While U.S. car salesmen traditionally push the metal with chants of "bigger-is-better," changes are afoot. Most mainstream car companies have recently become cheerleaders for the small car experience, hoping to catch a wave of consumer interest created by the gas spike of 2008. Mazda decided to throw in with its global subcompact entry, the Mazda2. While the diminutive five-door hatchback has been on sale in other parts of the world since 2007, it's debuting here as a 2011 model.
Mazda decided that the typical small car priority of maximum interior space at the expense of cool styling was wrong. We agree, as even with four doors, the Mazda2 has looks every bit as good as Fiat's molto-cute 500 and everyone's favorite two-door minicar, the Mini Cooper. Instead of employing a squareback design (the way other small car stylists try to fit ten pounds into a five-pound sack) Mazda decided to slant the trim hatchback's C-pillar into a more balanced fastback look. We love the result.
There's a cost for cool: The backseat of the Mazda2 is smaller than boxier four-doors such as the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, and Nissan Versa. But that's deliberate, based on the reality of how people really use their dinky cars. Mazda says its research shows most people drive subcompacts solo, or at most with only a shotgun passenger. So backseat passengers in the new Mazda2 will bump their heads, unless they're kids. Not a big deal, as far as we're concerned, but somewhat surprising, given that the Mazda2 is 10 inches longer than a Mini and 16 inches longer than the forthcoming Fiat 500.
The Mazda2 is powered by a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine. Producing just 100 horsepower and 98 lb-ft of torque -- which seems kind of wimpy these days -- it moves the feathery Mazda2 in a lively way. At least, that is, until you try fitting three of your 200-pound, McDonalds-eating pals inside the car, which will cause things to slow noticeably. The Mazda2 comes with a five-speed manual transmission or an optional four-speed automatic. These are cost-saving measures compared to the six-speed, dual-clutch auto-manual available in Ford's similarly sized Fiesta, or the six-speed manual in Honda's Fit. The Mazda's transmissions are adequate, but not top-notch when it comes to either fuel economy or performance.
Here's the feature U.S. Mazda salesmen should push: Weight. As any racecar designer will tell you, a low curb weight equals better performance, and the Mazda2 is carefully designed to take advantage of its low mass. At just 2,306-pounds, the car is among the lightest on the market, thanks in large part to Mazda's use of high-strength steel, which saves 50 pounds in the body structure. More than half of the car is constructed of lightweight, high-strength alloys. "This car is lighter than my '96 Miata," says Mazda engineer Dave Coleman.
A lesson the Mazda2 can teach other manufacturers is that the achievement of acceptable safety scores need not compromise visibility, as the use of high-strength steel means a relatively thin A-pillar does not hamper forward vision. Neither does the sloping styling of the front of the car. The short hood enhances visibility in a way that reinforces the inherent benefits of driving small cars for entertainment. In the tightest city streets or on the most obscured twisty back roads, the Mazda2 is easy to see out of.
Cutting weight can directly benefit the handling of the car. For instance, Mazda designed the front control arms of the Mazda2 to be lighter pieces stamped with ridges to increase stiffness, instead of traditional two-piece welded arms. This reduces weight connected to the wheels, what's called "unsprung weight," the sum of which must be controlled during the up-and-down travel of suspension over bumps. Reducing the weight of these suspension pieces makes the Mazda2 handle exceptionally well for a front-wheel-drive car, carrying on the tradition of the larger Mazda3. The steering on the Mazda2 feels accurate, and even though it is electrically assisted, it's a feel that driving enthusiasts will appreciate.
While the handling benefits of the Mazda2's low weight are real, we do have one big complaint, one we suspect caused many arguments at Mazda, and that's that the only tire size available is a small 185/55 tire mounted on just a 15-inch wheel. The official explanation for the small rubber is cost savings, and the rationalization is that enthusiasts will immediately run to the aftermarket to fit bigger, better-looking tires and wheels anyway. Still, this wheel and tire package is hardly befitting a sporty car like the Mazda2.
A low mass means speedier, too. The Mazda2 is about 250 pounds lighter than the Ford Fiesta, with which it shares some basic engineering. So even though the Mazda has 15 less horsepower than the Ford, it is slightly quicker. If fuel economy is your be-all-end-all, however, the Fiesta is the clear choice, offering up to 40 miles per gallon on the highway, while the most fuel-efficient Mazda2 -- the manual-transmission-equipped model -- tops out at 35 (29 in the city and 32 combined). The four-speed automatic Mazda2 posts even less impressive numbers: 27 city, 33 highway, and 29 combined.
Mazda expects the average price of a Mazda2 will run around $15,435 for the Touring model that has a leather steering wheel with integrated audio and cruise controls, and a roof spoiler. The base price of the Sport model, with power windows, locks, mirrors, remote entry and tilt steering, is $13,980, while the four-speed automatic adds $800 to either Sport or Touring models.