By on March 3, 2010

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.

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33 Comments on “Review: 2011 Mazda2 (European Spec)...”

  • avatar

    Refreshing writing style, are you new?

    • 0 avatar

      Nice write-up,

      I own a 2 and have been happily driving it for almost 2 years now. i like the new exterior styling they’ve done, gives it a more aggressive stance.

      i agree with almost everything that is said in this review, and having driven it for 2 years, believe me i know. I review cars as well

      with respect to the Fit comparison, the 2 is indeed superior bar on the space side, and the Fit’s rear seat tumble and storage ability is truly superior. but i have a 6 month daughter now, and my wife and I are living with the 2. it shrunk on us at the beginning of parenthood but if carefully planned, it’s not that annoying.

      I think the 2 looks better than the Fit, it is much more fun to drive, even at slow speeds while being fluid through a combination of turns, it accelerates better up to a certain speed.

      the only negatives i can think of are two mainly. the brakes are really touchy when the car is new. it took about 12,000 Km before it became easy to live with and didn’t pop your eyes out at every single dab. maybe it’s the drums at the back. it takes time to get used to it but it’s reassuring to know that you got the stopping power similar to the arresting cables on the USS Ronald Reagan…

      The other problem is the 1.5’s cold start engine noise. If you’re the kind that turn the car on, selects drive and goes, you will be met by a diesel like engine note all the way to 2000rpm. If you warm your engine up before you go, it will go away at about 1000. it is very disappointing to hear it every morning.

      On a final note my 2 is my daily driver, and only car at the moment. so i tend to drive is considerably. Fuel consumption is very acceptable on the average. but if prodded, the 2 is a true driver’s mini hatch…

  • avatar

    How quickly can Mazda “freshen” that front end? It is hideous and has absolutely ruined the Miata – a great car whose virtues are well known, but now, forget it.

    • 0 avatar

      RE: New: Been around, just haven’t had time to whip up more than one or two contributions.

      RE: Sexist: My first draft was worse. This is the amended one, in case my wife is reading. Not that she’d actually be reading this. She was more interested in the Fit during our evaluation, thanks to the aforementioned lack of rear seat space.

      If we’re talking from the feminine point of view, the Mazda2’s virtues include a butch stance (look at those broad shoulders!) and a more manly horn.

      RE: Fiesta: An acquaintance in the UK familiar with the development team assures me the Fiesta is 100% better, so it’s likely the difference in refinement between the Focus and the Mazda3 will carry over.

      Which means the Fiesta should be so good that it’ll make the Mini look superfluous. But it’ll still be tiny.

    • 0 avatar
      also Tom

      Yes. The smiley face whacked out my-percocets-just-kicked-in-look is already tedious. I’d also agree with ‘hideous” although in the past I’ve reserved that word pretty much for the Crosstour.

  • avatar

    Nice review. I too wonder how good the Fiesta can/will be. It’s too bad Mazda couldn’t get the rear seats to fold flat into the floor. It looks to be a charming little car though, and I actually like the looks of it. It’s not Fiesta nice, but it’s also not Fit ugly.

    Without having driven any of these subcompacts my preference goes Fiesta > Mazda2 > Fit.

  • avatar

    funny that now 185/55-15s are “tiny.” My, how far we’ve come…

  • avatar

    Nice. You actually got me considering one (I’m sure Mazda Marketing wishes they could use your village virgin metaphor in nationwide advertising).

    It sounds like it embodies a lot of what I liked about the last Fit. When my wife’s old RAV goes, we will definitely give this a gander…

  • avatar

    Saw one in China. Didn’t care for the proportions, and it seemed very cheap inside compared to the Mazda3. But it was also a Chinese market sedan. The hatch looks better, and the one we get might have better interior materials.

    On the other hand, all reports I’ve read say that the Fiesta beats it in both refinement and driving enjoyment.

    Small tires aren’t necessarily a bad thing. They can make a car feel much more tossable.

