Mar 052012
 

Note: This review was originally published on September 24, 2010 on my original WordPress blog.

Back in early spring of 2002, while I was still in college, I test drove a Mazda Protégé ES. The idea was to determine if Mazda’s then-new “Zoom-Zoom” marketing campaign was really representative of the cars it was selling. The answer, I found, was a resounding yes. I had a blast in that car. It handled great, had decent pep, and gave you all sorts of stuff standard that the Civic only offered as options — alloy wheels, fog lamps, trunk spoiler, etc. It was a lot of car for the money and, fair or not, it became the benchmark by which I continue to judge every Mazda I drive.

Despite setting the bar high, Mazda has generally done a very good job of meeting or exceeding expectations, in my opinion. I have been very pleased with the 3, the 6 and the MX-5 and I was downright impressed with the MazdaSpeed 3 when it hit the streets.

But Mazda is entering new territory in the U.S. market with the introduction of its new entry-level 2 model. The car looks like a winner on paper — the price is very competitive, the value for the money is high, and the power and gas mileage specs are right in line with other cars in its class.  The question, though, is whether it can do all of those things and still keep the “Zoom-Zoom” spirit of those other Mazdas.

To find out, I tested a manual transmission example in base trim. As I discovered, the answer is not a clear-cut yes or no.

At first glance, the 2 looks a bit like a Toyota Yaris. Whether this is a positive or not is up to the individual, but I think it looks sharp without being too far over-the-top. Both trim levels (base and Touring) get 15-inch wheels and Yokohama tires, but the base trim sports steel wheels with plastic covers, a substantial detraction in the looks department when compared to the aluminum alloys on the Touring.

Inside, Mazda has done an excellent job making the 2 feel minimalist without also feeling cheap. The seats are comfortable and surprisingly adjustable for a car in this class. Indeed, the ability to place the seat in the perfect spot makes up for the lack of a telescoping steering wheel.  There is no electronic climate control here, but the vents and controls are all solid, well placed and efficient. The stereo, likewise, is no earth shaker, but it gets the job done nicely. I found the placement of the auxiliary jack (at the front of the center console, below the shifter knob) to be especially convenient.

The front seats offer ample leg and headroom for drivers of pretty much any size. In fact I was surprised how much space there was above my head once I had the seat fully adjusted. The rear is about what you would expect, which is to say it’s small. A person of my size (5’10”) can fit comfortably, but anyone much bigger would have a problem. Some space can be gained by moving the front seats up, but that begins to compromise the legroom of the forward passengers and, well, you get the picture. The space isn’t bad for a car with a wheelbase of just 98 inches; just don’t expect to offer any rides to your son’s basketball teammates.

The cargo area is surprisingly small, however. The rear seats intrude into the space much more than I was expecting. Lowering the seatbacks increases the cargo capacity from 13 to nearly 30 cubic feet, but eliminates the rear passenger compartment. In short, if you and three buddies decide to go on a long road trip, you should all either pack light or take a different car.

The road, though, is where this car really belongs. The “Zoom-Zoom” mantra should indicate that, though it can do those other jobs when asked, this car is less about hauling people and stuff than it is about the business of driving. That essence permeates the driving experience, from the slick, solid shifter, to the tight, responsive steering and the perfectly spaced pedals. Everything is placed exactly where it should be and feels exactly as it ought to.

That is, until you stomp on the gas. At this point, the car reminds you that, although it sports a twin-cam four-cylinder motor, its 1.5 liters are only pumping out 100 horsepower and 98 lb-ft. of torque. The car is light (Mazda lists the curb weight of the manual transmission car at 2306 lbs.), but those are still very small numbers. Mazda says the 2 should hit 60 mph in just over 10 seconds, which is right in line with its power estimates. In actuality, the car doesn’t feel slow, per se. But from the driver’s seat, it feels like it should be faster.

Some of that is made up for in the suspension. It is no RX-8 or MX-5, but the 2 handles curves and corners like the lightweight that it is. The ride is surprisingly comfortable as well, and it would seem that Mazda has found an excellent balance between soaking up bumps and tackling turns in this small chassis. I would like to see something a little sportier than the Yokohama Avid S34F tires Mazda supplies as standard equipment on all trims, but I suspect they represent a compromise to achieve better fuel mileage and lower cost. All things considered, however, they performed respectably.

The brakes, though solid, feel like they should be doing much more. The use of drums in the back is the likely culprit and probably represents a similar cost-cutting compromise.

In case you missed it, compromise is becoming a recurring theme here. The car feels great to drive, but its actual performance often doesn’t match that feel. So are the compromises worth it?

Again, there is no clear answer. In terms of pure pricing, one could certainly argue that the answer is yes. The 2’s base price of $13,980 is nearly $1000 less than a base Honda Fit and the 2 has the added benefit of not resembling a minivan. And although it is about $1000 more than a similar 5-door Toyota Yaris, the 2 feels more like a driver’s car and less like an appliance. Despite the price differences, all offer relatively similar fuel mileage numbers.

But price and fuel efficiency are not the only factors here, and certainly not the key ones. Not when Mazda has staked its reputation on building cars worthy of its “Zoom-Zoom” credo, and it is here where the 2 falters. The essence is there, but it is simply too compromised to meet the performance-for-cost benchmark set by that ’02 Protégé and met its more recent brethren.

I don’t believe the 2 is beyond saving, however, and I will continue to hold out hope for a sportier update. For now, though,  it is one “Zoom” short of a complete package.

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