Dec 10, 2008

Mazda 2 Review 2011

Consumer Guide's Impressions of the 2011 Mazda 2

First it was no. Now it's go. The 2008 World Car of the Year is headed for America, promising high mpg and a "zoom-zoom" personality. But the Mazda 2 faces a tough fight in the subcompact-car arena, not least from corporate cousin Ford Fiesta.

What We Know About the 2011 Mazda 2
It's the subcompact car that rates 40 miles per gallon on the European combined driving cycle and is getting rave reviews. Indeed, it beat out the Mercedes-Benz C-Class to win 2008 World Car of the Year honors. Yet despite an admirable resume, the Mazda 2 wasn't slated for U.S. sale. Officials here said the car was too small and likely not profitable enough. But that was last year, before Americans were hit with record gas prices and started buying smaller, thriftier vehicles like nickel beer. Now those same officials have apparently decided they really do need to supplement their in-demand Mazda 3 compacts, so the 2 will come here after all as the "zoom-zoom" alternative to the Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, and other increasingly popular fuel-sipping minis. Sources expect it in 2010 as a 2011 model.

Mazda is the Japanese affiliate of Ford Motor Company, and the 2011 Mazda 2 will share a European-designed front-wheel-drive architecture with Ford's 2011 Fiesta subcompact. The original Mazda 2 was a Japanese design that appeared some years ago as a rather uninspired tall-body 4-door hatchback. The car coming Stateside is the much sleeker second-generation that launched in Japan, Europe, and other world markets during 2007 and added sporty 2-door versions in early '08. The new Fiesta is just rolling out in those same areas, but won't start U.S. sale until early 2010, probably several months before the Mazda. And where the Ford will also offer 4-door sedans, the 2 is strictly hatchbacks. In addition, the Mazda is sourced from Japan, while U.S.-market Fiestas will come from Ford's plant in Cuautitlan, Mexico.

The 2011 Mazda 2 also goes its own way in styling and powertrains. Where the similarly sized Fiesta gets a crisp "technical" look via Ford Europe's "kinetic design" language, the 2 is flowing and "organic," exemplifying the "flow" theme highlighted by recent Mazda concept models. Elements include a curved nose with a prominent five-sided Mazda grille, headlights pulled back into rounded fenders a la Mazda's RX-8 sports car, a rising window line, a prominent lower-body "swoosh," and a tail ending mere inches behind the rear wheels. The result, we think, is attractively purposeful. It should go down well with the "millennial" crowd.

Despite earning praise for a surprisingly spacious five-seat interior, the 2011 Mazda 2 stands 8.5 inches shorter and some 2 inches lower than the redesigned 2009 Honda Fit, while matching it for width and wheelbase. More importantly, a trim 2,100-lb curb weight should make it the lightest subcompact car on the U.S. market apart from the teeny two-seat Smart ForTwo. That's a good thing, as needless weight puts the hurt on fuel economy, carbon emissions, and acceleration. See "Notable Feature" below for details on the 2's weight-watcher development.

Speaking of efficiency, trade weekly Automotive News reports that Mazda plans to replace all its current gasoline engines within five years, substituting new powerplants that get better mileage via direct fuel injection and stop/start capability. The U.S.-market 2011 Mazda 2 could be an early outing for this technology.

The 2 is currently sold elsewhere with a quartet of existing Mazda-designed 4-cylinder engines: a gasoline 1.3-liter available in 74- and 83-horsepower tune; a 102-horsepower 1.5, and a 67-horsepower 1.4-liter turbodiesel. What's coming to America is unclear, but we see a new 1.6-liter gasoline four as the likely choice for performance, fuel economy, and emissions reasons. And as it could easily produce 120 horses and that many lb-ft of torque--our estimates, mind--the 2 would nicely trump Fit and other class rivals. That might include cousin Fiesta, which is slated for different, all-Ford engines. While the stop/start feature would technically make the 2 a "mild hybrid," we don't rule out a future "full hybrid" that can run short distances on electricity alone. We also think a turbodiesel option has a shot at U.S. sale, if only because Mazda is a feisty outfit that takes pride in solving engineering challenges.

Whatever the final engine or engines, the U.S.-market 2011 Mazda 2 will almost certainly have a standard 5-speed manual transmission, with a 6-speed option possible. The available automatic should be the conventional 5-speed unit already offered elsewhere. The rest of the car should also change little for Stateside duty. That means front-disc and rear-drum brakes with available ABS, electrically assisted power steering, 4-wheel independent suspension with front struts and a simple twist-beam rear axle, and front and curtain side airbags.

