There are few things more exhilarating in motoring than charging around in a nimble small car. Just ask any owner of a Mazda MX-5 Miata or Mini Cooper.
Europeans, as well as others around the world, have known that for generations. Forced into bitty rides because of high fuel prices, they discovered what Americans are now starting to learn: small cars, executed well, are economical, useful and engaging.
Notice that we’ve avoided the most overwrought cliché in the car biz: fun to drive. That phrase has been so often used to describe everything from electric golf carts to giant sport utility vehicles that it has become meaningless and should be banned from the automotive lexicon.The newest small car to reach these shores is the [2011 Mazda2](http://www.carsoup.com/US-National/new-vehicles/make/Car-Truck/Nationwide/Mazda/MAZDA2/?cont=1&mode=mak "Mazda2 new car inventory"), which actually is the third generation of a car that has been sold in Europe and elsewhere outside the United States since 2007.
A subcompact, it now is Mazda’s entry-level car. It inevitably will be compared to another new small car whose introduction nearly coincides: the 2011 Ford Fiesta.
Despite the fact that their origins are similar, resulting from a co-operative venture between Ford and Mazda, they are very different cars that share only four minor parts.
Of the two, the Fiesta is the more Americanized. It is heavier, slightly bigger, more expensive, somewhat more sophisticated with more variations and options, as well as a more powerful 120-horsepower, 1.6-liter engine and an available state-of-the-art automated manual transmission.
Bowing to U.S. preferences, the Fiesta also is offered as a traditional four-door sedan as well as a four-door hatchback.
The Mazda2, in contrast, is simple, light, perky and eager. It arrives only as a four-door hatchback with a 100-horsepower, 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual gearbox or a four-speed automatic transmission.
The latter is its most prominent weakness. A four-speed automatic would suffice with a big old Detroit V8 engine. With the 2’s little four, it does a lot of noisy revving as it searches for the right gears. It feels sickly compared to the Fiesta’s six-speed automated manual.
Standard transmissions on both the Mazda2 and the Fiesta are five-speed manuals, and it is here that the 2 shines. Its shift linkage is direct and positive, with good tactile feedback and a smooth clutch action.
Combine that with the 2’s lighter weight and supple suspension system and you have a car that is quicker off the line with better transient responses in lane changes and on curving roads.
Some of it comes from well-executed electric power steering, which provides good feedback and on-center feel in a straight line. The ride is small-car acceptable, although the suspension system allows harshness to insult passengers’ torsos on rough roads.
David Coleman, product development engineer, credits the overall handling feel to Mazda’s orientation toward the driving experience. He said the 2 had undergone “a lot of boring mathematical analysis” to give it a rapid throttle response as well as good handling and brake feel. He likened it to the engineering work that had gone into the two-seat Mazda Miata sports car.
Oddly, the heavier (by 231 pounds) and more powerful (by 20 horsepower) Fiesta delivers slightly better fuel economy. Its EPA city/highway rating with the manual gearbox is 29/38 miles to the gallon; the Mazda2 is rated at 29/35.There are just two models of the 2: Sport and Touring with either the five-speed stick or the four-speed automatic. The tested manual-transmission Touring model had a suggested sticker price of $16,185. That included stability and traction control, antilock brakes with brake-force distribution and brake assist, up-front side air bags and side-curtain air bags, tire-pressure monitoring, air conditioning, upgraded fabric seats, six-speaker audio system, 15-inch alloy wheels, cruise control and remote locking. There are only limited minor options like wheel locks, a center console and auto-dimming rear-view mirror.
The Touring model comes with handsome upgraded cloth upholstery set off by red piping. Front seats are supportive with all-day comfort. In the outboard seating positions in back, there’s barely enough head and knee room for an average-sized adult. The center-rear position is the automotive equivalent of purgatory.Some cost-cutting is apparent. The Touring 2’s steering wheel tilts but does not telescope, there is only one overhead assist handle—on the front passenger side—no center-rear headrest and no coat hooks anywhere. Unless you pay extra for it, there is no center console with its accompanying armrest. The sun visors do not slide on their support rods to block sunlight from the side and the vanity mirrors are not lighted.
Overall, however, the Mazda2 meets the definition of an affordable, nimble small car that easily endears itself to its driver. While a lot of potential customers might view it primarily as a city car, it also is roadworthy on the highway and could easily do a cross-country trip.
“We’re known for small, sporty cars, says Chris Hill, the 2’s vehicle line manager. “We already own this space. There’s opportunity out there
. . . a sense that opulence is out, sensible is in.”