Mazda2 Touring hatchback does small well but is missing the 'zoom-zoom'

Photo courtesy of Mazda.
Photo courtesy of Mazda.
Sunday, September 12, 2010

The 2011 Mazda2 Touring hatchback is small done well. That means it has a peppy engine, nimble handling, reasonable all-around safety and a comfortable interior for five moderately sized adults.

It does not mean, despite Mazda's "zoom-zoom" corporate advertising, that the Mazda2 Touring is a performance car. It is not, for example, the 2011 Mazda3s Grand Touring, which has a bigger engine, better handling, improved all-around safety and a more comfortable interior for five moderately sized adults.

All small is not equal. That is important to know as we enter the Age of Minimalist Motoring, in which automotive traits once deemed universally desirable are now demonized.

Super horsepower, like sex, remains attractive. But nowadays it is offered discreetly. Rare is the car company that will brag about a high-horsepower, high-torque, fuel-consumptive engine in the midst of green-minded global governments demanding less consumptive, lower-polluting automobiles.

Today's automotive emphasis, for reasons of environmental compliance and marketing hype, is on small cars that are big on fuel economy, safety and tailpipe pollution abatement. But key to public acceptance of those virtues is the historical appeal of naughtiness.

Thus, we have a new fleet of motorized contradictions -- small but big on creature comforts; super fuel-efficient but also super-fast; tiny but sexy. It can be confusing.

But shoppers in the Age of Minimalist Motoring are not without guidance, as today's column will show. Part of their guidance involves common sense, a developed appreciation of the inevitability of trade-offs and limits.

Consider the Mazda2 Touring hatchback. It is a front-wheel-drive subcompact with four side doors and a rear hatch. It has a little engine: a 1.5-liter, inline four-cylinder, 16-valve model with electronically controlled valve lift delivering a maximum 100 horsepower and 98 foot-pounds of torque.

To make its little engine perform anything close to "peppy," the Mazda2 Touring needed low weight. It got it through Mazda's smart application of lightweight, high-strength steels. The car's factory weight -- poundage with factory-installed equipment and liquids -- is a modest, by passenger-car standards, 2,359 pounds.

So, yeah, the Mazda2 Touring is "peppy" and "zippy." It also has decent handling, thanks to a well-conceived four-wheel independent suspension. But it's not "zoom-zoom," Mazda's trademarked performance brag.

There's nothing the least bit "zoom-zoom" about the Mazda2 Touring -- a tiny car with a wheelbase, the center-line distance between the front and rear wheels, of 98 inches.

What you have is more akin to "buzz-buzz," which is okay if what you mostly want to do is buzz around city and suburb without using much fuel (29 miles per gallon city/35 mpg highway) or spending much money. (Mazda2 base prices range from $13,980 to $16,235.)

If you want "zoom-zoom," buy the 2011 Mazda3s Grand Touring hatchback.

Hint: A four-door sedan with a traditional notchback trunk is available. But a four-door model with a rear hatch offers more utility.

Mazda3 prices range from $15,450 for the base Mazda3i SV to $23,695 for the Mazda3s Grand Touring model driven for this column. The Mazda3s comes with a 2.5-liter, 16-valve inline four-cylinder engine (167 horsepower, 168 foot-pounds of torque). It, too, has an excellently engineered four-wheel independent suspension. It has a longer wheelbase, 103.9 inches compared with the Mazda2's 98 inches. That means a better ride and more room inside for the Mazda3s.

Brown is a special correspondent.

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