Pros: Great handling; cool paint colors; clever styling

Cons: Small rear seat and cargo area; limited high-tech features; 4-speed automatic transmission

Mazda wisely decided to bring its fun and frugal Mazda2 stateside just in time to join the subcompact revolution. Long held in high regard by the youth of Europe, the Mazda2 is smaller and less substantial than the Mazda3, appealing to budget-minded drivers who want something that is fun to drive and somewhat cool. The Mazda2's bright color palette and funky shape help it get noticed.

Dig a little deeper, and the Mazda2 starts to come up short, especially in cutting-edge audio and communications technology, which is so important to younger buyers. Looking for a compact car that can interface with an iPod or stream music? The Mazda2 can do neither, and the Kia Rio 5-Door, the Ford Fiesta and the Hyundai Accent all have these features. Drivers also want good fuel economy, but not at the price of decent power. The Mazda2's 100-horsepower engine is one of the weakest in the subcompact arena, and its four-speed automatic transmission isn't exactly state of the art.

These might be minor nitpicks for this segment. The Mazda2 scores big in affordability, cuteness and economy and fills the bill for those if seeking basic transportation with a fun-to-drive streak. But if you desire a high-mileage small car with big-car high-end features, there are better choices.

Comfort & Utility

For such a compact car, the Mazda2's interior is surprisingly roomy and open. The dash's circular motif is repeated in the instrument cluster, dash vents and audio system. This styling was common on Mazdas a few years ago, notably on the RX-8 and Miata, and it works well here. We especially like the orange instrument backlighting, which shows up well in bright sunlight and is easy on the eyes at night.

The hard plastics don't impress, something you might expect at this price point until you take a spin in a Ford Fiesta, a Chevrolet Sonic or a Kia Rio 5-Door. It's also a fairly monochromatic layout other than a hint of color from bright red seat piping on the Touring model.

The Mazda2 has comfortable seating to front-seat passengers, but rear legroom is lacking, and luggage space is a measly 13.3 cubic feet (compare that with 17.8 cubic feet in the Nissan Versa and nearly 21 cubic feet in the Honda Fit). If you're not carrying additional passengers, the Mazda2's rear seats can be folded down to create a larger cargo space.

Technology

The highlight of the Mazda2's technology roster is its voice-activated Bluetooth hands-free phone system. Other than that, the electronics list is pretty vanilla, with a six-speaker audio system and a single CD player, an auxiliary input jack, and steering-wheel-mounted controls offered on the Touring model. There's no navigation system, no backup camera, no cool foot well lighting - just the basics.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The 2012 Mazda2 is powered by a 1.5-liter engine good for 100 horsepower and 98 lb-ft of torque, not the most powerful engine around but peppy. We prefer (and recommend) the five-speed manual with this car which offers a sportier, dare we say almost Miata-like, driving experience. Because of its fifth gear, the manual transmission allows the engine to rev a little lower at high speeds. The four-speed automatic doesn't do much for us performance wise. However, we imagine a good number of Mazda2s will go out the door so equipped. Fuel economy with the manual is rated at a very impressive 29 mpg city/35 mpg highway, while the automatic attains slightly lower marks of 28/34 mpg.

Safety

If you worry that a car as small as the Mazda2 might not be a safe choice for kids heading off to college, you can rest easily. Mazda equips every Mazda2 with front and front side impact airbags, side curtain airbags and electronic traction and stability control. In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety testing, the Mazda2 scored well in offset frontal and roof strength but earned only an "acceptable" rating in the side-impact test.

Driving Impressions

If this review gives you the idea that we were not overwhelmed by the Mazda2, let us correct you: All complaints about lackluster audio technology and limited cargo space wither away once the Mazda2's ignition is engaged. The little Mazda is all about zoom-zoom, with a willing and responsive engine and a great manual gearbox. The Mazda2's taut suspension is both agile and forgiving over harsh pavement, and the steering is so precise that we purposely went out of our way to find winding back roads and legal U-turns.

We did notice that the Mazda2's interior is somewhat noisy at highway speeds, especially the four-speed automatic transmission, which makes the engine rev higher than the five-speed manual.

Other Cars to Consider

Honda Fit - The Fit offers more interior room than the Mazda2 and can be equipped with navigation and a backup camera, but we think the Mazda2 feels more sporty and agile than the Fit.

Nissan Versa - When it comes to interior roominess, the Versa is king. Plus the Versa can be equipped with an inexpensive navigation unit and push-button start. However, the Versa lacks the Mazda2's coolness factor.

Kia Rio - The Rio 5-Door offers more power, better fuel economy, more high-end features and a better warranty than the Mazda2 but has slightly weaker long-term resale value.

Ford Fiesta - The Fiesta is as cool as the Mazda2, offers Ford's SYNC communication system and has a much more upscale interior. The Fiesta also gets better highway mileage, yet has a more powerful engine.

AutoTrader Recommends

If a low price is your first priority, go with the Mazda2 Sport. If you're willing to spend a mere $1,500 more, get the well-equipped Touring model, which has 15-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, a six-speaker stereo and upgraded cloth seats. Unless you deal with constant stop-and-go traffic, we'd recommend the manual transmission over the automatic.

author photo

Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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