The Mazda2 is a five-seat hatchback, front-wheel-drive subcompact, taking on the Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Sonic, Fiat 500, Hyundai Accent and Kia Soul. That's a wonderful field of cars for these times (subcompact is the fastest growing automotive segment in the world), and the Mazda2 has qualities that, to many, make it the most desirable of this bunch.
The Mazda2 was completely redesigned for 2011, so there are no changes for 2012. While new to North America, this is actually the second generation of the Mazda2. The first-generation model was an award-winning product in Europe and Asia.
The styling is fresh, and it's eye-catching in a cute sort of way. It's got a soft wedge shape, bold and sporty with sculpted sides, body-colored door handles, a laid-back windshield, sloped hatch and jaunty little spoiler on the Touring model. There's a grinning toothless grille with attractive hood, fenders, headlamps, bumper, air intakes and 15-inch wheels.
The Mazda2 uses a proven 1.5-liter double-overhead-cam 16-valve four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing to give it more flexibility in delivering low-rpm torque and high-rpm horsepower. It makes 100 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 98 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. We had no trouble, in fact we had a blast, running in the fast lane with the 75-mph flow of Los Angeles freeway traffic. In 310 miles of combined city and highway driving, we averaged 34.8 miles per gallon, at the top end of the EPA estimate of 29 City/35 Highway mpg for the 2012 Mazda2.
In pursuit of good gas mileage, acceleration and responsive handling, Mazda focused on keeping the car light, by using high-strength steel with more welds (and less steel overall), and weld-bonded adhesives in the body. Engineers looked for dozens of places to save a few pounds, for example the wiring harness, door locks and latches, radiator, automatic transmission shifter, pedals, stereo speakers and more. It's this painstaking attention to mechanical detail that makes Mazda an exceptional car company.
The final result is 2306 pounds, even less than the two-seat Mazda MX5 sports car. It's the lightest subcompact, even lighter than the smaller Fiat 500, and way lighter than the Ford Fiesta, although the Toyota Yaris is a close second. The Yaris has 6 more horsepower, but is not nearly as much fun to drive.
The seats are comfortable and supportive, and we liked the thick, sporty steering wheel. Although rated as a five-seater, we wouldn't subject a fifth person to the back seat for long, but that's no different than any other car in this class. The Mazda2 is relatively roomy for four, though. Fold the rear seats down and it offers an excellent 27.8 cubic feet of cargo space, with easy access through the hatchback.
But mostly, the Mazda2 is way fun to drive. It zoom-zooms to scale. The little engine is gutsy, with a cocky tone at upper revs. Shifting the manual 5-speed is slick and easy. Responsive brakes and steering. Smooth ride and flat cornering. Quick turning, so it's a joy to park, or slice thick traffic.
When you look at the accessories available from Mazda for the Mazda2, you see what they think it's good for: a roof rack, roof basket, interior cargo box, bike rack, ski rack, snowboard rack, surfboard rack, and kayak carrier. Side sill extensions, in case you're thinking more hot rod.
The styling is fresh, and it's eye-catching in a cute sort of way. With the grinning toothless grille, this couldn't be anything but a Mazda, mimicking the Mazda3, as well as the Mazda5, 6, 8, CX-7, and CX-9 in its front and rear layouts.
Mazda2 presents a soft wedge shape with trimmed corners, sweet hatchback slope, and a nice 0.31 coefficient of drag. Also sporty sculpted sides, body-colored door handles, a laid-back windshield, and jaunty little spoiler and foglamps on the Touring model. The grille isn't loved by everyone, but it is distinctive, which isn't easy to do considering there's no grille work. The hood, fenders, headlamps, bumper, air intakes and 15-inch wheels are all well done, adding character.
The halogen headlamp units flow from the gentle bulge of the front fenders. A wide upswept character line climbs back and up from the front wheel wells.
The seats are comfortable and supportive, just what they should be for a car like this, with a rugged and sporty fabric that Mazda calls mostly black canvas, with cool red piping on the Touring model. The three-spoke steering wheel works well, with a meaty rim that makes the Mazda2 feel like a sports car, and a padded hub. We think it might look better without all that aluminumy plastic trim on the wide spokes, but no big deal. It tilts for adjustment, and the driver's seat raises and lowers, so almost anyone can find a good place behind the wheel.
What we call aluminumy plastic Mazda calls silver garnish, and there's more of it on the vents, armrests, shift knob and gate, where it looks good in sparing doses.
The shifter, manual or automatic, rises from just below the instrument panel where the center console would be if there was one. There's a console with storage tray and cupholders that goes between the seats, with an optional leather padded armrest that we found nice to have. It's no stretch at all to shift gears. The 5-speed stick is easy to reach and fun to use.
The dashboard flows in a continuous line and curves away from occupants, making the cabin feel wide. Certainly there's lots of elbow room. Mazda engineers worked carefully on the position and cross-sectional shape of the A-pillars, which along with a low beltline enable clear forward visibility and also help the car feel roomy.
The cluster of three gauges in front of the driver's eyes is shaded by an eave, with the speedo in center, smaller tach on the left, and the rest in one gauge on the right. In the center of dashboard there's a large round binnacle with sound system information, a CD slot, and three dials for the climate control. But no USB port. The Touring model has audio controls on the steering wheel, but they're easy to reach on the dash panel of the Sport.
Rear seat legroom is slim; only the Ford Fiesta has less. Cargo capacity is 13.3 cubic feet behind the 60/40 split folding second seat, and 27.8 cubic feet with the second seat folded flat. Hatchbacks with fold-flat rear seats are the best value out there, to carry a lot without spending a lot.
The 1.5-liter engine in the Mazda2 is one of the smallest gasoline engines on the U.S. market, but its performance is exciting, with a 5-speed manual gearbox. We didn't get to drive the 4-speed automatic, but we have doubts, partly because it's only a 4-speed and partly because it's hard to imagine it making the Mazda2 any better to drive than the 5-speed. Maybe if you never leave the city.
The engine pulls well at lower revs and comes on stronger at 4000 rpm where the torque peaks. It sounds good above 4000, and zings responsively all the way up to 6300 redline. The drive-by-wire throttle responds quickly. We read one review that called the engine gutless, but we say nonsense. Although if the Mazda2 had the Fiesta's 119 horsepower from a related 1.6-liter engine, it'd be way hot.
It's really smooth at 75 or 80 mph. More Mazda attention to mechanical detail. The engine is mounted in a manner to reduce the fore-aft motions of front-wheel-drive four-cylinders.
The brakes have a nice responsive feel, and stop the lightweight car quickly. Vented discs in front, drums in the rear, with ABS, brake force distribution and brake assist.
The suspension is fairly conventional, with MacPherson struts in front and a trailing-arm torsion beam in back. We drove the Mazda2 over twisty two-lanes on the California coast, and found that it cornered flat and sucked up most bumps. The electric power steering reacts quickly.
The Mazda2 is a strong contender in the competitive subcompact segment. Its soft wedge shape is eye-catching, a cute, sporty and practical hatchback. It's way fun to drive with the manual transmission, while getting more than 30 mpg. The engine is small but spirited, the handling responsive, and ride smooth. Mazda delivers on its zoom-zoom promise.
Driven by Sam Moses for one week all over Southern California, and Jim McCraw near Monterey.
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