I’ve been known to complain every now and then that cars in general have grown too heavy and, partly as a consequence, boring to drive. Hardly any engage the driver like the 2003 Mazda Protege5 in my driveway does. Even the burgeoning crop of B-segment cars, including the much-lauded Honda Fit, has disappointed in this regard. And so we come to the latest contender, the Mazda2, at 2,306 pounds the lightest 2011 car you can buy with a back seat.
The U.S. gets only a five-door hatch. For which we should be thankful; the Mazda2 sedan offered elsewhere is rather hard on the eyes. In hatchback form, a truncated tail balances the high, blunt front end. Like the “man maximum, machine minimum” Hondas of yore, the Mazda2 is nearly all passenger compartment. Though headlamp assemblies that extend nearly to the front axle along arched front fenders and the complex surfacing of the doors provide some visual interest, the exterior is much cleaner than the Mazda3’s. Select the vibrant green to render it visible to the general population.
As might be expected given the sub-$15,000 price, the Mazda2’s interior is about as spartan as they come. There’s a minimal center console, no center armrest, and a wide band of painted metal (green in the case of the tested car) visible around the rear window. Simple, somewhat clunky controls are logically arranged close at hand, such that buttons absent from the steering wheel are not missed (but are including on the uplevel Touring nevertheless). “Cheap” or “functional?” Take your pick.
As might be expected given the compact exterior dimensions, the Mazda2’s interior is about as tight as they come in a car with rear doors. Only the related Ford Fiesta offers a more cramped rear seat. At 5-9, I can sit behind myself with about an inch to spare. The rear seatback is very low, and adults must raise the headrest lest it dig uncomfortably into the upper back. Cargo volume, though easily sufficient for runs to the grocery store, doesn’t approach that in the far more spacious Honda Fit. Up front, taller drivers might wish that the center console were less intrusive or at least padded. But the seats aren’t bad, with decent levels of comfort and lateral support.
The good stuff begins with the driving position. The pillars are thin by current standards. Though the windshield is far from upright, Mazda has managed to get by without windowlettes ahead of the doors. The view over the low, compact instrument panel is more, even much more conventional than you’ll find elsewhere in the segment. There’s no sense that you’re driving an MPV.
Even better, with the 2’s handling Mazda has recaptured much of the flavor lost in the transition from Protege to 3. Around town the feel through the precise, light-yet-communicative steering is delightfully agile. Though it leans a bit in hard turns, and the 185/55VR15 tires provide a limited amount of grip, the Mazda2 is easily the best-handling car in the segment. It alone handles the way small cars used to, and ought to. The U.S.-market Ford Fiesta feels soft, imprecise, and dull in comparison.
The price for such handling must usually be paid in ride quality. But not this time; around town the Mazda2 rides much more smoothly and quietly than the Protege, and is about average for the current class. I say “around town” because at highway speeds the car gets blown about a bit and the ride becomes notably less absorbent. With the manual, the engine is turning 3,000 rpm at 70 mph in fifth, so there’s also some engine noise.
Then, the fumble. The 1.5-liter four-cylinder, with a peak output of only 100 horsepower, is weakest-in-class. Despite the car’s low curb weight, this engine feels even weaker than the specs suggest. Below 3,500 rpm there’s nothing. Above 3,500 there’s not much more. Compounding the problem, the spread between first and second gear is unusually wide. Shift at 5,000 rpm, and you end up dead in the water at 3,000. To avoid falling into this hole, it’s necessary to shift near the 6,300 rpm redline. The engine is smooth, but even around its peak it provides no joy. Like those of more powerful (yet still overburdened) powertrains in competitors, the EPA ratings fail to impress: a less-than-stellar 29/35. A sixth gear would also help here.
The $14,730 base price is at least low, undercutting a similarly-equipped Chevy Aveo by $560. Adjusting for feature differences (using TrueDelta.com’s car price comparison tool more than doubles the Mazda’s advantage—it has standard stability control, while the Aveo manual isn’t even available with ABS. Equip a Fiesta similarly then adjust for feature differences and the Mazda has about a $250 advantage. A Honda Fit is about a grand more.
We’re left pondering the great car that easily might have been. With little apparent faith in the car, Mazda appears to have spent the bare minimum to adapt the 2 for the U.S. market. The excellent chassis deserves a much better powertrain. With even the 119-horsepower 1.6 from the Fiesta the 2 would be much better. With a 1.8 (as offered by Nissan and Scion) it would be delightful. With the Mazda3’s 148-horsepower 2.0 it would scream. Even a stronger 1.5 paired with better gearing might suffice. As is, enthusiasts will pass on the Mazda2 because of the gutless powertrain while non-enthusiasts will prefer the more stylish Ford Fiesta or much more practical Honda Fit. Hopefully Mazda will interpret the resulting low sales to mean they need to fix the problem, and not discontinue the car.
Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.