First Drive: 2011 Mazda2 puts fun before frugality
Mazda says there's a little bit of Miata in everything it does. While it's easy to chalk that up as marketing frippery, when the automaker launched the Little Roadster That Could back in 1989, it proved that great things can come from a machine developed to be simple, reliable and driver-focused. Even now, none of Mazda's wares offer class-leading fuel economy or practicality, but they've proven to be some of the best drivers in their segments. And as enthusiasts, it's easy to exchange a bit of functionality for a larger helping of fun.
Now, Mazda hopes to achieve this same sort of positioning within the B-car segment – a class that's grown substantially in America and is projected to double in size within the next few years. The 2011 Mazda2 comes to town right on the heels of its sister car, the Ford Fiesta, but as we found out after a lengthy drive through the city of Montréal and the countryside of Canada's Québec province, it's a wholly different machine. And while the Fiesta is sure to provide some serious competition for the 2, there are plenty of other well-to-do B cars in the U.S. that are ready to be sized up against the minuscule Mazda.
If you only look at the stats, you wouldn't think Mazda has positioned the 2 to be anything overly special. Not only is it the least powerful car in its segment, but it doesn't offer some of the clever technology or unique packaging to make it stand out from its kin. But Mazda is immensely proud of the new 2, and though we looked on with skeptical faces, the people in charge simply told us that the little hatch's story is best told on the road. So let's get to it.
Photos by Steven J. Ewing / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
Like the Ford Fiesta, the Mazda2 isn't a new car – it's just new to us (or U.S., as it were). The 2011 model is the mid-cycle refresh of a car that's been immensely popular overseas, so much so that it won the World Car of the Year award in 2008. In reshaping the 2's design, Mazda wanted to break away from what it calls the "mini-minivans" of the world – cars like the Honda Fit that have tall greenhouses and expansive windshields. Instead, the automaker opted for a more coupe-like design (its description, not ours) with muscular front fender arches and a pronounced shoulder at the rear. Mazda's corporate face is nicely integrated on the 2, and we're glad it's not as overdone as the maw on the larger 3. The 2's face is extremely similar to that on the current MX-5 (ahem), but it still reminds us of shoving orange wedges into our mouth during our elementary school lunchtime.
Simple design cues like the swooping beltline, raked rear hatch and short overhangs drive home the point that its main purpose is to provide driver enjoyment before anything else. The 2 shares the Fiesta's 98.0-inch wheelbase, but the overall length is only 155.5 inches – 4.6 inches shorter than the five-door from Ford, and while this reduction in length hurts the 2's overall cargo capacity, it makes for a crisp, chic design.
While we're on the topic, we asked Dave Coleman, Mazda's product development engineer, exactly how much of the 2 is shared with the Fiesta. Obviously, the platform is the same, and while there are many interchangeable parts found on both cars, Coleman tells us that only three parts are exactly identical, although he wouldn't share exactly what they are. Truth be told, we were expecting the 2 to be more closely tied to its Ford brethren, and if we're honest, it only improves Mazda's business case for the car. This simply isn't another rebadge job.
Mazda's offering its diminutive hatch in two flavors – Sport and Touring – and in total, there are only four different configurations: one engine, two trims, two transmissions, no individual options (though there will be a raft of dealer-installed accessories for those who want to stand out). Starting at a base price of $13,980 (including $750 for destination and delivery), Sport models ride on 15-inch steel wheels wrapped in 185/55 Yokohama Avid tires, while the Touring model swaps the steelies for a handsome set of eight-spoke alloys, still measuring 15 inches in diameter. The Touring rings in at $15,435, and a fully decked-out 2 will set you back a cool $16,985 when all is said and done. That isn't too bad, and positions the 2 nicely below the larger Mazda3 sedan and hatch, a car which has an average transaction price of $19,364, according to Mazda's number crunchers.
Inside, the 2's cabin is a toast to simplicity and intuitiveness. Granted, the design is a bit bland, and we can easily see how a smattering of aluminum accents here and there would spruce things up. Still, the interior is a big step away from what you'll find in the Fiesta, and though the Ford's cockpit is more comfortable and comes packing more tech-rich amenities, that extra kit comes at a price. Notice the (cough, cough) MX-5-spec steering wheel, the console-mounted shifter (with a very Miata-like stubby shift knob on manual models), and easy-to-read gauge cluster – things you'd expect in a car that isn't trying to impress you with bells and whistles.
Mazda's focus on keeping cost down does leave us with some quaffs about overall refinement, however. Some of the dash plastics feel cheap and clunky, and those front seats are severely lacking not only support, but overall comfort. The driver's seat is adjustable in six different ways, which allows for a relatively good seating position, but Mazda's omission of a telescopic steering wheel deserves a demerit, especially for short-legged drivers.
Where the 2's squat dimensions really take their toll, however, is cargo capacity. Even with the rear seats folded flat (well, almost flat), there's only 27.8 cubic feet of space. A Honda Fit can schlep 29.5 more cubic feet of haulables (here's to you, Magic Seats), and even the Nissan Versa and Suzuki SX4 are capable of carrying more goods. Could you fit a bike or a full load of groceries in the back of the 2? Of course. But if capaciousness is your thing, best to look elsewhere.
