Review: 2011 Mazda2

Michael Karesh
by Michael Karesh

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.

Michael Karesh
Michael Karesh

Michael Karesh lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan, with his wife and three children. In 2003 he received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. While in Chicago he worked at the National Opinion Research Center, a leader in the field of survey research. For his doctoral thesis, he spent a year-and-a-half inside an automaker studying how and how well it understood consumers when developing new products. While pursuing the degree he taught consumer behavior and product development at Oakland University. Since 1999, he has contributed auto reviews to Epinions, where he is currently one of two people in charge of the autos section. Since earning the degree he has continued to care for his children (school, gymnastics, tae-kwan-do...) and write reviews for Epinions and, more recently, The Truth About Cars while developing TrueDelta, a vehicle reliability and price comparison site.

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  • Mechmark Mechmark on Mar 30, 2011

    well guys i dont know what car you were driving but my weeife and i and 19 yr old son all test drove one this afternoon. pretty zippy with the manual 5 speed and as for 3 grand at 70 speeds in fith gear with 3 full size men in the car at 3 grand in fourth gear i was at 70 and the test drive averaged 34 mpg. no it s not a rx 8 or a mx 6 butit will work in fact after driving one to get for my son we are going tomorrow to pick up one for him and one for the wife ZOOM ZOOM

    • Swordfysh Swordfysh on Jul 29, 2011

      I agree with this guy. I tried the M2 at the dealers. Sure, it's quite anemic compared to other subcompacts, but it is what a slow but fun little car should be. Reminds me of my 1992 Mazda MX-3 5-speed stick with 1.6 4-cyl 88hp and 98ft torque. It's slow but it's made to be flogged and still drives young, because it's light. Not many coupes were 4-seater with a liftback trunk capable of carrying furniture with the seat down. Now that is fun and practicality put together. The Mazda 2, by comparison, is even more fun. Same weight, same torque, but with 4 doors, a slightly taller 5th gear, and all the fancy safety features to ensure my odds of dying in the car are a LOT lower. They managed to bring the spirit of an agile, lightweight car back from the dead and add stuff to it! Yes, I admit it's not as good looking as an MX-3 and 4-spd AT is bad, but they're only a few tweaks away from making this a car unique in its class, don't you agree? If they made a SKYACTIV Mazdaspeed2 for the right price I'd probably get it in a heartbeat.

  • Troyohchatter Troyohchatter on Mar 09, 2014

    Underpowered? I don't get that in the least. Used to be 0-60 in 10 flat was quite acceptable. As I review my past vehicles, I guess I have a thing for underpowered. 1980 Datsun 310, 1983 Subaru, 1984 Toyota Van, and a 1989 S-10, all of which had manual transmissions and all of which were considerably slower than the Mazda 2. I found the Mazda2 had more than enough power and it's a hoot, drives like a slot car. Nothing better than driving a go cart to work and back. In fact, I like it so much, I bought one!

  • MaintenanceCosts Yawn. I just can't get excited about a redblock that doesn't have either a turbo or extra cylinders. Given the base trim and overall good condition, though, this one would be a killer sleeper with a V8 swap. You could even find some wide steelies that would fit the OEM wheel covers.
  • The Oracle The early sounds of the death knell for CCP EVs.
  • FreedMike "This week, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) "Oh, THAT clown. The Undistinguished Gentleman and Brave Christian Culture Warrior from North Arkansas - I mean, Missouri - who was caught pulling a Brave Sir Robin act on January 6th, after he egged on the rioters? This guy shouldn't be running for dog catcher, must less consuming oxygen in the Senate chamber. Assess his proposals accordingly.
  • EBFlex Yawn. It’s still a white refrigerator. A Camry has more soul and passion than this.
  • Jkross22 For as nice as these were at the time, I always preferred the 850, even with wrong wheel drive. Especially the early 90s. In sedan form. The 850R. Mmmmm.
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