As for options, the 2011 Mazda 2 should list air conditioning, power windows, remote power locks, and other expected conveniences, but don't look for weighty items like motorized seats or a power sunroof that would detract from performance and fuel economy. Because the 2 will undoubtedly be pitched to younger first-time buyers, many options will be geared to that audience. That probably means things like alloy wheels, cloth upholstery mimicking sportswear fabrics, a thumping audio system, and connections for cell phones and MP3 players.

With all this, the 2011 Mazda 2 promises to be one of the more entertaining mini-misers on the U.S. scene, yet no less practical than most rivals. Assuming Mazda can deliver it at the right price and in sufficient numbers, it's hard to see how it can miss.
A Notable Feature of the 2011 Mazda 2

Automakers everywhere are being pressured to reduce fuel consumption and exhaust emissions; lightening up is one of the best ways to do both. It's the same with people. Losing pounds helps you look and feel better. But "adding lightness" to a car is no easier than dieting or working out. Not only does it cost money, it's at odds with crash safety requirements. That's one reason so many vehicles get larger and heavier with each redesign, a vicious cycle that certainly won't go on much longer.

The redesigned Mazda 2 has already changed course by weighing a substantial 220 lb less than the car it replaces, this despite little change in overall size. What's the secret? Call it a case of one thing leading to another. It starts with a unibody that uses 40-percent more high-strength steel than before. That allows structural members to be thinner and thus lighter versus regular steel without compromising rigidity or crash performance. Aiding the cause is a steel brace linking the front strut towers, an item usually reserved for pricey high-performance cars. Less mass, in turn, allows using lighter brakes, suspension components, and other underbody hardware. The new model's electric power steering, for instance, weighs less than a conventional hydraulic system. Analyzing the rest of the car enabled engineers to shave more pounds and in surprising places. For example, the redesign trimmed 6.4 lb via a shorter wiring loom and another 2.2 lb by substituting neodymium for ferrite in the stereo speakers.

Of course, there's a point of diminishing returns with any weight-watching regimen, but the new Mazda 2 doesn't go overboard, judging by European road tests. Indeed, it has earned high marks for quietness, ride comfort, and handling versus many competitors. It's also worth noting that Mazda's slimming program doesn't resort to expensive measures like aluminum body panels or carbon-fiber seat shells. After all, affordability is a must in the entry-level class, which is why small cars are typically so straightforward in materials and engineering.

Buying Advice for the 2011 Mazda 2

America's 2011 Mazda 2 will likely boast the same refinement, ride comfort, and handling that have won plaudits overseas. High fuel thrift should be another plus, though it remains to be seen whether U.S. models will match the excellent 40-mpg European rating. That will depend on the engine or engines available here. So, too, performance, though we expect that to be at least class-competitive; Mazda says the current 1.5-liter model does 0-60 mph in a little over 10 seconds. Jaunty "zoom-zoom" styling and hatchback practicality will also help seal the deal for some shoppers.

Still, it's always wise to consider alternatives, especially now that subcompact cars are breeding like mosquitoes in mileage-minded America. Besides the redesigned Honda Fit, buyers should also consider the Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, and Suzuki SX4, all of which rate Consumer Guide Best Buy status. Other fuel-thrifty prospects are the Nissan Versa, arguably the class "grown-up," and the Toyota Yaris, which appeals for its strong brand name. And then there are the new kids, such as a rumored U.S. version of the small VolkswagenPolo, a redesigned 2011 Chevrolet Aveo--and the Mazda 2's corporate cousin, the 2011 Ford Fiesta.

That's a lot of choice, and so maybe confusing, but Consumer Guide can help you sort out the field, both here online and in the pages of our Car and Truck Test magazines. One final point: Subcompacts often price for only a bit less than larger compact cars, and one of those might be a better solution, depending on your needs and budget. Needless to say, choices there are also multiplying.

2011 Mazda 2 Release Date: There's nothing official yet, but we'd look for sales to begin in the third or fourth quarter of 2010.

2011 Mazda 2 First Test Drive: Some U.S.-based journalists have already driven Euro-market Mazda 2s, but obviously not U.S.-market models. That opportunity probably won't come until spring or early summer of 2010.

2011 Mazda 2 Prices: Though it's too early to know for sure, the 2011 Mazda 2 may well price slightly above most class rivals. Much will depend on final U.S.-model manufacturing costs and standard equipment, plus interim developments in the world economy. All things considered, we'd look for stickers in the $14,500-$16,500 range.