While our test car's Spirited Green hue was in itself a little over the top, look past that and this little hatchback is tastefully styled inside and out, and that goes a long way toward feeling the part of a hotter hatch even if it isn't. The Mazda2's pert, upright stance, low front end; and its simple hatch design with plenty of window space is a refreshing departure from the cavelike claustrophobia you'll find in some other small cars.
Inside, the Mazda2's instrument panel is simple, and essentially a more stripped-down version of the dash of the Mazda3 (and Mazda5); its trims seem chosen to establish a dark, somewhat sporty feel; and its appointments seem unabashedly anti-luxury.
Econo-car specs, yet more fun
The Mazda2 comes with old-school econo-car specs, including a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine that makes just 100 horsepower and 98 pound-feet of torque. While that sounds like a downer, consider that the Mazda2 weighs only about 2,300 pounds. Yep, it's actually quite sprightly with the five-speed manual gearbox, as we had it. There are two conditions to that, though: Firstly, you need to keep the revs up; let them slip much below the 2,500-rpm mark and it's happy maintaining but just feels like it's bogging down in any attempt to accelerate. Secondly, if you want to be quick, we'd advise keeping your right foot buried in it until you pass the 4,000-rpm torque peak. Despite quite a bit of noise, from there on up to the 6,000-power peak is where you need to keep it.
Obey those rules, and the 2 is a dream to drive, thanks mainly to its stellar manual gearbox. In everything from clutch takeup to shift linkage, it hits all the right sensory marks, and with the gears spaced right, helping you keep the revs up, you won't necessarily need or want more power.
A blast to drive at low speeds
Drive the Mazda2 enthusiastically in tight corners, and you won't be disappointed, because of quick, responsive steering (electric assisted) that actually feels physically attached to the tires. Thanks again to that great steering feel and how buttoned-down the suspension feels at low speeds, powering out of a corner in second or third gear is way more fun than it should be.
There are a few indicators that the Mazda2 isn't altogether so sophisticated, though, and they come out when driving the 2 at higher speeds, or if you're not so smooth. There's lots of fore-and-aft motion, and stomping on the gas in one of the lower gears, braking rapidly, or just shifting quickly will leave the nose diving down and back up. Being a very short, rather tall car with mushy tire sidewalls probably doesn't help. Pedal feel for the brakes also is by no means like that of the Miata, or Mazda's sportier cars.
And while we're on the subject of down sides, packaging isn't so stellar. Front seats is about what you'd expect in a car in this class; they're rather spongy and unsupportive, though there's plenty of space for most adults. In back, an average-height adult will fit, but you don't free up nearly as much space as you think you might by folding the back seats; they don't fold as nearly as those of the Honda Fit. And throughout the interior of our Mazda2 Touring, the grippy, contrasting fabric felt good and looked great but proved a magnet for lint, as well as stray pet fur from coats and trousers.
Packaging, interior materials leave lots to be desired
Plastics aren't any better than those in the Mazda3 and Mazda5, which is to say that there's lots of hard and hollow. The center console—if you want to call it that, as it's more of a plastic tray that's bolted to the floor includes some useful bins—but it looks easily scratched (and actually was in our test car); the buttons for central locking, oddly, are down on that console plate, looking almost like an aftermarket installation.
Our Mazda2 included far more steering-wheel controls than is customary for a car of this price (and league), though, including sound-system volume and mode buttons, plus those for the trip computer and cruise control. Switchgear felt satisfying, if not upscale.
Mileage was certainly no disappointment either. Over about exactly 100 miles of driving, mostly zippy stop-and-go driving around town, at low speed—probably as most Mazda2s will be used—we averaged 31 mpg. Considering we drove with right foot to the floor for some of it, that's very impressive: 2 mpg better than the EPA city rating of 29 mpg and the best real-world city-driving average we've seen from a gasoline-fueled non-hybrid in a long, long time. The closest I can recall is the 33 mpg overall, in city driving, we saw in a Toyota Yaris a couple of years ago.
Good mileage, zippy feel could overcome drawbacks
Overall, it's a matter of what you want out of a small car. At $16,430 for our test Mazda2 Touring, you could get a larger Mazda3 sedan (though the 3 hatch costs more). And if you're the type of small-car shopper who doesn't buy into the Mazda2's zippy driving feel, this little hatchback might feel a little too much, from the inside, like what small car used to be: a little drab, and a little too basic. But in contrast to blander-driving small-car options like the Yaris, or the Nissan Versa or (outgoing) Chevrolet Aveo, the Mazda2 has surprisingly many attributes in common with the MX-5 Miata sports car: In addition to an excellent manual transmission and great steering, you feel like you're moving quickly in the Mazda2, only if you actually study the speedometer's movements you're really not. We really like that.
For more pictures, details, and related news, see our full review on the 2011 Mazda2.