2011 Mazda2- Where’s The Beef?

DSCI1182Until recent years, the economy car segment in the United States had been nothing more than teases and disappointments.  We could only watch from afar as Europe, Asia, and the rest of the world would attain interesting and intriguing small city cars that were enjoyable to drive and fuel-efficient.  While everyone else was having fun, we had to make do with bland, boring cheap-and-nasty subcompacts that were intended to be throwaway cars for college students.  Sudden spikes in fuel prices changed perceptions on small cars and suddenly they became en vogue.  One such tease from years ago was the Mazda2.  Sold overseas since 1998, the first two generations were decent little boxy cars that boasted lots of room but were a tad humdrum.  But the 2’s redesign for 2007 changed the car’s personality.  That version became lighter and more emotional than its predecessors and was recognized as “International Car of the Year 2007” by a jury of 22 auto journalists from 11 countries.  Yet the 2 still wasn’t  sold in the U.S.  That was until 2010, when Mazda made the sudden announcement it will sell the 2 in North America.  Woo-hoo, let the party begin!

DSCI1175I was thrilled….make that ecstatic, when the Mazda2 was to be sold on these shores.  They were common sights when visiting other countries and I always found it be an appealing offering that we were missing out on.  The styling is cute, charismatic, and quite eye-catching, especially in the neo-green that Mazda always promotes. Bulging front fenders that echo the RX-8, an upswept beltline, and  a tidy back-end make the car look like it’s in motion and give it an appealing modern, funky appearance.  Mazda’s trademark smiley grill is a tad creepy on some of their other offerings, namely the 3, but on the 2, it works with the smaller proportions. Overall, it’s an attractive, decidedly Japanese inspired design that has aged well in the six years since it was introduced.

DSCI1194Inside, the fun styling theme continues.  Inspired by the Miata, the 2 has a playful blend of circular air vents and radio pod, as well as a shifter that juts out from the dash.  However, Mazda has never been competitive when it comes to interior materials and the 2 is no exception.  Every panel seems tight and lovingly assembled, but the plastics are very low rent and the monotonous, dark, spartan interior is depressing.  There’s no soft plastics  or any upscale touches that make the car feel gratifying.  The door panels are a large swath of solid, hard plastic with no cloth inserts or any signs of substance and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a car with so much exposed metal inside the cabin. DSCI1190

Here lies the problem with the 2.  Even with standard power windows, door locks, and a CD player, it represents today’s ABC’s of cars.  The 2 never makes you forget that  it’s an economy car  and sustains the term “penalty box” in today’s modern world.  I love simple A-to-B cars like the old Geo Metro, Daihatsu Charade, and Subaru Justy that feature honest-to-goodness engineering and are built to survive years  of punishment.  The 2 is the closest car that feels like a modern day reincarnation of those vehicles.  However, compared to even some of those vintage cars of a bygone era, the Maxda feels penny-pinched.  On our Sport model, there were no coathooks, back seat pockets, temperature gauge, telescoping wheel, trip computer, driver’s armrest, or AUX/iPod hookup (although a USB port does come on 2013 models).  In addition, the car is also lacking an intermittent setting for the rear wiper, auto-off headlights when the car is turned off, and backlit power window switches.  These are little things that add to the feeling of  overall value and are offered standard on most subcompact cars.

DSCI1195Upfront there is sufficient headroom but the sloping roofline compromises it in the rear,  Back seat passengers may find themselves in the chin-to-the chest position.  The rear headrests are awkwardly placed and are invasive when set in the their lowest positions- they are rock-hard and jab themselves into the backs of passengers.  Rear leg room is also tight, but the same can be said about most of the 2’s competitors.  Front leg room is pretty good- although some passengers may complain that the jutting dash and shifter intrude on precious space for knees. 

DSCI1188Being the most versatile of vehicles, the hatchback, the 2 can carry a decent amount of gear.  We were able to squeeze a 55inx39in wall painting into the back ….barely.  The front seats did have to be pulled far forward and the hatch opening was barely wide enough, forcing us to try several approaches to coax the mural in.  However, the 27cu ft (with seats down) trunk in the 2 eventually was able to accommodate the painting, which is a feat many larger sedans would only dream of doing.  In everyday use, the 2 will fit a commendable amount of luggage.  Beware that the 60/40 split  back seat cushions do not fold flush to the cargo floor, hampering loading of heavier and larger items.

