Mazda Perfects the Fun-to-Footprint Ratio

2011 Mazda2
2011 Mazda2 - Click above for high-res image gallery

Bigger used to mean better, but in the modern era, that old chestnut no longer applies. Mobile phones aren't the size of a brick, we can fit 2,000 songs in our pocket and this review was written on a computer that fits neatly on an airplane's tray table. Sometimes smaller is better, and here's a vehicle that proves it.

While the 2011 Mazda2 might not be out to redefine the subcompact segment, it does offer something largely lacking from the rest of the pack: fun. But are Mazda's Zoom-Zoom driving dynamics enough to overlook its shortcomings in power, packaging and amenities? Find out after the jump.

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Photos copyright ©2011 Jeff Glucker / AOL

Like all of Mazda's recent designs, the 2 looks like a dog more inclined to lick your face than bite it. With that maniacal smile for a bumper, the front end projects more silliness than aggression, which can and will annoy both brand loyalists and some subcompact shoppers. On the flip side, it might just attract new customers who appreciate a car that doesn't take itself too seriously. And compared to other Mazdas festooned with the massive black-toothed grin, the cartoonish 2 actually pulls it off thanks to its small size.

What doesn't work on the Mazda2 are the pair of oversized headlamps melted into the front end. Their design is fine, but their powers of illumination leave a lot to be desired. We used the fog lights in conjunction with the main beams just to throw a little more light on nighttime situations. The Mazda2 may be a small, inexpensive ride, but that doesn't mean it deserves a set of dim eyes.

2011 Mazda2 side view2011 Mazda2 front view2011 Mazda2 rear view

And it is small. Compared to the next largest Mazda, the MX-5 Miata, the Mazda2 is 1.8 inches shorter (155.5 inches) and an inch narrower (66.7 inches), yet it's also 8.7 inches taller (58.1 inches). These dimensions create a car reminiscent of something you'd find playing Car Town on Facebook (not that we'd know...).

Nevertheless, the Mazda2 wears its shrunken lines quite well. Its 15-inch alloy wheels fitted with 185/55 R15 Yokohama all-season tires fill up those small wheel wells nicely without being swallowed by the fenders. There's also a soft shoulder line that begins below the top of the front wheels and rises precipitously to above the taillights. The rear is the least expressive angle, though a roof spoiler does manage to whisper Mazda's hyphenated catchphrase. The Crystal White Pearl paintwork of our tester also contrasted nicely with the blacked-out lower grille, fog light surrounds and rear apron, all of which manage to avoid looking cheap.

2011 Mazda2 headlight2011 Mazda2 grille2011 Mazda2 wheel detail2011 Mazda2 taillight

If the exterior merely suggests the Mazda2 is fun to drive, then the interior gets down to brass tacks. Fun and cutesy have been left outside, replaced with somber blacks and restrained grays. In fact, a sliver of red piping on the dark, cloth-lined seats is just about the only splash of color in this otherwise midnight cabin. There are also no amenities to mess with besides the climate control and a six-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system with an auxiliary input jack. Mazda's message inside the 2 is clear: You're here to drive, not collect flowers in a dash-mounted vase or admire some retro toggle switches.

If you're so inclined, you'll essentially have to look to the aftermarket to spruce up the Mazda2, because what you see is what you get from the factory. The smallest Mazda is offered in – appropriately – two trims: Sport, starting at $14,180, and Touring at $15,635. Our tester was a Touring model, and for the extra $1,455 came equipped with alloy wheels, halogen foglamps, rear spoiler, cruise control, the aforementioned red seat piping, steering-wheel mounted audio controls, six speakers instead of four and a trip computer. It comes down to a question of how much you're willing to pay for a little more style and better sound, because both trim levels are light on options.

2011 Mazda2 interior2011 Mazda2 front seats2011 Mazda2 gauges2011 Mazda2 shifter

In this case, however, that's a very good thing. Remember, the Mazda2 is smaller than a Miata. With a curb weight of just 2,306 pounds, it's also lighter by 174 pounds. Throw in a greenhouse that provides a Field General's vantage point of the road and clear lines of sight in all directions, and the Mazda2 starts resembling an enclosed shifter cart more than a lowly commuter.

The Mazda2 also fits an average-sized driver better than expected considering its dimensions. The steering wheel tilts and the integrated audio controls don't get in the way. The floor-mounted shifter is raised and the audio and climate controls are easy to use. One minor ding is the lack of a center armrest, something we missed on longer trips, though the comfortably cushioned seats kept our spinal columns happy.