    Smaller cars are usually more reliable, and Mazdas are usually reliable (though some have been having problems with rust). So the Mazda2 should do well on this front, though it’ll be hard to do as well as the Fit. The small Honda has been faring extremely well in TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey:

  • avatar

    The Fiesta and Mazda2 are both pretty good cars, but they share real handicaps for North American use:

    * The trunk and cargo space, as you noted, is minimal. Thanks to the relocated gas tank, the Fit has midsize-level useful trunk space with the seats up and crossover-beating space when they’re down. The Mazda? It’s about level with the Yaris, or about good enough for a small grocery run. As a family car you’re looking at getting a roof-box.

    * Rear seat space is not good. I’m pretty tall and can easily sit behind myself in a Versa and have some trouble doing so in a Fit, Yaris or Aveo. The Fiesta/2 are much worse; the rear seats are a no-go zone if your front passengers are tall.

    These are drivers’ cars, but as all-around transport the Fit an Versa are better. I got some time in a Fiesta recently and, while it’s a really nice car, it’s hamstrung here.

    • 0 avatar

      Even though it is always included in this group, I don’t think that the Versa fits. A Versa hatch is as long, and taller than my Focus hatch, which, by my logic, puts it into the compact category.

      The Fit is just a freak of nature – having more interior space than should be possible – and Honda deserves full credit.

  • avatar

    psarhjinian–most people aren’t nearly as tall as you are!

    I’m personally looking forward to the new Focus more, anyway. Looks better, and also a roomier rear seat. If Ford/Mazda made the rear seat roomy in the B-car, they’d cannibalize the C.

    • 0 avatar

      True, but most people a little over six feet are going to run the seat right to the end of seat-track anyways. In the Versa, that’s not a problem at all; it has more space than some full-size sedans. In the Fit, it precludes six-footers from the rear seat.

      In the Fiesta, it precludes non-amputees and anyone over eight years old. There’s not a lot of space between the driver’s seatback and the edge of the rear seat cushion.

      I agree with you about the Focus: that will be the car to watch. The Fiesta is too compromised.

    • 0 avatar


      If we’re talking kids in the back seat, there’s also the issue of rear facing child seats… reality is that there’s just not enough room in a car this size for a rear facing seat AND a tall driver.

      As someone with a longer torso, I’ve got problems fitting into many cars because my head hits the roof. Best example: regardless of seat position, I couldn’t fit into a Lexus GS! The car that surprised me the most was the GTI. Man, that thing makes great use of space.

    • 0 avatar

      I’d again point out the Versa, which can fit a rear-facing car-seat safely behind a small driver.

      To be fair, the Versa is not exactly in this size class, but it is price-competitive.

  • avatar

    Ugh. The Mazda 3 I rented in LA soured me on the make – though I suppose I should leave room for reevaluation on numbers greater than four.

    I’m not sure what its specs were, but the engine was awful – hitting the loud pedal brought new meaning to the phrase, “Sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

    I also remember looking at the carpet and thinking, “Compared to my beater, it’s nice to have really clean, new carpet.” And then thinking, “Hmm – this looks like the stuff that’s in the trunk of my beater…”

    The coolest thing about the car was the little “fffpeewwww” something-spinning-down-somewhere sound it made when I turned it off. It’s pretty bad when the thing you look forward to most in a vehicle is the moment you stop the engine.

  • avatar

    A quibble, but “Nagare” is “flow” in Japanese, like a river’s flow or the flow of time, etc. Wind is “kaze”, like in “kamikaze”, “divine wind”.

  • avatar
    Jack Denver

    Good review but cut the extraneous tribal virgin cr*p. It’s not 1967 any more and it comes off as juvenile and sexist. Women buy cars too.

  • avatar

    This is a nice review. On one hand it makes one drool (driving fun), on the other hand one has to ask how much of that driving fun can be enjoyed on our Canadian roads – they are all straight and long. Size could be an issue, too – when you run over a moose, you can’t fit it in the boot.

  • avatar

    Oops… mistakenly posted as a reply to the first post, too used to linear comments.

    RE: Sexist: My first draft was worse. This is the amended one, in case my wife is reading. Not that she’d actually be reading this. She was more interested in the Fit during our evaluation, thanks to the aforementioned lack of rear seat space.

    If we’re talking from the feminine point of view, the Mazda2’s virtues include a butch stance (look at those broad shoulders!) and a more manly horn.

    RE: Fiesta: An acquaintance in the UK familiar with the development team assures me the Fiesta is 100% better, so it’s likely the difference in refinement between the Focus and the Mazda3 will carry over.

