2011 Mazda2: Invigorating for a subcompact

November 16, 2010, 12:44 AM UTC

One of the benefits of being a voter for end-of-the-year car awards is the opportunity to drive automobiles that ordinarily wouldn’t find a place on my schedule.

With the interests of Fortune readers top of mind, I don’t look for a seat in too many hot hatches or heavy duty pickups.

But the responsibility of a juror is to get a first-hand impression of all the nominated vehicles, regardless of class. So in addition to the techno-laden Audi A8 and fiercely-feline Jaguar XJ driven this season for North American Car of the Year honors, I found myself in the custody of a reduced-to-the-essentials Mazda2.

The 2 has four doors, four wheels, and a leather-covered steering wheel. After that its similarity to the other conveyances just about ends.

The Mazda has one quarter of the horsepower and about half the heft of the two aforementioned vehicles. Its transmission gets by with four gears instead of eight, and its 15-inch wheels are shopping-cart-size by comparison. Of course, with those economy-sized helpings comes an economy-sized price: $16,235 to start; $17,185 with delivery charges. Six Mazda2s equal one Audi A-8.

Truth of the matter, I often get more fun out of driving a subcompact like the 2. My connection to the car is more direct and immediate; I feel like I am in command of the vehicle rather than vice-versa. There are fewer ways to make a mistake in a car that has a top speed of only 100 miles per hour and takes a long time to get there.

Not all subcompacts are entertaining, though. Some are nothing but dreary econoboxes, stripped of passion as well as punch. The Chevy Aveo comes to mind.

Not so the Mazda2. The interior is attractive and functional without being spartan. Two adults banished to the rear seats made no complaints. The exterior is fresh and adventurous, if a bit too extroverted for my taste. And I would lose the Crystal White Pearl paint on my model that screamed “Florida rental car.”

Driving the 2 is invigorating, while not quite up to Mazda’s usual zoom-zoom standard. The steering is precise and responsive and the ride-and-handling is nicely balanced. The 2 is light on its feet and feels like it enjoys being driven.

Don’t misunderstand me. Any car that takes longer than 11 seconds to get to 60 miles an hour won’t be mistaken for a speed demon. Upshifts come with shocking urgency after you accelerate. But the car feels faster than the numbers indicate.

The big disappointment is fuel economy. At a time when cars like the Chevy Cruze can claim 42 miles per gallon on the highway, a rating of 9 miles less than that for the 2 should embarrass Mazda’s famed engineers. In a year that featured the introduction of the all-electric Nissan Leaf and the gas-and-electric Chevy Volt, it is going to be difficult for any car with a conventional drivetrain to make a breakthrough.

But I look forward to finding more subcompacts like the Mazda2 nominated for car-of-the-year honors. In the future, we’re all going to be driving smaller cars, so by getting involved with them now instead of waiting, we can learn to appreciate their virtues and help speed their development.

Got to work on that mileage, though.