If you have a pulse and access to the Internet these days (the latter doesn’t always require the former), you’ve probably been exposed quite a bit to the Ford Fiesta. The little Ford has been all over Youtube, Twitter, and (shameless plug alert) our own web site. But the Fiesta isn’t the only hot subcompact launching this summer. No, we’re also being introduced to its cute older sibling, the Mazda 2. Back in 2007, Mazda introduced its slick-looking, youth-friendly hatchback on the same B-segment platform that would spawn the Fiesta. It proved a huge hit in Europe, surpassing 100,000 sales in its first year on the market, and was named World Car of the Year for 2008. We liked it enough to conduct a rare European Four Seasons test on one, and called it a “great car for tough times.” But until recently, there were no plans for the car to make it to our market, despite the steadily growing demand for budget-friendly subcompacts. Now Mazda, all but cut off from its sugar daddy in Dearborn (Ford still retains an 13.8 percent share), has decided to crash the Fiesta’s party by launching the 2 here this summer.
Dieting for its U.S. debut
As a reward of sorts for our patience, Mazda is giving the North American market the first crack at the next generation of the 2. To spot what exactly makes it “next generation,” though, you’ll have to take out the scales. Under its virtually unchanged skin, the 2’s unibody is lighter and stiffer, thanks to increased use of high-strength steel. The weight shaving didn’t end there, as Mazda engineers swapped in simpler, one-piece control arms, a new shifter assembly for the automatic transmission, a smaller radiator, a redesigned wiring harness, electric (rather than hydraulic) power steering, and a lighter air intake. These and other similarly picayune measures add up to an impressive 220-pound weight savings on a car that was pretty darn light to begin with. At 2306 pounds with a manual transmission, it’s about 100 pounds slimmer than a Honda Fit and, more tellingly, some 200 pounds lighter than the Fiesta with which it shares its basic design.
Otherwise, our 2 is very similar to what’s been sold abroad. Not surprisingly, we’ll have fewer choices in body styles and engines. The American model will be available only as a four-door hatchback powered by a 1.5-liter four-cylinder, with either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic. The only other choices a customer will need to make is trim level — base Sport or Touring — and color (we recommend either lime green or baby blue).
The benefits of Mazda’s obsessive dieting became crystal clear as we squirted our way through the crowded streets of Montreal and out into rural Quebec. Though the 2 trails most competitors in the grunt department with only 100 hp and 98 lb-ft of torque, acceleration is surprisingly quick and smooth from any speed. The light weight and low center of gravity are also appreciated in turns, where, despite exhibiting more body roll than we expected, the 2 is plenty nimble and rarely stresses its fifteen-inch tires. As in all Mazdas, driver inputs have been tuned exceptionally well. The electric steering is quick and communicative, and the manual gearbox is smoother than the slick-shifting stick in the Honda Fit, though the clutch is a bit numb and binary. Add in the standard stability control and antilock brakes, and the 2 is the perfect slow car — lively enough to have fun without getting into trouble.
More than its playfulness (“zoom zoom concentrated” Mazda calls it), we were surprised and impressed by the 2’s maturity. The simplistic torsion-beam rear suspension calmly absorbs bumps and potholes that would rattle teeth in many competitors. At highway speeds the hums along steadily and, wonder of wonders for such a light and cheap car, quietly. Those who have stayed away from the B-segment because they often drive long distances may have an answer in the 2. Our only complaints after a full day of driving were with the flat seats, which lack any lumbar adjustment, and with the center armrest — there isn’t one unless you pony up for a dealer-installed accessory.
Fuel economy, ho-hum interior potential liabilities
Given the 2’s weight advantage and sleek profile, one might have expected it to come in near the head of the subcompact pack in efficiency. Instead, fuel economy is a liability, especially in automatic-equipped models. The old-school four-speed slushbox nets only 27 mpg in the city and 33 on the highway (the five-speed manual does slightly better at 29/35 mpg). That matches the bigger Fit but is a full 7 mpg worse on the highway than a Fiesta equipped with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic. Mazda is working on its next generation of small-displacement engines, but we do wonder if the automaker will be able to keep pace now that it lacks ready access to Ford’s parts bin.
Subcompacts have made a huge leap in a very short time when it comes to interior features and quality, which is why we wish Mazda had done more to update the interior for this refreshed U.S-market model. Other than a strip of shiny black plastic trim tacked across the center of the dash, this looks like the same cabin design editor Robert Cumberford criticized for its excessive use of “ultracheap” gray plastics during his year with our European-market 2. Moving up from a Sport to Touring model improves matters a bit, with nicer upholstery and a leather-wrapped wheel, but still leaves you looking for the technology bits that other subcompacts are now offering in their top-level models. Specifically, there’s no USB input, and features like Bluetooth and navigation are only available as third-party, dealer-installed accessories.
We’re less concerned about what appears to be the 2’s biggest shortcoming — utility. Mazda freely admits it sacrificed cargo capacity in the name of a sexier profile and trimmer exterior dimensions and, frankly, we applaud the decision. No, the 2 won’t be able to match the Fit, SX4, or Versa when it comes time to drive four college roommates over to Ikea. But in exchange for the ability to carry multiple mountain bikes at once, the 2 looks and feels like a car we’d want to drive and be seen driving.
It’s not hard to see why the spunky yet refined Mazda 2 was such a huge hit abroad when the last generation debuted in 2007. Three years later, this lightly updated version is less of a revelation but is still a very credible addition to what has become a very competitive field. The 2 may lack the do-it-all versatility of the Fit or the high-tech sophistication of the ritzier Fiesta, but it brings a solid combination of driving engagement, maturity, and value. Needless to say, we’re glad Mazda’s decided to crash the subcompact party.
On sale: July
Engine: 1.5L I-4, 100 hp, 98 lb-ft