First Look: 2011 Mazda2

Having had its initial launch in Europe back in 2007, the Mazda2 has finally made its way to North America for 2011. Actually, because the car is not so new anymore, the U.S.-spec Mazda2 is a mid-life refresh of the existing and extremely successful subcompact five-door hatchback (it's also available as a sedan in Europe only). So why did it take so long to arrive stateside? Probably because Mazda wanted to be sure Americans were willing to buy small cars en masse.

And like its corporate cousin, the new 2011 Ford Fiesta, the Mazda2 is unlike previous subcompacts that Americans once came to regard as cheaply built, weak on power, and an embarrassment to be seen driving in. At least they had good fuel mileage, though. And now that gas prices are rising again, many buyers, even those who love driving, are looking for ways to save cash at the pump while still owning something that exhibits a drivers' car spirit. The 2011 Mazda2 is, quite simply, a wonderful car that leaves even the most hard-core sports car enthusiast with a smile on their face.

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Perhaps the reason is that Mazda has become so good at injecting their "Zoom-Zoom" philosophy into their entire lineup. Equipped with a 1.5-liter inline-four that produces 100 hp and 98 lb-ft of torque, many may wonder how an engine that, on paper, sounds like it's meant to power a golf cart toting around a group of dentists for their Saturday morning tee-off time. Although it has about 20 fewer horses than the Fiesta, the Mazda simply feels like it has the more powerful engine. There's a couple of reasons for this. First off, buyers can choose between two solid transmissions: either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic.

That's right, it's just a four-speed slushbox. However, Mazda engineers claim a five or even a six-speed wasn't necessary because they managed to calibrate the four-speed unit with taller ratios and even fewer cases of gear searching. That's all fine and good, but we still prefer the manual. In terms of fuel economy, the manual is also the better choice, returning 29/35 mpg city/highway whereas the automatic is about 2 mpg less for both. These numbers could come back to hurt the Mazda because many who shop for a car in this class want something that hits the magic 40 mpg marker.

And for those who don't care enough about achieving maximum fuel economy, the Mazda2 provides a better driving experience than the Fiesta. The suspension employs MacPherson struts up front while a torsion-beam axle is at the rear. There's a bit of body roll, but not nearly that of, say, the Honda Fit or Nissan Versa. Engineers were also careful to avoid adding any unnecessary weight, allowing the car to benefit from a more nimble ride. Total weight comes in at around 2,300 pounds, depending on transmission and package choices.

This combination of weight saving, appropriate transmissions, and suspension tuning makes up the difference for having a less powerful engine. Still, the thought of a MazdaSpeed 2 sounds awfully good. The interior is the near perfect definition of elegant simplicity. While the dash is more conservative than the Fiesta's somewhat over-styled center stack, it looks like it's taken inspiration from the Mazda MX-5. Speaking of which, Mazda took the steering wheel straight from their acclaimed roadster.

Even the shift knob for the manual is reminiscent of the MX-5's. The seating position is comfortable for taller drivers and there's a decent amount of cargo space, although not as good as the Fit or the Versa. Only two packages are offered - Sport and Touring, with just one engine and two transmission choices. Pricing starts at just $14,180 for the Sport with standard 15-inch wheels and the manual. A Touring begins at $15,635, which adds, amongst other features, 15-inch alloys, rear spoiler, chrome exhaust tips, trip computer, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.

So is the Mazda2 the ideal subcompact? No, but it's currently one of the best small cars for those who love driving and a fantastic bargain.