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2012 Mazda2 Road Test

The fun and frugal Mazda2 reminds us of what subcompacts used to be...and that's not always a good thing.

What It Is
Mazda's economical hatchback makes for a unique, Euro-style entry-level runabout.
Best Thing
The Mazda2 may look like an egg, but there's a simple charm and affability that draw you in. It's fun and fuel efficient.
Worst Thing
Mazda's smallest entry is greatly underpowered, and lacks some of the features and content of the similarly priced competition.
Snap Judgment
The 2012 Mazda2 offers a playful and efficient entry-level runabout, but falls short in some key areas.

"This is what we're driving?" my friend said I pulled up. He let a little laugh slip. Sometimes in this profession we get to drive some pretty neat cars. And occasionally, we'll pull up in a motorized Easter-egg removed from the set of "Alice in Wonderland." A few short-throw shifts and we were rolling out of Los Angeles, slowly. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon heading towards the coast; I felt as if we were the tortoise disembarking Noah's ark, and on all sides we were surrounded by wooly mammoths and elk. We were all similar, crawling on four-legs, but sitting in this little guy, we were humbled. Looking around the cabin my friend said, "I like this."

After our Automotive.com staff got to put the Mazda2 through our various Southern California commutes, I drove Mazda's lime-green econo-egg from Los Angeles up the coast to Santa Barbara, an idyllic university town and beach community, often referred to as California's Riviera. The pleasing route featured city streets, a long stretch on the Pacific Coast Highway, and even some traditional freeway driving. A few things became evident. The Mazda2 was a true Mazda: charming, economical, and fun. Other things were also clear. This was a Japanese car, meant for the European market, being driven in America. The quirky and good-natured styling is distinctly Japenese.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Mazda has long sought to differentiate itself from the pack with sportier driving dynamics and a promise of fun-to-drive cars, but consumer demands are changing. With fuel economy on the minds of many -- especially in the subcompact segment -- automakers are promising more efficient cars without compromising performance. With curious verve, we set out to see how the 2012 Mazda2 stacks up.

What We Drove

The 2012 Mazda2 is available as a four-door hatchback, and in Sport and Touring trims. The lone engine option is a 1.5-liter, four-cylinder capable of producing 100-horespower. The Mazda2 is available with a five-speed manual transmission, or a four-speed automatic transmission. We drove a Touring model paired with the five-speed. The entry-level Sport model paired with the five-speed starts at $14,530, while the Touring model we drove was priced at $16,820.

Features included 15-inch alloy-wheels, a leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel, power doors, and remote keyless entry. Safety equipment includes anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control; tire pressure monitoring; front-side airbags; front-side air curtains; and an anti-theft engine immobilizer. In IIHS crash test ratings, the 2012 Hyundai Accent received a "Good" rating, the highest possible, in front-impact and roof strength tests, and "Acceptable," the second highest in side-impact crash testing.

The Commute

There was a chorus of consensus among our editorial staff regarding the 2012 Mazda2: the hatchback was undoubtedly fun, almost toy-like. The shifter was like one out of a video game from your childhood, which not coincidentally was also Japanese. The short throws in the center-mounted shifter were fun, and the Mazda2 touted a certain quirkiness that we took a liking to.

There were reservations however. The 100-hp 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine was clearly not designed for American tastes. One can argue there's not much car to push around, and Mazda really targeted fuel economy here, but competitors such as the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio offer similar fuel economy while offering an astounding 38-hp more. In the world of entry-level subcompacts, 38-hp is like being an extra foot taller in basketball; it's not necessary to play, but it can make an immense difference. The puny engine was acceptable for street driving, but should freeway traffic call for a lane change, the lag-time and hesitation of the Mazda2 was a frequent and noticeable issue. Once you got rolling on the freeway things moved along smoothly, but getting up to initial speed was a minor challenge.