DSCI1191If there’s one positive aspect of the 2’s simple demeanor, it’s the intuitive controls.  The gauges are plain but easy to read and are backlit at night in a BMWesque redish hue, which seemed out of place.  In a world of touchscreens and a profusion of buttons on many cars, the 2’s three dial ventilation controls and uncomplicated radio controls were a refreshing change.  The radio display itself is quite small and can hard to read DSCI1187while driving though.  Otherwise, like those simple econoboxes of years gone by, it’s easy to learn the 2’s minimal controls and get acquainted with the cockpit.  The three spoke steering wheel is nice to grip (but still adorned in hard plastic and cheap feeling) and visibility all around is excellent.  Parking is a breeze thanks to the 2’s large windows and compact dimensions.DSCI1196

Structurally, 2 is based on the same platform as the Ford Fiesta, however Mazda was shafted on the performance front.  Whereas the Fiesta carries a 1.6 liter four-cylinder with 120 horsepower, the 2 makes do with a smaller 1.5 quad-cylinder engine with 20 less ponies- rated at a paltry 100.  Although not at all a rocket, the 1.5 liter did well around the city and was surprisingly capable of crossing a mountain pass with no drama.  Accelerating onto the freeway took some patience and the 2 didn’t like going anywhere north of 70mph.  Higher speeds and merging from onramps not only was met with hesitation from the engine, but also an inundation of engine noise.  As the revs grew higher, so did the noise in the poorly insulated cabin.  Mazda may claim this generation 2 is 200 lbs. lighter than its predecessor, but some sound deadening material may be a worthwhile investment.  The engine note was coarse and is accompanied by wind, road, and tire noise as well.  Conversations were difficult with passengers and the radio had to be continually turned up to countermand the racket.

DSCI1184Conventional wisdom tells us that a lack of power and lower vehicle weight translates into higher fuel economy figures.  While typically this is the case, it isn’t so in the Mazda2.  While not terrible, the EPA fuel economy figures are 28highway/34city.  I averaged a realistic 33mpg in mixed driving.  The 2’s kissing-cousin, the Fiesta, gets a rating of 29city and 39 highway- an additional 5mpg than the 2 with the added boost of 20% more power.  So what gives?  The 2 relies on a decent, but old-fashioned four-speed automatic while the Fiesta, and competitors such as the Hyundai Accent and Chevrolet Sonic, all have more advanced and economy minded six-speeds.  While that equates to fewer gears for the engine to sort through, it does result in higher rpms at highway speeds which then intensifies the engine noise and lowers fuel economy.  It’s all a full circle.  Shifts are generally smooth and unobtrusive, but the engine whine through the gears is noticeable and shifts can be  pronounced during freeway merging.

DSCI1177The MacPherson strut front and torsion rear suspension are standard fare among small cars.  Mainly due to the short 98” wheelbase, the ride is very choppy and jittery.  The 2 is easily shaken off course by road imperfections and feels somewhat unstable at higher speeds. 

It’s not all bad news.  The Mazda 2’s secret weapon is it’s handling.  Although it’ll never be confused for a full-fledged sports car, the 2 has a flingable and almost Mini like go-kart feel.  Go around a corner, the 2 has sufficient grip and a natural steering feel.  It’s one of the few economy cars that can be fun on a twisty road.  Body lean is minimal and that firm suspension translates into flat cornering.  On a twisty Southern California mountain road, I was able to confidently keep up with performance oriented German cars.DSCI1185 

Our Mazda2 had 42k miles of hard rental duty and seemed to need wheel bearings and a wheel balance,  The rear cargo cover straps had also broken as had one of the plastic clips holding it, rendering the cover useless.

Prices for a Mazda2 start at $14,530 in the  base Sport trim with manual transmission.  The only option ours had was the automatic transmission and with the destination charge- the total price shifted to $16,165.  At this price the Mazda2 is outclassed and not a good value compared to the alternatives that cost the same, if not less.  The Nissan Versa offers acres of more space .  The Fiesta is more rewarding to drive.  The Accent has more features.  The Sonic is more solid.  And the Honda Fit is infinently more versatile.  If the 2 were more affordable than those choices it would make sense to deal with the compromises, but DSCI1186there’s better choices out there.  The uplevel Touring trim adds cruise control, cloth door trim, and alloy wheels, but the chintzy mechanicals and platform remain the same and the price skyrockets to $17,655.  That’s serious, real car money, folks.

That leads into how disappointing the Mazda2 was.  It looks spiffy and appealing.  It DSCI1183promises to be solid and reliable transportation for years to come.  And its minimalist approach is a breath of fresh air nowadays.  Whenever I test a car, the ultimate question I ask myself is “would I spend my hard-earned money on this and keep it for several years?”  The simple answer is no.  I feel like this car is a flashback to how 1990’s economy cars were made, and this would’ve been a good one 15 years ago.  That would be fine and dandy if the car’s price coincided with the low-technology, but the subcompact field is more competitive than ever, and there are a number of choices out there that offer more value and car for the same money.  The 2 does nothing that outshines any of them and feels like the penalty box of the group. Sorry Mazda- I really wanted to like your city car but there’s not enough beef here for the price.  An unfortunate 1.5/5.0 boomerangs.

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