2011 Mazda Mazda2

October 21, 2011

The 2011 Mazda2 may very well be the cutest car I've driven to date. Despite its more than adorable look, the Mazda2 and I took a few days to get to know each other. Upon my first drive, I have to admit that I wasn't a fan of the all-new subcompact.

It was because the five-speed manual transmission and I didn't get along. On more than one occasion, I accidentally shifted into 5th gear, rather than 3rd, from 2nd. That wasn't my only complaint. Shifting felt jerky; the hollow sound the door made when it closed didn't instill a sense of confidence, and the loud road, wind and engine noise pouring into the cabin was exhausting to my senses.

With its 100-horsepower 1.5-liter engine and manual transmission, I can't really say that there's any zoom-zoom with the Mazda2. The other thing that is kind of puny with this car is its EPA-estimated fuel economy of 29/35 mpg city/highway. I expected more mileage out of such a small, lightweight car.

After the initial annoyances I reminded myself that with a starting price of $14,180 for the base Sport trim level and $15,635 for the Touring trim level, this car is one of the cheapest I've driven to date and reset my expectation level. My test car, a top-of-the-line Mazda2 Touring, cost $16,000; it packed in a few extra features that were surprising for this price point.

EXTERIOR

That Mazda2 is small, but it still manages to pack in a huge style punch. The rounded hatch, coupled with a rear spoiler and cat-eyelike headlights are totally likable. I'm not really sure I'd take a full-grown adult seriously in this car, however. It's just too cute. It seems much more appropriate, both in style and price point, for a teen driver or a young adult just out of college.

One thing that does impress me about the Mazda2 is how it manages to squeeze in four full-size car doors – plus a fifth if you count the hatch – into such a little design. This car is vaguely reminiscent in size to my own Volvo C30, and every time I approach the Mazda2 I'm still a tad bit surprised there are rear doors. That makes it doable in a pinch for families with school-age kids, who have short legs.

The small size, low step-in height and placement of the car doors makes this cutie easy for little ones to open the door, climb in and close the door independently.

The Mazda2 has a 100-hp, 1.5-liter inline-four-cylinder engine that takes regular gas. A five-speed manual transmission is standard. With the optional four-speed automatic, it gets 27/33 mpg.

SENSE AND STYLE

Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Fair

Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Some

INTERIOR

The inside is where some of those surprising features I mentioned earlier make themselves known. First off is the sporty red piping that lines the black seating upholstery. It comes standard in the Touring version I tested. It's just a little extra touch that, for its price, seems like a real bonus stylewise. The front seats adjusted manually, and the driver's seat also adjusts up and down.

On top of that, I was surprised by the standard leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio and cruise control buttons mounted on it. The steering wheel tilts up and down but doesn't telescope.

Other surprising features at this price include remote keyless entry, air conditioner with a pollen filter, and an MP3 jack. The open center console design had two cupholders for the front passengers and a third intended for rear passengers. Four open cubby-like spaces in the center console helped to contain clutter. The front doors featured a storage bin that was wide enough for the latest novel I'm reading (Carl Hiaasen's "Star Island") while waiting in the carpool lane, with room left over for a bottle of water.

With such a small car, clearly there isn't tons of space in the backseat. However, for just two kids it was doable as long as I stashed their backpacks in the cargo area rather than on the floor near their feet. I put three kids in the backseat at one point. Although they all fit and nobody complained, they were definitely packed in like skinny little sardines. So much so that they had to stagger their seat belt buckling; the outer two buckled first, and then the third wiggled into the middle seat to buckle up.

The rear seats are split 60/40 and fold to create some extra cargo space. Even with the seats up, there was just enough cargo space for a full week's worth of groceries.

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT

Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Fair

Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample

SAFETY

Driving the Mazda2 felt a bit like driving a tin can, which doesn't instill a sense of confidence on the safety front. There aren't any crash-test ratings available yet on this car. However, it does come standard with both stability control and traction control, which are features that other manufacturers make you pay extra for.

The Mazda2 also comes standard with antilock brakes with brake assist and six airbags, including side-impact airbags and side curtains for the front row only. Rear passengers don't have any airbag protection.

The second row's head restraints in the two outer seats are positioned to rest right in front of the seat itself. This makes it tough to install forward-facing car seats or high-back booster seats without the safety seats leaning too far forward. I was able to remove both head restraints for a better fit. The rear seat belt buckles are on flimsy bases, so little hands might need extra help when buckling in. The lower Latch anchors are wedged quite tightly into the space between the seat bottom and seatback, so installing a child-safety seat using Latch connectors would be quite a challenge.

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