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2011 Mazda MAZDA2 Performance

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With the five-speed manual transmission you can keep the revs of the 1.5-liter, 100-horsepower engine up above 3,500 and have enough juice to keep things interesting, but it requires a good bit of stirring the gearbox. The wide-spread four-speed, however, invariably winds out one gear only to fall a bit too low in the powerband for the next. And there's no manual shift mode with the slushbox, either. Not very zoom-zoom.

The 2011 Mazda2 handles like it's lower and wider than it is, though. Between the firmly damped and sprung suspension, the well-tuned electric power-assisted steering (EPAS), and the incredibly firm and sorted chassis, the Mazda2 is a performer even in a segment that also holds the MINI Cooper, for many the benchmark in front-wheel-drive handling. The car is near-brilliant: balanced, lots of grip despite the small 15-inch, 195/50 aspect ratio tires and all-weather tread, and ready to tackle anything from a high-speed lightly banked sweeper to a hard, bumpy 90-degree right with agility.

The reason? It's light. Very light—as in, it weighs less than the second-gen Miata, clocking in at a svelte 2,306 pounds, a weight almost unthinkable in today's safety-obsessed marketplace. Despite the light weight, it's surprisingly quiet thanks to BMW-like chassis dampers placed at key harmonic points on the unibody.

Don’t let the 100-hp figure scare you away; especially with the manual gearbox, the lightweight Mazda2 is a surprisingly brilliant performer on tight, twisty roads.

The light weight was earned through careful attention to what Mazda calls its "gram strategy," shaving weight from every component possible. Altogether, those incremental gains save a lot.

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