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2011 Mazda2

Prices: $13,980-$15,435

MONTREAL --  Sporty Mazda needs its new Mazda2 hatchback sedan to capture more entry level young drivers on limited budgets.

The front-drive four-door Mazda2 was fittingly introduced at a media preview in Montreal because Mazda sells a huge number of cars in Canada. In fact, Canada has the largest Mazda dealer in the world. It sells more than 5,000 Mazdas annually.

It seemed that Montreal area roads were swarming with Mazdas, something not seen throughout most of America. Still, when the Mazda2 was introduced in Montreal, the automaker’s U.S. sales for the first five months of 2010 totaled 97,481 cars and trucks, up from 86,652 in the same 2009 period.

Mazda admits it will never have the sales volumes or advertising firepower of larger Japanese rivals. But the subcompact Mazda2 is up against the Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa and Honda Fit—not to mention the new Ford Fiesta and other upcoming small cars from larger competitors..   

The bigger (compact-size) Mazda3 is popular among younger buyers who want a European-style sporty feel—something Mazda instills in its vehicles. (Spell “zoom-zoom.”)

But the Mazda2 is significantly lower priced than the Mazda3. The Mazda3 is by far the automaker’s top seller and goes from $15,295 to $23,195. The Mazda2 lists at $13,980 for the base Sport version and at $15,435 for the upscale Touring. (Mazda figures that half of Mazda2 buyers will order the Sport.)

Despite competitive prices,, the Mazda2 is well-equipped. Even the Sport’s standard items include air conditioning, tilt steering, AM/FM/CD with MP3 capability, intermittent rear window wiper/washer, 60/40 split fold-down rear seats, 55-series tires on 15-inch wheels and power windows, door locks, mirrors and remote keyless entry.

The Touring adds alloy wheels, upgraded seat fabric with red piping, a somewhat overlarge rear roof spoiler, leather-wrapped wheel with controls for audio and cruise control and six-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3 player. Oh, and there’s also a chrome exhaust tip.

A four-speed automatic transmission is optional for $800 for both versions, while a five-speed manual is standard. Why only a four-speed automatic, when some rivals have automatics with more speeds? Because Mazda says the four-speed works better with the engine, preventing “hunting” between gears.  

Mazda wanted to keep its new car simple—and lower priced—so you can’t get a sunroof.

Lots of accessories add weight, and Mazda pulled out all the stops to make the Mazda2 light to keep it nimble and highly fuel-efficient. Even door speakers got a 50 percent weight reduction.

At 2,306 pounds, the manual-transmission Mazda3 actually is lighter than Mazda’s small MX-5 Miata two-seat sport car.

It once was  believed that heavy cars “held the road better.” But lighter weight results in “superior acceleration, handling, stopping and fuel economy,” said Chris Hill, vehicle line manager of product planning and strategy for Mazda North American Operations.

The Mazda2 delivers an estimated 29 mpg in the city and 35 on highways with the manual and 27 and 33 with the automatic.

Although the Mazda2 doesn’t weigh a lot, it has ultra-high-strength steel and plenty of  safety equipment, some of which is found on more expensive cars.

For example, standard for both versions of the car are stability control/traction control, anti-lock brakes with brake force distribution and brake assist for surer stops, front seat side air bags and side air curtains. There’s also “Triple H” body construction for more rigidity and a crushable brake and accelerator pedal assembly.

The Mazda2 also is the first Mazda vehicle in North America with Mazda’s Brake Override system, which prioritizes the brake pedal over the accelerator pedal, should both be engaged simultaneously, allowing a safe stop.

Powering the new Mazda2 is an advanced 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine with 100 horsepower. It roars when asked to work hard at high revs when you floor the accelerator, especially with the automatic. But it’s hooked to a nice clutch and does especially well with the  five-speed manual transmission. However, a shift from fifth to third is needed for the best 65-75 mph passing time.

The  automatic is fine in town but causes mediocre 65-75 mpg passing, which sometimes requires planning ahead to make a safe high-speed pass. The engine seems especially loud at high revs with the automatic.

The quick, fuel-saving electric steering has a nice feel. Handling is good, although there’s some body sway during quick maneuvers and when snaking through curves. The ride is OK, partly because the wheels are pulled to the far corners of the body for a longer wheelbase. Braking action is nicely progressive.

Mazda says the Mazda2 mainly will be occupied  by only one or two persons, so it concentrated on the front-seat area. The rear seat area is tight, especially when a 6-footer is behind the driver, who has a seat that should slide back a bit more.

The speedometer and tachometer can be easily read, although the trip odometer is hard to see in sunlight. The climate system controls are large, while the smaller radio controls are just  OK. The interior has upscale touches, but contains lots of hard plastic that is painted to look better than it really is. The cockpit is generally quiet, although a windy day brought out considerable wind noise at 70 mph on freeways.

Nice touches include large outside door handles and nicely sized outside mirrors, fairly large door pockets and an interior indented area in the hatch to help pull it down without getting hands dirty on outside sheet metal. Also, rear headrests flip down when not in use so a driver’s rear vision isn’t obstructed.

The cargo area is deep, and rear seatbacks fold forward and sit flat to enlarge the cargo area.

The heavy lined hood is held open by an old-fashioned prop rod. But the hood has an interior lining to help absorb engine noise—and the under-hood layout is surgically neat.

The Mazda2 is the kind of small, sporty car expected from Mazda and promises to significantly increase sales. But it’s in a tough market segment projected to become larger and tougher.