’t help but be impressed by the car’s composure and compliance. It became clear that for Mazda’s North American introduction into the B-car segment, it did a really good job of balancing value and everyday practicality without forsaking what makes a Mazda a Mazda. While the company wants to achieve wide appeal in the marketplace, these guys are like us, and thus the Mazda2 retains its sense of enthusiasm in a segment where cars can easily become bland to appease the American palate.

Now, we can’t dismiss our gentle readers without talking a little bit about the future of the Mazda2. While we can’t really predict what the aftermarket will be like for this car, we know that there is some interchangeability with the Ford Fiesta, so that’s a place to start looking if one is interested in customization. Expect to see tuners offer remapping of the ECU to eke out a bit more power from the engine. Mazda has shown customized concepts of the 2, so we’ll see if interest from that leads to anything from the OEM. Europe will see a refreshed version of the Mazda2 at the Paris Motor Show, so we’ll see how that translates to the North American version, if at all.

But the big question is, will there be a Mazdaspeed2? Mazda wasn’t shy about answering this question. According to them, there are currently no plans for a Speed2. But don’t rule it out. The guys at Mazda said they would love to develop it, were there enough interest for it. We think that’s our cue, as drivers, to start making our demands.

Okay, although we do think the Mazda2, at least from the standpoint of driving dynamics, stands apart from most of the competition, the reality is that it will be pitted against other small, practical hatchbacks, and will have formidable competition in the marketplace. One pretty direct competitor is the Ford Fiesta, which many believe to be the same car as the 2. The two cars, however, only share four parts (wheel bearings and a couple suspension bits), according to Mazda product development engineer Dave Coleman. While down on power from the Ford, we found the suspension of the Mazda to be much better suited to enthusiastic driving (and the Mazda actually has volume control on the steering wheel). So, while it appears that The Mazda would be our choice over the Fiesta, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to properly compare them, and to pit the Mazda2 against the likes of the Nissan Versa (advantage: Mazda), Toyota Yaris (advantage: Mazda), and the Honda Fit (too close to call, yet). Stay tuned, drivers.

2011 Mazda2
Engine: Inline-4, 1.5 liters, 16v
Output: 100 hp/98 lb-ft.
0-60 MPH: 10.3 sec (est.)
Weight: 2306 lb
Fuel Economy City/Hwy: 28/35 mpg
Base Price: $13,980
On Sale: Now