Americans have never had an unambiguous relationship with small cars. Even back in the Sixties, when subcompact and compacts from dozens of European - and a handful of Asian - manufacturers reached American shores, they faced a limited audience. European drivers had leaned toward small cars for years; indeed, for decades.
High fuel prices were part of the reason, to be sure. But the subtle driving skills that are needed when behind the wheel of a modestly-powered, small-dimensioned automobile are appreciated in Europe, and typically disdained on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean. Starting with the horsepower race of the 1950s and the big-car boom that accompanied it, Americans learned to covet large and powerful vehicles. Compacts? Minicars? Those were for dilettantes, professors, oddballs. Not for real, redblooded Americans.
That's probably why Europeans (as well as Australians and the Japanese) got the subcompact Mazda2 in 2007, whereas it didn't arrive at U.S. dealerships until mid-2010. In 2008, the Mazda2 was named World Car of the Year, during a ceremony at the New York Auto Show. More than 400,000 have already been sold.
Related to Ford's newly-arrived Fiesta, which also got to Europe first, the stylish Mazda2 features what Mazda calls a "sporty wedge shape" to convey a sense of "forward motion." Character lines extend from the front fender arches to body shoulders. A low beltline is meant to make the Mazda2 feel "open and roomy." Built on a 98-inch wheelbase, the Mazda2 is 155.5 inches long and 58.1 inches tall. Cargo space totals 13.3 cubic feet (27.8 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks folded).
Under the hood, a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine develops 100 horsepower at 6000 rpm, and 98 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. With a five-speed manual transmission, the Mazda2 gets a fuel-economy estimate of 28 mpg in city driving and 35 mpg on the highway. Four-speed automatic drops the highway figure to 34 mpg. Dynamic Stability Control, traction control, and six airbags are standard.
Two trim levels are offered: Sport and Touring. Standard equipment includes air conditioning, power locks and windows, remote keyless entry, and a four-speaker stereo system. The Touring edition adds 15-inch alloy wheels (replacing steel), foglamps, a rear roof spoiler, cruise control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, six-speaker stereo, and steering-wheel controls. Fold-down rear seats are split 60/40.
Mazda asserts that the Mazda2 represents the company's "zoom-zoom in its most concentrated form." In fact, this satisfying hatchback takes Mazda's "trademark" sportiness to the smallest level.
Even with an automatic transmission, the Mazda2 is an enjoyable little runabout. Acceleration won't take anyone's breath away, whether at startup or to pass/merge. Performance is better between those two speeds, and in keeping with the Mazda2's sporty small-car nature. Automatic-transmission shifts are curt and crisp - just noticeable enough to keep you informed of what's happening. Only a little engine blare is evident during acceleration; otherwise, you can hear the engine but not much.
Under nearly all conditions, expect much the same behavor as the Mazda3, but in a smaller, useful package. That means excellent handling, coupled with a pleasing ride.
Front seats offer ample space and comfort, keeping occupants in place quite well. Seat bottoms are short, but don't impair comfort. Headroom ranks as virtually huge, legroom is good, and elbow space fair. Visibility is unimpaired all-around. Back-seat head and toe room are good, but knee space is snug. Even the center rear spot is reasonably comfortable, though all three occupants had better be slim. Storage space under the hatch is pretty meager, though easy to load.
On sale since July 2010, the Mazda2 starts at $13,980 for a Sport model with manual shift. The Touring edition stickers for $15,435. An automatic transmission adds $800 to either model.
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