First Drive

2011 Mazda2

Diminutive Zoom-Zoomer already proven around the globe – was voted World Car of the Year

Mazda Mazda2 2011

MONTREAL, QC ·

Interesting times ahead for small car lovers. Both Ford and Mazda are bringing in a new sub-compact car that will compete for our attention and dollars.

While they started life together, when Ford sold the majority of its Mazda shares to generate much-needed cash during the recent financial meltdown, the connection was all but severed. The two development teams were free to go their own ways and the products we will get in the coming months, while visually similar, are quite different and built at different plants · Ford's Fiesta in Mexico and the Mazda2 in Japan.

Mazda is going down the 'less-is-more' road · with a lower price than the Ford and less weight, for good performance and fuel economy from a less-expensive drivetrain.

There are also some philosophical differences at play. The Mazda3 is, at times, the best-selling car in Canada and Mazda has no interest in cutting into these sales with the Mazda2, so it has kept pricing of the new car below the Mazda3 · in the $14,000-$18,000 range, which is where the larger model starts.

Ford, without a small car that sells in any great quantity, is positioning the new Fiesta as a small car with everything, hoping it attracts a new set of customers to the Blue Oval. While the Mazda3 comes in five-door hatchback style only, Ford will offer both four-door sedan and five door hatchbacks with a stripped entry-level four-door at $13,000 but the rest of the models in the $16,800 - $19,000 range.

The Mazda2 also wins the weight battle coming in at 1,043 kg, about 50 less than the Ford. Mazda engineers went at weight reduction with a vengeance, knowing that in order to keep the ·zoom-zoom· the little car it would have to offer pretty impressive agility.

Of course, lower weight means the engine doesn·t have to work as hard and that means less fuel burned and fewer emissions out the tailpipe. The trick is removing weight without diminishing either feel or safety.

These engineers have a proven track record in that field. You need look no further than the best-selling sports car of all time · the Mazda MX-5, nee Miata · which boasts world-class handling prowess thanks to minimal weight, but comfort and features worthy of much larger vehicles.

Weight savings in the Mazda2 came everywhere from the wiring harness (2.9 kg), latches and hinges (2.5 kg) to the speakers (50% lighter) and suspension (12.7 kg).

Despite its flyweight status, the Mazda2 drives like a larger and heavier car with pleasantly reactive and linear responses to the controls. Turn the wheel and you get immediate feedback and action. Press down on the throttle and the engine responds quickly with no excessive tip-in. Apply the brakes and the retardation begins immediately. All of this is accomplished without making the car feel twitchy or hyper-active. Zoom-Zoom lives.

Being the lightest vehicle in the class did not mean sacrificing safety. The Mazda2 meets or exceeds all current and planned regulations. It comes with six airbags, ABS and electronic stability control as standard equipment. More than 50% of the body is made from high strength steel.

This is not the first small car for Mazda. It has been selling one called the Demio, Mazda121 or Mazda2, depending on the market, for more than a decade. The Mazda2 coming to our shores is based on the third generation of that car, given a fresh face and additional safety and standard equipment for the North American market. Weighing 30% less, yet offering increased occupant protection, it was first introduced in 2007 and earned World Car Of the Year honours the following year.

The Mazda2 features incredibly short overhangs at both ends giving it the highest wheelbase to overall length ratio in the class. By pushing the wheels so far to the extreme there is more space between for people and the long wheelbase enhances the ride quality. The Mazda2 has the greatest amount of front seat legroom in the class yet a pair of adults can be accommodated in the rear seat.

The 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine produces 100 horsepower and 98 lb-ft of torque. While these numbers are diminutive, so is the weight. With maximum torque available from 2,500 rpm the little engine allows the lightweight to behave like a much more powerful car.

It also boasts some pretty attractive fuel economy numbers · 5.6 litres/100 km on the highway and 6.8 in the city.

A five-speed manual transmission is standard and a four-speed automatic optional. Naturally, performance is better with the manual. Just as obvious is the need for a couple more ratios in the automatic in the next generation.

The Mazda2 will come in GX (13,995) and GS ($18,195) trim levels. Standard equipment on all includes ABS, electronic stability control, 15-inch wheels, power windows, mirrors and locks and tilt wheel.

The only options are the automatic transmission ($1,100), air conditioning ($1,195) and a convenience package ($895) consisting of heated mirrors, remote keyless entry, steering-wheel-mounted audio and cruise controls, audio and trim upgrades. The GS model gets the convenience package, alloy wheels, automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers, air conditioning, and further audio and trim upgrades.

Mazda is also going to offer a number of personalization items, including a rack that fits into clever slots in the roof, and a number of decal packages called ·skins· are available to dress one to your personal preference. They can be removed or replaced as the mood strikes, or fades. Expect them to cost about $400 - $500.

As increasingly tough standards come into effect, car companies will have to sell a lot of small cars to keep their corporate average fuel economy and emissions within the regulations. If they are anywhere near as pleasant as the Mazda2 this won't be a hardship.

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