For a reviewer, getting handed a car with delivery miles on the odometer is an instant promotion to tribal shaman. You’re given a quick pat on the back before being shoved into a hut with the village’s prettiest virgin. Needless to say, this privilege comes with the sacred duty of keeping the virgin in tip-top shape, otherwise your term as high-muck-a-much will be pretty short-lived. Unfortunately for my political aspirations, the Mazda2 loves being ridden hard. It squeals through corners, snarling like a dog in heat. There’s a lot more fun to be had here than the tiny 185/55R15 Dunlop Sports suggest.
Of course, being on a deadline and with nothing to report but “it’s fu-un”, I knew I needed a different hook for this story. To put the Mazda2 in perspective, I needed to compare it to the class leader. Which just happens to be the Honda Fit. The old girl has just gotten a big time makeover, and she knows more tricks than most anyone else. With Satan as my co-pilot, we head out into the wilderness for a head-to-head comparison.
On paper, the Mazda2’s 102 hp 1.5 liter MZR and 4-speed automatic aren’t very impressive. The Fit has 15 ponies and one gear more. But from a roll, you’d be hard pressed to see a difference. The Mazda’s willing motor and short gears make it much more responsive than the figures suggest, especially at highway speeds. It suffers more deflection in crosswinds, but trumps the Honda in terms of high speed stability over heaves. The steering also firms up much more at speeds, giving you more confidence in dealing with road conditions. While the engine struggles to pull past 100 mph, the Mazda’s small footprint makes it easy to thread through traffic to conserve what precious little momentum you can build up in such a light car. I’d complain about the lack of paddle-shifters or even the ubiquitous +/- Mazdamatic (don’t laugh) that comes on Mazda’s bigger cars, but the transmission downshifts quite willingly whether or not you play with the overdrive toggle.
Taken off the high roads and up into the hills, the Mazda2 further impresses. While the ABS kicks in annoyingly early when you’re diving nose-down into a corner with one rear wheel cocked in the air, it’s a better balanced backroads companion than the Fit. It corners flatter than the Honda, and doesn’t grind over midcorner bumps. The Honda’s soft suspension setting and annoyingly low ride height, both a boon on the highway, count against it here. Though both cars have reassuringly firm side bolsters, we found ourselves sliding around a lot more inside the Fit when playing cat and mouse through the esses. The Mazda’s electro-hydraulic steering rack is surprisingly firm and tactile. She may be faking it, like all the new girls do, but she does it like a pornstar. And like a pornstar, she just goes on and on. This little-car-that-could soaks up the punishment long after the Fit has flown into the weeds. Despite not being appreciably heavier than the Mazda2, the Honda Fit seems to have lost some of the spunky edge that made the first-generation car so beloved of enthusiasts, all in search of more refinement. The Mazda2 beats it in both regards, combining comfort and ability much better than either generation of Honda’s supermini.
In fact, I’d venture as far as saying that it’s better than the Mazda3 in similar spec. The Mazda3 also manages to be both supple and sure-footed, but you often get the sense that suspension tuning is quite “all there” compared to its sister car, the Focus. The Mazda2, on the other hand, is more stable over heaves and flatter through the corners. Makes you wonder how good the Fiesta will be.
While the Mazda2 has the usual higher content of hard surfaces and duff fabrics, the funky interior feels more Bavarian than Banzai. It has vault-like sound deadening and (slightly) more supportive seats than the Fit. Even the fat, chunky steering wheel, with its big silver spokes, feels like it’s come off a 1-series rather than a Mazda. It’s an apt comparison, the 1-series has shitty plastic, too.
Others might find a similarity in the subtle contouring of the Mazda2’s flanks. This inspiration, however, is drawn from Mazda’s new “Nagare” (wind) school of design. This wraps the car in curvy lines that, unlike those on the BMW 1-series, actually go somewhere interesting and don’t disappear in mid-thought.
Flame-surfacing aside, there’s a lot of detail in the car itself. The swept-back and pulled-in greenhouse makes the Mazda2 look wider than it is, and the flared arches wrap tightly around the puny 15” alloys this tester came in on. Not that it needs any more rubber. Like the Mini Cooper, the Mazda2 extracts an incredible amount of performance from a tiny amount of contact patch.
Unfortunately, while the Mazda2 is much roomier than a Mini, it’s nowhere near as cavernous inside as a Fit. This may be its biggest stumbling block in penetrating a US market which is still getting used to the Fit subcompact. And our Mazda tester is worryingly bare of such essentials as electronic stability control (available for more money), rear disc brakes (which would help with the braking issue) and side-curtain airbags. There are multiple spec levels for the Mazda2, but ours is bare as bare can be without ditching the radio/i-Pod jack and climate control. Which are nothing to write home about, anyway.
Neither is the straight-line performance. A 0-62 mph time of 11.7 seconds (half a tick slower than the heavier 1.5AT Fit) doesn’t count as exciting in anyone’s books. The 2011 model’s uprated 5-speed automatic should find that extra half-second, though an extra thirty or forty horses would be an even better upgrade. But then, there’s more to driving fun than stoplight drags.
Still, it’s nice to see that “fun” and “frugal” aren’t mutually exclusive. The Mazda2’s 30+ mpg is like finding out the village virgin is good both in bed and in the kitchen. And, unlike the similar and similarly fun Suzuki Swift, she’ll take the kids to school for you, too. The only problem is the dowry she commands. Properly equipped, a Mazda2 costs about as much as a Honda Fit with the same kit. Now, paying Fit money for what is an arguably better car makes a lot of sense. Paying Fit money for what is an undoubtedly smaller one doesn’t. But as with tribal virgins, size isn’t the only thing that matters. The Mazda2’s sweet disposition, raunchy performance and pert looks might be more than enough to win people over.
The test vehicle was loaned to me by Mazda, with a full tank of gas and new tires, for testing purposes. It was returned with a nearly empty tank of gas, slightly worn tires and a big grin.