On the other hand, the cabin was simple and streamlined, but also sporty. The absence of clutter was welcome. The Radio was par for the class, the seats were comfy, there was enough room for four, but five was a tight squeeze. Despite its small stature, there was more room than one would assume. Fuel economy for the Mazda2 is rated at 29 mpg city and 35 mpg hwy, and most drivers will float just above a not-bad 30 mpg, but like we said, competitors offer similar or better fuel economy with heaps more power.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

The Grocery Run

Despite its diminutive stature, the Mazda2 will offer all the utility you need from a subcompact. You can fill the trunk with groceries -- in our case a couple of duffel bags fit without drama -- and should you need to store or transport larger objects, the rear seats are accommodating, and fold easily. There are lots of little storage compartments which come in handy for cell phones, sunglasses, change, iPods and the like.

While the Mazda2 is short on frills and cuts down to its econo-hatch roots, you can still run basic errands and get about town without a fuss. There are great advantages too; parking is a breeze and the Mazda2 can fit into even the most compact of spaces. Maneuvering in crowded and tight parking lots is also hassle-free. One note about the manual-transmission, while the shifter is relatively smooth, sticking it in reverse was a task. It required a fair amount of effort and a couple of editors noted that you were never really sure if the shifter was in gear. By contrast, the transmission on the Mazda Miata MX-5 -- one of our favorites -- didn't have this issue. So what's the deal with the 2?

The Weekend Fun

A weekend trip to Santa Barbara gave us a good window into what the Mazda2 would be like for a short getaway. Admittedly, I was excited to get behind the wheel and play with the fun shifter and light-on-its-feet Mazda2. Mazda's hatch sailed down the highway with ease, but if you came to a light or congestion, getting back up to speed always took longer than we'd like. The Mazda2 uses a no-frills gasoline engine -- no fancy fuel injection tricks or turbos here -- and we couldn't help wonder what the bigger engine from the Mazda3, with its Skyactiv technology, could do for a car of this size. While a car doesn't need to be especially fast or powerful to be fun -- and Mazda champions this theory as much as any automaker out there, if not more so -- there is a certain minimum level of power needed before the absence of such becomes a common nuisance.

Power aside, the Mazda2 handles beautifully. Once in the city, the nimble hatch took corners confidently, and generally performed as well as any car, if not better, in its class.

Summary

The 2012 Mazda2 is an economical subcompact hatchback, and the Japanese automaker's entry-level offering. We found the styling charming and affable, and the basic and streamlined interior comfortable and surprisingly roomy. The short-throw center-mounted shifter, while not as good as on other Mazdas, was fun despite a finicky reverse gear. The Mazda2 also handled well, and did offer a measure of fun not always present in the subcompact class.

But there are downsides, as well. The 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine is severely underpowered for the American market, with an output of only 100-hp; power that is especially missed on the freeway and during lane changes. While the Mazda2 returns good fuel economy, competitors such as the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio, offer better mileage with a substantially more powerful engine. Those cars offer more features at a similar, or slightly lower price. If the added power and features aren't necessary for your lifestyle, the Mazda2 may reward you with a more fun drive than the competition.

Spec Box

Price as tested: $16,820
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 29 mpg
EPA Highway: 35 mpg
EPA Combined: 32 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 361.6 miles per tank
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Average

Notebook Quotes

"Plenty of space on the driver's side for a car in this segment. Unfortunately, the competition has caught up and, in some cases, surpassed the Mazda2 in material quality and fit and finish. Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio, especially, have raised the quality and feature level." -Joel Arellano, Assistant Editor
"The Mazda2 does a lot right. But the engine is gutless. Positively gutless. Like you have to plan out your highway lane-changing in stop and go freeway carnage." -Jacob Brown, Associate Editor
"You could call it 'cheap,' but you could also call it 'honest.' I prefer the latter. And the Mazda2 feels really old-school, like those crap Subaru Justys, Ford Aspires and late-80s Mazda 323s. That's a good thing: it's light and tossable and just begs to be abused, and never feels like it'll fall apart. Lots of fun, but also practical when it needs to be -- and it feels nearly invincible." -Blake Z. Rong, Associate Editor
"The Mazda2 is an econo-box in every sense of the word, but that doesn't mean it's a bad car." -Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor
"It's not the best car in class, and it's definitely the weakest engine in the class. With the funky dash-mounted five-speed manual transmission, it might also be the loudest car in the class. Despite those things, it's certainly one of the most pleasing cars, and perhaps the most fun to drive." -Jason Davis, Associate Editor

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