Editor's note: This review was written in December 2012 about the 2013 Mazda Mazda2. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2014, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Do you have a sister who's always having more fun than you? The Ford Fiesta does. Its Mazda2 sibling shares some of the subcompact's DNA but is much livelier on the road.
The pint-sized 2013 Mazda2 packs a big wallop of fun. It's quick, agile and stylish, but space is more cramped than the competition and its materials interior could use an upgrade.
Like the Fiesta, this five-seater arrived in the U.S. for 2011 as the brand's entry-level offering. It returns unchanged for 2013. Compare the 2012 and 2013 models here.
Unlike the Fiesta, the Mazda is only available as a four-door hatchback; there is no sedan body style. Styling-wise, they share the same wedge shape, but the Mazda2 wears a more sculpted body and a grinning grille.
Measuring 155.5 inches long, the Mazda2 is a bit larger than the tiny Toyota Yaris hatchback, but it's shorter than most other competitors, including the Fiesta (160.1 inches) and the Honda Fit (161.6 inches). See all three compared here.
Channeling a Little Zoom-Zoom
A hundred horsepower may not sound like a lot, but it's enough for the Mazda2; in fact, it's plenty. In stop-and-go traffic, it even felt zippy. I tested the standard five-speed manual transmission; a four-speed automatic is optional.
Is the three-pedal setup for everyone? No — slogging through city traffic was often a chore. But did the manual make the Mazda2 livelier in certain situations? Absolutely — the five-speed has a light clutch and a solid, precise shifter.
The Fiesta's 120-hp, 1.6-liter engine is often pokey, and its dual-clutch automatic transmission was crabby when I tested it recently. The Mazda2, on the other hand, felt animated, channeling the fun-to-drive spirit of its larger sibling, the Mazda3. The Mazda2 is agile and maneuverable, staying flat when flung through curvy highway ramps. Around town, its petite frame and tight turning circle make parking a breeze. Its ride is solid, too, staying composed over most bumps.
Despite having more horses, however, the Fiesta trumps the Mazda2 in the fuel-economy department. With the manual, the Mazda2 is EPA-rated 29/35 mpg city/highway. That's not as great as the Fiesta's 29/39 mpg rating, but better than the Fit's 27/33 rating.
At first glance, the interior impressed: It uses a simple layout that's clean without being boring. Glossy black plastic trim and red piping on the seats spice things up. The look is more grown-up than the Fiesta's and more interesting than the Fit's.
The Mazda2's circular instrument panel reminds me of the Mini Cooper's but is easier to navigate. The climate dials are large and clear, and the radio buttons are intuitive. A new-for-2013 standard USB port is a nice convenience for some but likely vital to the car's intended demographic.
Once you look a little longer and start poking around the interior, however, you'll notice there's way too much hard plastic. It's everywhere and padding is nowhere, not even on the door panel armrests. But it's the backseat passengers who will really bear the brunt of Mazda's cheapness.
In front, the seats are comfortable and bolstered for a snug fit, but rear passengers get no cushy for their tushy. The backseat is a hard, flat panel that's in desperate need of more cushioning. And the no-frills theme continues: There are no second-row cupholders, map pockets or door storage cubbies, which was surprising on our uplevel Touring car. Also missing is a center seat head restraint, which supports the head and neck in a crash.
A Tight Squeeze
The Mazda2 was a tight squeeze for my small family of three. Headroom was decent for me up front, but taller passengers should look elsewhere. The Mazda2 and Fiesta both offer 39.1 inches of front headroom, which is more than an inch less than the Fit (40.4). Mazda offers more legroom up front than many in the class, however, with a smidge more than the Fiesta and about an inch more than the Fit.
Two issues involving driver comfort bugged me. First, the steering wheel tilts but doesn't telescope, which complicates getting comfortable (this feature is standard in the Fiesta and Fit). Second, the front cupholders are under the center console armrest. Taller beverages won't fit, and those prone to spills should watch out: Extracting a cup of hot coffee is precarious.
Again, though, it's in the back that space really feels pinched. The Mazda2 has less headroom back there than all three hatchbacks, and its 33 inches of legroom isn't great, either. The Fit's 34.5 inches feel roomy by comparison.
The Mazda2's cargo situation is puzzling. On paper, there's more space than the Fiesta (27.8 cubic feet versus the Ford's 26), but the area is so oddly shaped I had trouble fitting my small umbrella stroller. It ended up having to ride in the backseat with my toddler in the Mazda2, but it fit OK in the Fiesta's cargo area. The Fit wins again here with a cavernous 57.3 cubic feet of maximum space.
Features & Price
The 2013 Mazda2 is available in base Sport and uplevel Touring trims and starts at $15,515, including destination. I tested the Touring model, which starts just over $17,000 and comes standard with niceties like steering-wheel audio controls, cruise control, a rear spoiler, fog lights and alloy wheels.
Hatchback versions of the Fiesta start a touch lower, but an automatic transmission will cost you more: It's an extra $1,095 on the Fiesta compared to an $840 option on the Mazda2. The Fit starts just above $16,000; add $800 for an automatic. Cruise control is standard on all Fits but is standard only on uplevel versions of the Fiesta and Mazda2.
In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tests, the Mazda2 received the agency's top score of Good in front crash and roof-strength tests, but scored just Acceptable in side- and rear-impact crashes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has not yet tested the Mazda2.
Standard safety features include six airbags: dual front, front-seat-mounted side-impact air bags and full-length side curtain airbags. Note that the Mazda does not have the Fiesta's driver-knee airbag. Click here for a full list of safety features.
Visibility is fine straight back thanks largely to head restraints that slide down onto the seatback and completely out of sight. Also, the side mirrors are nice and big for such a small car.
A cramped backseat and Latch anchors that are crowded into the seat belt buckles complicate child-safety seat installation. Click here for the full Car Seat Check.
Mazda2 in the Market
The Mazda2 wins points for its dynamic styling and fun-to-drive spirit. It seems that U.S. consumers, however, aren't all that interested. Although they're related, the Fiesta has consistently outsold the Mazda2 by huge margins: In the first 10 months of 2012, Ford sold more than 47,000 Fiestas; Mazda sold just 13,853 2s in that same time frame.
Its lack of room and cheap interior are major issues, but are they enough to sink this subcompact? Probably not, but competition from inside the brand might be. The larger Mazda3 sedan isn’t that much more expensive than the 2, and it's a sales success: The automaker had already sold more than 103,000 units of the compact car in 2012 through October.
Mazda plans to redesign the Mazda2 for global audiences during the next two years, and weak sales in the U.S. mean its future here is uncertain. Despite its charms, the Mazda2 may not be able to woo U.S. shoppers away from its larger, more popular sibling.