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2011 Mazda 2: Fun relief for soaring gas prices

Interior room is impressive for such a small car
by: JAIME VALDEZ The cute, fun-to-drive Mazda 2 proves some compacts don't require
sacrifice anymore.

First the good new about the 2011 Mazda 2: It is a well-made, fun-to-drive small car that averages an EPA estimated 32 miles per gallon.

Now the bad news: You're going to need it - or something like it - in the near future.

Crude oil prices increased 9 percent on the day our bright green test car arrived because of turmoil in the Middle East. Experts were predicting gas could soon hit $5 a gallon before we returned it a week later.

The last time oil prices shot up like that in 2008, many automakers were caught off guard. A lack of economy cars helped push Chrysler and General Motors into bankruptcy. In contrast, sales of the high-mileage Focus helped keep Ford solvent.

This time around, buyers looking for better mileage have more choices than ever. But there are some trade-offs. The all-electric Nissan Leaf is only available to those who signed up early for the pilot project. Chevrolet's extended-range Volt won't be in showrooms until fall. Hybrids still cost more than equivalent gas-powered models. The same is true of the new generation of clean-diesels.

So for many consumers, the best choice may be a high-mileage gas-powered car like the Mazda 2. It is one of the new subcompacts that are beginning to hit the market. Others include the Ford Fiesta, which share mechanical parts with the Mazda 2, and the upcoming Fiat 500.

Subcompacts first gained widespread popular during the Arab Oil Embargo of the mid-1970s. Most were hard to live with over the long haul, however. They tended to be slow, cramped and sparsely equipped. Few people are seeking out AMC Gremlins, Chevrolet Vegas and Ford Pintos today.

In contrast, the Mazda 2 can be sold on its own merits. The styling is hip, the interior is roomy, the seats are supportive and the performance is - well, not exactly fast but zippy around town and able to maintain freeway speeds without straining.

The only available engine is a 1.5-liter inline four with 16 valves and Variable Valve Timing. It produces 100 horsepower and 98 foot pounds of torque. That doesn't sound like much, but it is more than enough for the approximately 2,300-pound Mazda 2, especially when equipped with a five-speed manual transmission like our test car. The available four-speed automatic would undoubtedly feel slower, but it would still be faster than the older subcompacts.

The Mazda 2 really shines around town, where it can easily weave in and out of traffic. The engine revs freely and the manual transmission shifts smoothly, allowing drivers to easily handle elevation and speed limit changes. Though not as short as the iconic Smart ForTwo, the Mazda 2 can squeeze into the smallest parking spaces. It also boasts a real back seat that can even accomodate six-feet tall passengers. Cargo space under the rear hatch is also surprisingly ample, even with the rear seats folded up.

The styling is more aggressive than the mechanically similar Fiesta, especially the signature smiling grill found on that characterizes most of Mazda's line up. If anything, the grill looks better on the Mazda 2 that the other vehicles because the rest of the car is so cute.

Despite the similarities with the new Fiesta, the Mazda 2's suspension is very different. Ford has somehow managed to engineer a soft ride into its version of the subcompact. Mazda engineers went with a firmer and sportier suspension, which makes their version more fun to drive. Some buyers might think it is too hard, however. Although we never found it jarring, the CD player occasionally shipped over bumps and potholes.

The interior of the Mazda 2 is also plainer than that in the Fiesta. Ford is clearly aiming at buyers of traditional American cars, while Mazda has established a youthful following with its compact Mazda 3 and small Miata sports car. The interior of the Mazda 2 is not cheap, however, just simple. Out test car included a leather-wrapped steering wheel and height-adjustable driver's seat.

Despite the relative sparseness, the Mazda 2 is loaded with such high-end features as a 12-volt power outlet and an auxiliary audio input jack. Safety features include dual front and side curtain airbags, and stability, traction control and anti-lock braking systems.

Despite potentially soaring gas prices, it is unclear whether drivers are really willing to embrace subcompact cars, however, especially when some of the new compacts and even midsize models offer improved mileage. The roominess, personality and quality of the Mazda 2 help convince potential buyers that a small car does not have to mean sacrifice, however - especially when the price starts at around a mere $14,000.

• Model: 2011 Mazda 2.

• Manufacturer: Mazda.

• Class: Subcompact.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five door, five-passenger car.

• Powertrain: 1.5-liter inline 4 (100 hp, 90 lbs-ft).

• Transmissions: Five-speed manual; four-speed automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 27/33; 29/35 (as tested).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $15,000 ($16,185 as tested).