2011 Mazda2 rear seats2011 Mazda2 rear cargo area

At the heart of this Mazda sits a 1.5-liter inline four-cylinder producing 100 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 98 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. And yes, it's slow. All 100 horses propel the 2 from 0-60 miles per hour in a decidedly un-Zoom-like 10.2 seconds. You could dwell on that number, but it's less-than-important. Acceleration still happens quickly enough that merging onto a highway doesn't require updating your will, and it doesn't take much to get the Mazda moving from a stop. And once you do get it moving, it's an absolute blast.

The concept of driving slow cars fast is one of which we're quite fond. Anyone can hop in a 1,000-horsepower supercar and leave in a cloud of smoke and testosterone. The real entertainment is found in working hard for every hash mark on the speedometer. Fortunately, the 2011 Mazda2 is nearly sadistic in how much it enjoys being pushed hard. We worked up a sweat trying to get its Yokohama tires to let out a yelp during cornering. An independent front suspension and anti-roll bar ensures the car is downright sniper-like through tight corners, and there's no need for heavy braking because the 10.2-inch front rotors are more than capable of scrubbing off this skinny car's speed. The Mazda2 does use drum brakes out back, but in this application a full set of discs would be overkill and just add to the bottom line.

2011 Mazda2 engine

To extract every ounce of enjoyment, our tester was fitted with a five-speed manual transmission – the standard gearbox on the 2. For $400 more you can get a four-speed automatic, but we suggest you stick with the stick. The manual gearbox and engine work together like gin and tonic (PSA: Don't drink and drive) and the gears are always easy to find thanks to a crisp shifter.

Tone things down and drive the 2 like an average commuter, and it's extremely rewarding to your wallet. The 1.5-liter engine receives an EPA fuel economy rating of 29 miles per gallon in the city and 35 mpg on the highway, which we actually during mixed driving and then blew when we started to have fun. But the lowest it got: 31 mpg. By comparison, the almost-axed Chevrolet Aveo is rated at 27 mpg in the city and the 452-pounds heavier Nissan Versa gets 34 mpg on the highway. Both are close in terms of efficiency, but neither can match the tossable fun factor of the Mazda2. Still, there are a number of subcompacts on or coming to market that can hit 40 mpg on the highway, like the Mazda2's platform mate, the Ford Fiesta, and the 2011 Hyundai Elantra.

2011 Mazda2 rear 3/4 view

Mazda's calling card, however, is driving enjoyment, not fuel efficiency, and the Mazda2 is proof that a small, slow, inexpensive car can be fun to drive quickly. It's exactly the kind of small car you would expect from the people who make one of our de facto recommendations: the Mazda3. There are other subcompacts that offer more power, better fuel economy and premium features, but none can put a smile on your face like this littlest Mazda. Then again, no other vehicle actually has a smile on its face like this littlest Mazda, but that's just something you'll have to learn to love.

Second Opinion: 2011 Mazda2
by Chris Paukert

On paper, the Mazda2 is something of a disaster. Versus its main rivals, It's down on power, down on interior refinement, down on available amenities, and its fuel economy is nothing to write home about.

So why, then, do we love it inordinately? As Glucker points out, it's the way this five-door drives. Those of you who remember how good Honda Civic hatchbacks were in the mid-'80s and early 90s will find a lot to love in the Mazda2. It's light, nimble and forgiving in a way that you can't help but think that it's one of the best fourth-gen Si hatches you've ever driven.

We previously praised the Ford Fiesta (with which the Mazda shares far fewer parts than one might think) for its driving dynamics, but the 2's wider track, smaller turning circle, and significantly greater 'chuckability' turns up the wick further still. And that's compared to the Fiesta, a model that's already one of the best handling cars in the segment. Yes, the interior is loaded with hard plastics and already feels a bit "last generation," but the key touchpoints – the wheel, gearshift and pedals are all first-rate in both placement and feedback, help promote the feeling that you're driving a front-drive Miata with a tin top and an extra set of doors. And that basic interior? It's straight-forward and lets you focus on the road ahead.

If you're a creature of creature comforts, then this isn't the car for you. But if you prioritize driving enjoyment above all else and you've got a tight budget, you could do much, much worse. The Mazda2 might be frill-free motoring, but it's packed with more dynamic entertainment – more spunk – than anything else in the segment, and that makes it a deeply compelling buy.

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Photos copyright ©2010 Jeff Glucker / AOL