    Which means the Fiesta should be so good that it’ll make the Mini look superfluous. But it’ll still be tiny.

    My mistake, Nagare does indeed mean flow. It’s a shame, then, that Mazda ruins the flow on the current CX7 and Mazda3 with the mouthy snout. On the MX-5 and Mazda2, the effect is not so pronounced when you see them in the flesh, as the application is much more subtle. Still, the cleanest and most appealing model designed under the Nagare ethos remains the Mazda6.

  • avatar

    Great review. And this isn’t sexist at all since I refer to my car as a ‘she’.

    Anyway, regarding the Mazda 2, it seems to give the sporting pretensions of the brand like its other offerings do…and this is why I have to love Mazda.

    I thought the Fit was a sporty little runabout but the Mazda trumps it here at the expense of refinement.

  • avatar

    Does/will the Fiesta for NA come with a manual as an option? IMO this is an absolute necessity for little econoboxes with little engines. I’d also prefer a 2-door hatch. Having seen pics of the Japanese Mazda2 2-door hatch, I definitely like the exterior and a 2-door hatch is also more practical unless you are hauling around car seats, which I don’t.

  • avatar

    Ham and Cheese writing.
    Could barely get past the 1st paragraph.

    If this writing style were an actor it would be a 1978 Jim Carrey, chewing the scenery at “Yuk-Yuk’s”.

  • avatar

    Damn, if this is a better back road (as in no lane-lines back road) weapon that the Fitsport then I am going to love this car. I actually know two people that are waiting for the 2/Fiesta to come out, they both have down payments ready and both are putting up with a lot not having a current ride. That says something I think. No manual, no sale in both cases, and neither one is a “car guy”.

    Personally, the Fit’s styling has really grown on me, but that’s probably because I genuinely enjoy driving it (and because I don’t really care so much about styling anyway). I like the way this Mazda (and the EU Fiesta) look right out of the gates though.

    Edit – I disagree on the no ESC gripe…a car this small is better served without, you can feel it and correct it unlike larger FWD cars.

  • avatar

    I enjoyed reading the review by the way. Good job on the writing front.

  • avatar

    While the Mazda2 is quite easy to countersteer if you provoke it into a slide, having the rear end step out when you’re not provoking it can be quite nerve-wracking for most drivers who don’t have track or inclement weather experience. I spotted no evidence of rear end instability, despite purposely trying to provoke a slide with a Scandinavian flick (the resultant slide was pretty short). A few people were asking about this aspect of the car’s handling because apparently Best Motoring failed the Mazda2 on the emergency lane-change test. It might be a different matter in the wet, but this will depend on the variant and the tires in use. it may be that the Dunlop Sports Mazda uses don’t like wet conditions.

    A manual option is available, and I’ll be able to sample the manual transmission sedan version in a few months.

    I quite agree that a three door would better serve the type of people who would likely buy a car like this over the more mainstream opposition, but a five-door variant will likely be the bread-and-butter of the Mazda2 range.

  • avatar

    Havent drive a fiesta, but i did sit in one at the dealership and the interior quality on the Mazda is defeinelty better. the hard palstics on the 2 are not shiny, and the nice design of the Fiesta’s interior asks too much of the plastics and the budget, thus the imperfections.

    haven’t drive the Ford, but a friend that has experience in both tells me they are almost on par. the fiesta has a slightly lower center of gravity, but the design of the rear makes for more blind spots…

    in any case, if the Fiesta was available when i was shopping for the car, i would have defined taken it. but now with a baby, the 2 has that little extra feeling of space so no regrets what so ever.

    and the Mazda Dealer where I live pretty much sets a standard on how dealers around the world should deal with their customers… as for the Ford dealer, even Ford regional look down when you mention them…tisk tisk…

    by the way, I’m from Lebanon…

  • avatar

    where’s the edit option damnit!!!

  • avatar

    Saw on of these at the auto show and was unimpressed with the chaep interior, plastic hand crank windows, no rear seat legroom with the front seat only half way back and off ball quirky styling. Aside from handling it doesn’t sound very fun to drive either with 1980’s acceleration times. Rear cargo space is also limited making the Fit a better buy on that count. On the plus side the review was a refreshing read for this site.

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