2012 Mazda MAZDA2 Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
February 20, 2012

With a zippy driving feel and good real-world gas mileage, the 2012 Mazda2 really stands out among entry-level vehicles.

With the introduction of the new Mazda2 subcompact last year, Mazda filled a gap in its small-car lineup--but it didn't lose touch of any of its 'zoom-zoom' ethos here. If you opt for the manual gearbox, the 2012 Mazda2 ranks as one of the most fun-to-drive small cars.  

The 2012 Mazda2 remains related to the Ford Fiesta, but it has completely different powertrains, interiors, and design attributes. 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. Otherwise, what you get inside is closer to what you'd expect; it's a bit dark--and unabashedly anti-luxury--but the instrument panel is delightfully simple and clean.

The Mazda2 comes with old-school econo-car specs, including a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine that makes just 100 horsepower. While that sounds like a downer, consider that the Mazda2 weighs only about 2,300 pounds. While it's sluggish with the automatic, it's actually quite sprightly with the five-speed manual gearbox. And the sound and feel of the engine isn't nearly as thrashy or breathless as much of the competition. Factor in the great steering feel and how buttoned-down the suspension feels at low speeds, and you have a small car that's a lot of fun to drive in the city.

Inside, the Mazda2 is a little tight for taller folks; its feature set, whether in Sport or Touring, is basic; and its interior is nothing special. But there's all the flexibility and utility you could ask for in a car with this kind of footprint and fuel economy. The Mazda2 rides pretty well, but one aspect we don't like so much is that its short wheelbase and suspension tuning allows quite a bit of fore-aft motion when shifting or braking. Also, interior materials aren't as bad as those you'd see in stripper base models of a few years ago, but there's still lots of hard and hollow trims.

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Safety features are all that you'd expect in a low-priced small car, and crash-test ratings have come back mostly good for the Mazda2, though the IIHS gave it an 'acceptable' score in side impact.

Mazda has deliberately kept its options and pricing simpler than Ford's elaborate array of choices. There are just two Mazda2 models—Sport, and for $1,455 more, Touring—in only six colors.The base Sport model includes air conditioning; power windows, mirrors, and locks; remote keyless entry; a four-speaker single-CD stereo system with MP3 input; tilt steering wheel; 60/40-split folding rear seat; and rear-window washer and wiper. The Touring model includes 15-inch alloy wheels, red piping on upgraded cloth upholstery, fog lights, roof spoiler, chrome exhaust tip, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, a trip computer, and a six-speaker stereo system.

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2012 Mazda MAZDA2

Styling

The flowing, coherent form of the 2012 Mazda Mazda2 makes a small car look bigger, sportier, and more solid than its size would indicate.

Now several years old, the lines of the subcompact 2012 Mazda2 are simple, neat, and coherent. The sculpted front and rear ends lead to lines that flow graciously around a wide, sloping greenhouse to define the middle of the car. Even a modest version of Mazda's notorious death-rictus grin in the front end doesn't spoil this neatly defined small car.

The Mazda2 looks stable, solid, and sporty because the eye sees a car that looks lower and wider than it really is. We find its lines more pleasing than the Ford Fiesta with which it shares its basic structure; to our eyes, the Fiesta's abruptly truncated rear end and bulging headlights produce some odd looks from many angles.

Visually, only a few differences separate the base Sport from the high-level Touring package. The most notable are the alloy wheels on the high-end model; the painted metal wheels with plastic wheel covers on the entry model harken back to an early day of econobox cheap. Inside, the Touring adds red piping on the seat upholstery, and there's also a spoiler on the tailgate.

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2012 Mazda MAZDA2

Performance

On tight, twisty roads, the 2012 Mazda Mazda2 ranks among the best handling of all small cars, despite its meager 100 horsepower--just make sure you take advantage of all the power on tap.

All 2012 Mazda2 models are fitted with the same 100-horsepower, 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine. It's a high-revving unit, requiring drivers to keep their foot into the accelerator to move along expeditiously. The five-speed manual gearbox makes this easier to do, as long as the driver doesn't mind revving the engine above 3,500 rpm. The four-speed automatic has such wide ratios, however, that it tends to default to engine speeds just a little too low to provide reasonable acceleration on demand--and it doesn't offer any manual shifting or paddle options either.

The real "zoom-zoom" comes in the handling; behind the wheel of the Mazda2, you'll think you're driving a lower, wider vehicle than the one you're actually in. The chassis is beautifully balanced, the suspension is firmly sprung but well damped, and even the electric power steering gives the impression that the Mazda2 is a hot hatch in disguise. It even competes well against that benchmark of hatchback handling, the Mini Cooper. The little Mazda offers lots of grip despite its small, narrow 195/50 tires, and the entire car exhibits balance and poise no matter what kinds of roads you throw it into. It's as happy in high-speed sweeping turns as it is on bumpy switchbacks at a fraction of the pace.

