2011Mazda2 hatchback is maneuverable and a gas sipper

By Ann M. Job, AP
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Mazda’s new small car is fun to drive

The bright, neon-green exterior ensured no one missed my 2011 Mazda2 test car. But it was the hatchback’s maneuverable small size and fuel economy that really caught everyone’s attention.

New for 2011, the diminutive Mazda2 is the first smaller, so-called B-segment car that Mazda Motor Corp. of Japan has brought to the United States in some seven years.

Less than 13 feet long and lighter than many small hatchback competitors, the Mazda2 is a nimble, five-door handler whose 100 horsepower engine provides a surprisingly sprightly ride, particularly with the five-speed manual transmission.

Even better, the Mazda2 outperforms most other small hatchbacks, such as the Honda Fit, Nissan Versa and Scion xD, in gasoline mileage.

The top U.S government fuel economy rating for the Mazda2 is 29 miles per gallon in city driving and 35 mpg on the highway with manual transmission.

This makes the Mazda2 the fourth-best non-hybrid small car in the United States in gas mileage, according to the government. Only hybrids, diesel-powered Volkswagens and the Ford Fiesta, Mini Cooper and Toyota Yaris have received higher fuel mileage ratings.

Best of all, the Mazda2 is Mazda’s price leader. Starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $14,730 for a 2011 Mazda2 is $5,705 less than the starting retail price of Mazda’s previous entry car, the Mazda3.

With automatic transmission the 2011 Mazda starts at $15,530, and the uplevel Mazda Touring version with upgraded interior, fog lights and rear spoiler starts at $16,185.

By comparison, the Honda Fit five-door hatchback with 118-horsepower, four-cylinder engine started at $15,650 for the 2010 model year, and the Scion xD hatchback started at $15,620. Pricing for 2011s hasn’t yet been announced.

The 2011 Nissan Versa hatchback has a starting retail price of $14,270.

While reluctant to characterize the Mazda2 as cute, I admit that opening the home garage each day and seeing how little space the car took up made me smile. There’s nothing intimidating about this little car, outside or inside, where the gauges and controls are fairly simple to use and understand.

I appreciated that the Mazda2 retains the circular air vents on the dashboard that are in other Mazdas. They can be cranked around to about any direction and angle and make adjusting air flow around your face and body easier than in many other cars.

But, because passengers in the Mazda2 sit at car height on the road, I didn’t like having my views blocked by every pickup truck, sport utility vehicle and van in front of me. Also, a few times, when drivers cut me off in traffic, I wondered whether the Mazda2 was so small that they didn’t see me coming.

Still, the ride and driving was impressive for such a small, low-cost car.

The 1.5-liter, double overhead cam four cylinder has variable valve timing and worked well with the manual transmission to give the car a frisky personality. Peak torque rating is 98 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm.

The 100 horses and 98 foot-pound of torque don’t sound like much until the Mazda2’s light weight is factored in. Weighing barely 2,300 pounds with manual transmission, this little hatchback is lighter than the Fit, Mini and Versa.

As for safety, the Mazda2 comes standard with the usual safety equipment, such as front, side and curtain air bags, antilock brakes and stability control. Even traction control is standard.

The test Mazda2 bounded up hills, was a zippy city traveler and did well on highways, all without the engine sounding overly stressed.

The interior isn’t exactly quiet, but it’s not noisy, either.

The gearshift lever, located at the lower part of the center of the dashboard, rather than in the center console, had a notchy feel, but I never missed a shift.

A four-speed automatic also is available, but it adds $800 to the price and reduces the city and highway mileage rating by 2 mpg.

Overall, in a test drive with about 60 percent city driving, the test car averaged just over 32 mpg without any effort to maximize mileage.

Passengers felt some vibrations. But it wasn’t a harsh ride.

Even with a relatively small wheelbase — the distance from one wheel on one side of the car to the other wheel on the same side of the car — the Mazda2 didn’t bob up and down too badly over highway expansion cracks.

Generally, body motions in this front-wheel drive car felt damped and nicely controlled.

Rear-seat legroom is an abbreviated 33 inches but headroom is commendable at 37 inches.

Cargo room measures 13.3 cubic feet behind the rear seats. But folding down the 60/40-split rear seatbacks is easy and expands the space to nearly 28 cubic feet.

There are few factory-installed options for the Mazda2. For example, there’s no navigation system or leather seats, but leather-wrapped steering wheel and fine-looking upgraded fabric seats are standard in the uplevel Touring model.

Even the bright green paint — it’s called Spirited Green Metallic — that was on the test car doesn’t cost extra. And, in contrast to some competitors, carpeted floor mats are standard, even on the base Mazda2.

It’s just too bad that buyers must move up to a Touring model to get the gauge that shows average miles per gallon, miles to empty, etc.

And note the door lock and unlock buttons are in the center console, not on the doors. The console also does not provide covered storage space, just cup holders and separate cubbies.

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