It's a jungle out there.
And everyone wants to cut through the thick underbrush to find that promised land: Americans buying subcompact cars. Mazda Motor Co. has joined the growing group of carmakers bringing their foreign wares to the United States. Each is hoping its vehicle makes the difference, holding the car up for the world to see: "Behold, it's new and tiny."
But the 2011 Mazda2 is only new to us.
Mazda started selling this little roller skate in other markets around the world in 2007. Mazda boasts that the Mazda2 won high accolades and car of the year honors in such places as Greece, Chile and Bulgaria, none of the places I look to for cutting-edge cars. (In fairness, the Mazda2 did win World Car of the Year in 2008, so there are some serious chops there.)
But now, Mazda has brought this little world beater to America. It only makes sense. People are worried about gasoline prices, everyone wants to leave an environmental footprint smaller than a flip-flop, and the government wants to regulate every part of our lives. The answer: subcompact cars.
Full disclosure: I'm not a subcompact man. I'm a big-boned American. I have big dreams, big hopes and big thighs, so little cars typically don't offer the luxury, amenities, power or drivability I expect.
They are cheap though, and that appeals to the Wal-Mart chip that was secretly embedded into my brain while I was sleeping. The Mazda2 starts at $14,730.
Nimble ride, go-kart-like handling
The Mazda2 isn't a bad car. It has a stylish exterior and decent interior, but it still slots into the "thanks, but no thanks" category for many American car buyers like myself. It may have some zip around town, but in the end it does not provide enough of everything else that makes for a fun vehicle. On Mazda's Zoom-Zoom scale, the Mazda2 is more of a Zzzz.
Even if it did provide a highway ride that doesn't require ear protection and produced enough power to accelerate faster than a 10-speed bicycle, being the best subcompact is like being named the best tofu dish. Soy vey!
First, the Mazda2 does have a nimble ride around town. The tiny 98-inch wheelbase matched to a car that's only 66 inches wide will automatically produce something that feels agile.
And the Mazda2 does. The steering is exact and there's a go-kart-like experience to its handling. The body stays relatively flat through cornering and the suspension is responsive.
The five-speed manual transmission enhances its performance with short throws and the ability to make the most of the car's tiny 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine. The model most people would buy would include a four-speed automatic transmission. I did not test that model but was disappointed to hear that any 2011 model has only four gears.
But even with the four-speed transmission, the Mazda2 manages 28 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway. The manual transmission does 1 mpg better on the highway and matches the automatic's city mileage.
The little engine that could
This little engine tries and tries to deliver performance and pushes out 100 horsepower and 98 pound-feet of torque, which is fine around town but a few ponies short of a full ride on the highway.
The Mazda2's performance on the open highway is miserable. The ride is harsh and loud, and the car weakly whines like a liberal in 2006. Road noise seeps in from every curvy angle. Cruising along at 70 mph on Interstate 75 is a scary proposition, especially when you find yourself between semi trucks heading for the border.
From a driver's perspective, the lines of sight are excellent, so I could see death approaching me from nearly every angle.
I shouldn't have feared, however. The Mazda2 offers a slew of safety features: dynamic stability control; traction control; front, side and side curtain air bags; and a design that works to keep the people inside the cabin safe. It's also the first Mazda to feature a brake override system, meaning if someone hits the gas and the brake, the brake trumps the accelerator. This will keep Mazda2s off the evening news while other carmakers issue recalls for unintended acceleration.
Then again, if there's a Mazda2 going 90 mph down any road -- intended or not -- that's big news.
Interior a nice surprise
There are some other saving graces. The exterior is distinctly Mazda -- with nice curves. It kind of looks like a bug, but that's still better than the nondescript Toyota Yaris or extra boxy Honda Fit.
It's tough to make such a small car look good, but somehow Mazda managed to do that. The car's face is one of surprise -- the big-mouthed intake and headlamps push back almost halfway over the wheels.
The back axle is pushed to the extreme edge of the car and this helps with balance on the road and provides more space inside the cabin.
And here's the other area in which the Mazda2 does a nice job: The interior is very comfortable.
Typically, subcompacts scrimp on the interior, offering exposed rails, cheap plastic and squishy seats. But Mazda has created a cabin that is both functional and inviting.
The second row may not be big enough for three full-sized Americans, but a couple of Canadians could squeeze back there easily enough. There's more than 42 inches of legroom up front and 33 inches of legroom in the second row -- slightly more than most airline coach seats.
The cloth seats are firm, making this an ideal commuter-around-town-kind-of car. The instrument panel is well laid out and the center stack is nicely appointed. Instead of trying to do too much, Mazda just presented a simple, well put together package.
There's also some good versatile space inside. It's only sold as a hatchback and that's a big plus. This means even with the second row up, there's 13.3 cubic feet of space. Fold the second row down and there's 27.8 cubic feet of space, more than enough room to haul lots of things.
None of that, however, makes up for the fact it's still a subcompact. I understand the need and think the Mazda2 a nice subcompact, as far as subcompacts go. But I also think many carmakers have overestimated Americans desire to squeeze into these little vehicles.
It's going to take time to prove me right there. Meanwhile, get ready for even more little cars to come zooming out of the jungle. It's a real gnat race out there.
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Type: Five-passenger, front-wheel drive subcompact four-door hatchback
Engine: 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine
Power: 100 horsepower; 98 pound-feet torque
Transmission: Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic
EPA gas mileage
Auto: 28 mpg city / 34 mpg highway
Manual: 28 mpg city / 35 mpg highway
Overall: ** 1/2
Exterior: Good. Looks like a big bug, but that gives it a little more personality than some subcompacts.
Interior: Good. Decent interior that is well put together, though it feels stark in places such as the cloth seats and plastic dash. Versatile space inside.
Performance: Fair. Needs more power, especially on the highway. When giving up so much performance, you expect high mileage numbers.
Pros: Sharp looking exterior and mileage in the 30s.
Cons: Underpowered compared to other subcompacts.
**** Excellent *** Good ** Fair * Poor