The engine doesn't have a lot of power to spare, despite the Mazda2's impressively light weight, so you'll find the car is most rewarding when it's driven energetically. If it just loafs around town--especially if it's fitted with the automatic--it won't be nearly as much fun.

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2012 Mazda MAZDA2

Comfort & Quality

The 2012 Mazda Mazda2 is inexpensive without being cheap, but it offers comfortable seats and appears quite well screwed together.

Despite its small exterior, the 2012 Mazda2 offers good legroom for four adults--but they'll be much happier if none of them is more than 6 feet tall. Occupants of that height will max out the headroom, even in the front seats, and taller front occupants will have to adjust the front seat to the point where only small children will fit behind them. The subcompact Mazda2 is actually close on interior space to the larger compact Mazda3, surprisingly.

The interior is nice-looking but doesn't impress one way or the other, with supportive and comfortable seats up front. The fabric is hardly premium, but the texture goes beyond plain old cloth, and the red piping in the Touring model adds an unexpected touch of color. Still, the Mazda2 may be best used as a two-person vehicle, with the rear seat folded flat to offer maximum load space.

Fit and finish suits the least expensive car in Mazda's lineup. It's built to be inexpensive, but not cheap. The plastics feel durable, but hardly look stylish, and they keep the cabin quiet and free of rattles, squeaks, and groans. The likely buyer is either a college student or first-time car owner, and a cost-conscious one at that, who won't mind the deliberate omission of polish and panache in the interests of efficiency and low purchase price.

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2012 Mazda MAZDA2

Safety

The 2012 Mazda Mazda2 has the usual suite of safety systems, and received decent--if not top-of-the-list--safety ratings from the IIHS.

The 2012 Mazda2 hasn't been crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the car its top rating of "Good" for its frontal-offset crash and roof strength tests. The IIHS only rates it as "Adequate," however, for side-impact and rear-crash protection.

The littlest Mazda includes the usual suite of safety systems that are now virtually standard across all sizes and types of cars: electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes, and a brake override system. It has front and side airbags for front-seat occupants, and side-curtain bags that cover the window openings for both front and rear passengers.

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2012 Mazda MAZDA2

Features

The 2012 Mazda Mazda2 delivers the basics, in just two models and six color choices, keeping it simple and inexpensive.

The 2012 Mazda2 is Mazda's smallest, least expensive model. And it's kept the options list short and the pricing simple, with just two models offered in only six colors.

The base model, known as the Sport, offers standard remote keyless entry; power locks, windows, and mirrors; air conditioning; a rear-window washer/wiper unit; a tilt-adjustable steering wheel; a folding rear seat with a 60/40 split seat back; and a single-CD audio system with MP3 input and four speakers. The one slightly grim note is the 15-inch steel wheels--increasingly a rarity these days--with plastic wheel covers.

Add another $1,500 or so to the sticker and you move up to the Touring model. That replaces the steel wheels with 15-inch alloy wheels, and upgrades the sound system to six speakers. There's also an added trip computer, and a host of appearance and trim items. Those include a roof spoiler, front fog lights, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with built-in audio controls, nicer cloth upholstery with red piping, and even a chrome exhaust tip.

If you want to add navigation or Bluetooth to either model, you can buy Garmin and Motorola aftermarket items directly from your Mazda dealer. And that's about it.

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2012 Mazda MAZDA2

Fuel Economy

While the 2012 Mazda Mazda2's gas-mileage ratings aren't at the very top of the list, it will likely do better in real-world usage--making it almost as fuel efficient as some hybrids.

The EPA gas-mileage ratings are right on the money for most cars, but our experience indicates that the 2012 Mazda2 may exceed its rated numbers in real-world use--which makes it a little greener than expected.

According to the EPA, the Mazda2 gets 27 mpg city, 34 mpg highway when it's fitted with the four-speed automatic. Opt for the five-speed manual--which is probably more "zoom-zoom," to be honest--and those numbers go up to 29 city, 35 highway. For the latter, that's a combined 32-mpg rating. But our road tests indicated that the number may be closer to 35 mpg, even if you drive it energetically and flog it around.

Why so thrifty? The Mazda2 is light--very light. In fact, it weighs less than the current Miata two-seater, tipping the scales at a slender 2,300 pounds. Mazda calls the process it used the "gram strategy," meaning it shaved weight wherever and whenever possible, from every component. That saves raw materials, and it reduces the amount of fuel that needs to be burned to move it all around.

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Styling 8
Performance 8
Comfort & Quality 6
Safety 7
Features 6
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