Keep in mind, however, functionality isn't the Mazda2's forte. Where the deal really gets sweet is from behind the wheel. Under the hood is a 1.5-liter inline-four, and while output is only rated at 100 horsepower and 98 pound-feet of torque, don't let the meager numbers lead you to believe the four-pot isn't a total workhorse. When we drove the Fiesta earlier this year, we noted that the hatch could definitely benefit from an additional 10 or 15 horsepower, especially in the low end of each gear. But the Mazda, which is down by 20 ponies compared to the Ford, feels quicker and is more willing to – please forgive us – Zoom-Zoom when mated to either transmission. Chalk one up for Mazda's engineering team.
Speaking of transmissions, you may be a bit curious about Mazda's choice to offer a four-speed automatic rather than the five- or six-cogged auto-boxes becoming standard practice across the automotive landscape. Mazda knows that not offering a six-speed automatic will hurt the 2 in terms of fuel economy (not to mention marketing), but the engineers are confident that using a four-speed with taller ratios and fewer instances of gear hunting will keep the car feeling spirited and more enthusiastic on the road.
We drove both transmissions, and while we definitely prefer the manual with its nicely executed shifter and easy to modulate if somewhat vague clutch, the four-speed slushbox isn't as ancient-feeling or out of place as you might think. After all, when you're only dealing with 100 horsepower, its best to keep the engine revving in the heart of the powerband, and having fewer gears allows this to happen with ease. As we mentioned, fuel economy takes the biggest loss here, as auto-equipped 2s only muster up 27 miles per gallon in the city and a modest – more the class – 33 mpg on the highway. The five-speed manual models don't improve those figures by much, offering 29/35 mpg. In a time when 40 mpg is becoming the new standard for small cars, this is sure to hurt the 2's appeal to consumers shopping across the segment. But as Mazda told us, the real attractiveness shows itself during the test drive.
Like the majority of B-segment cars, the Mazda2's suspension employs MacPherson struts up front and a torsion-beam axle out back. Our drive route through the Québec countryside offered up a smattering of both smooth and broken pavement stretches, and the 2 never felt crashy, nor delivered high levels of harshness over the rough stuff. You'll bounce around more in a Honda Fit Sport, and even the Fiesta's suspension feels somewhat stiffer in terms of damping. While engineering the new 2, Mazda was committed to saving as much weight as possible, and managed to cut out a total of 220 pounds versus the previous model sold overseas. Sport models with the manual 'box only tip the scales at 2,309 pounds, which is seriously waif-like in this day and age. This weight reduction not only makes the 100-hp mill feel more powerful when blasting down highways and back roads, but it gives the car a feeling of nimbleness and agility through the bends. A fair amount of body roll is present, but it's better than what you'll get in a Yaris or Versa. A lot better, in fact. Most small cars in this segment are designed to be on their best behavior at lower, city-cruising speeds, but the 2 begs to be driven enthusiastically.
What impressed the most was how the electric power steering matched the feeling of lightness, and Mazda dialed in a lot of driver feedback – a good thing, since a lot of electric racks can feel overboosted, especially at initial turn-in. This isn't Mazda's first crack at EPAS, though – the RX-8 uses a similar system, and we have very little in the way of complaints when it comes time to steer that rotary rocket.
In terms of everyday drivability, the 2 is a charming little whip. The powertrain isn't nearly as buzzy as some of the four-bangers under the hoods of its competition, and even though Mazda's main focus was reducing overall weight, this doesn't mean sound deadening was put on the backburner. The cabin is seriously quiet at speed with minimal wind, engine or tire noise flooding the cabin. It's easily up to the task of long-distance trips, but we might still err on the side of the Fiesta for long hauls, if only for its more supportive seats.
Naturally, we couldn't help but ask about the possibility of a Mazdaspeed2 making its way into production, and while Mazda has teased the idea in concept form, don't hold your breath for the real thing. Sure, the engineers would love to build one, but they're worried that the consumer base just wouldn't be large enough to support it and Mazda thinks there's a possibility that 'Speed3 sales could take a hit. Doubtful, but disappointing nonetheless.
Mazda is hoping to move 20,000 2s annually in the United States, marketing it with the tagline "Zoom-Zoom. Concentrated." The biggest trick will be driving home the fact that the 2 is a driver's car first, and a good all-rounder second. If any brand is going to do it, Mazda has the best chance. After all, unlike the Fiesta, the 2 doesn't need to prove to the world that its parent is capable of making great small cars (take a bow, Mazda3). No, you can't get navigation, ambient lighting, satellite radio or many of the features becoming more important to shoppers, but if you really, truly need these extras, there's a whole world of aftermarket equipment out there. We'd love to own a Fit when it comes time for an Ikea run, but for everyday driving, Mazda's offering is just a bit sweeter. Functionality is nice, but enthusiasts want something better poised to handle the main task at hand – driving.
Photos by Steven J. Ewing / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
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