When Mazda launched its micro Mazda2 this past summer, it rolled out right into the middle of a year in which subcompact sales were down more than 21 per cent - which must have caused a flutter in the tummies of those who signed off on adding it to the company's small car repertoire.
They must be pondering the question: Has an appetite for truly small automotive morsels really developed here, spurred by Canadians' attempts to curb their gluttony for gasoline and save the planet - or at least a few bucks in fuel costs? Or, now inured to paying more for gas, have Canadian car buyers decided to stick with the taste they've acquired for slightly bigger portions and higher caloric content offered by compacts?
Subcompact sales soared earlier in the decade, peaking in 2008, but they tumbled to 108,000 in 2009 and continue to skid this year, likely to a predicted 90,000-plus total. Compact sales, meanwhile, are basically on the downside of flat, while still accounting for the largest chunk of passenger car sales here.
With subcompact market growth suddenly appearing to have all the substance of a wishful thought, and with about a dozen auto makers now looking for a share, the segment has become a squabble of Lilliputian proportions, in which finding profits might prove elusive. Hard to keep up with car buyers who panic one day and get over it the next, isn't it?
Still, the auto industry's rush to provide tinier modes of transport has given Canadians access to the latest and greatest in diminutive automobiles from around the world. And these cars do make a great deal of sense for many in our increasingly urbanized society.
And the Mazda2, introduced in other parts of the world in 2007, is with perhaps one exception, a state-of-the-small-car-art, with features unheard of in this class in the past.
It was impressive to find antilock brakes, dynamic stability and traction control and front/side/side-curtain airbag systems, a brake override system that prioritizes brake over throttle if both are applied together. Plus power mirrors, locks and windows, tilt wheel and a reasonable CD/MP3 audio system in the base GX five-door, which arrived this past summer priced at $13,995.
Step up to a $18,195 GS and you add alloy wheels, sill extensions, a spoiler, fog lamps and a chrome exhaust finisher, plus auto headlamps, air conditioning, a leather-wrapped wheel and a couple of extra speakers.
The test GX came fitted with options many buyers would consider essential: air conditioning ($1,195) and automatic transmission ($1,100) plus a $895 package that included heated mirrors, remote keyless entry, steering wheel mounted cruise and audio controls, outside temp gauge, trip computer and some interior and exterior trim items to dress it all up a bit. Add in destination charges and you'd pay $18,580 for this GX.
The Mazda2 may not be very big (555 mm shorter than the Mazda3 hatchback), but offers plenty of style, and room enough for four inside - though rear seating should limited to those with shorter legs - along with 377 litres of space behind the split rear seatback and 787 litres with it folded.
The interior doesn't look at all low rent with silver trim, that leather-wrapped wheel and red piping on reasonably supportive front buckets.
On the mechanical side, the formula is tried and true. A 1.5-litre, four-cylinder engine makes 100 hp and 98 lb-ft of torque, driving the front wheels via a five-speed manual or optional automatic.
The latter is only a four-speed unfortunately that, while producing decently nippy performance, would definitely benefit from an extra gear. This would provide more go and economy plus added refinement. It's bit buzzy around town - you find yourself thrashing the engine a bit to keep up with traffic, revving it to 4,000-5,000 rpm frequently and prompting sudden surging downshifts - but quiet enough on the highway.
This transmission invokes a fuel economy penalty too with its ratings of 7.5 litres/100 km city and 6.0 highway, which the five-speed betters.
It's a perfectly viable, stylish little car - the tester came in a brilliant green - that suits an urban environment more than a suburban one where a larger compact might make more sense. But it faces plenty of competition for buyer affection.
2011 Mazda2 GX
Type: Subcompact, five-door hatchback
Base Price: $13,995; as tested, $18,580
Engine: 1.5-litre, DOHC, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 100 hp/98 lb-ft
Transmission: Four-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.5 city/6.0 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Ford Fiesta, Kia Rio, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Hyundai Accent, Nissan Versa