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2010 Mazda2 (Guy Spangenberg/Spangenberg Phot)
2010 Mazda2 (Guy Spangenberg/Spangenberg Phot)

2011 Mazda2

Pint-sized car with big ambitions Add to ...

Ruben Archilla, Mazda's North American group manager for research and development, looks squarely at me, trying to read my mind. So, you are thinking, he says to me, "Is he (Archilla) really going to tell me a 1.5-litre B-car is 'Zoom-Zoom?'"

Oh, these Mazda types. They simply cannot resist any opportunity to haul out that decade-old Zoom-Zoom tagline - even now, after Mazda has fired Doner, the suburban Detroit agency Mazda retained in 1997 that developed Zoom-Zoom. Oh, yes, the timing is a bit awkward for Mazda, what with the launch of two key new models: the 2011 Mazda2 this month ($13,995 base price) and the Mazda5 wagon/minivan at the end of the year.

Yet Don Romano, Mazda Canada president and CEO, as well as Mazda's chief marketing officer in North America, says Doner was cut loose because "we felt that a new marketing communications partner would assist us in achieving our short- and long-term North American sales goals."

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One of those goals is to sell some 20,000 Mazda2s in Canada. The 2, of course, is the 1.5-litre B-car - a subcompact or what they call a "super-mini" in Europe - that Archilla argues is plenty zoomy. Yes? Really? A pint-sized five-door hatchback with an itty-bitty 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine spinning up a whopping 100 horsepower? Zoomy?

Not just zoomy, as in quick, responsive and lively, but fuel-efficient, too, argues Archilla. Key to all of it is a weight-loss plan Mazda calls "Gram Strategy." In a nutshell, Mazda engineers have gone through the 2 (or the Demio as it's known in Japan) piece by piece, stripping out excess fat wherever possible.

At 1,046 kg, the Mazda2 is 101 kg lighter than the 2011 Ford Fiesta hatchback also going on sale this month. That matters because the two cars share the same basic engineering platform, though suspension tuning, steering, features and design (inside and out) are unique to each.

Let's not overlook the engines here, either. The Fiesta's 1.6-litre four-banger makes 120 hp, which means it has 20 per cent more juice on tap than the Mazda2's 1.5-litre. Archilla argues that because the 2 has less weight, it's more fulfilling - from a performance perspective.

Romano, meanwhile, is quick to take a shot at the Fiesta. His 2, he says, is a better value. Period. By nearly $3,000. How so? If you want the Fiesta five-door, the starter sticker is $16,799. Romano is selling a comparably equipped car for $2,804 less. Not identically equipped, mind you, but close.

Ford's strategy is to position the Fiesta hatch as a slightly premium B-car, where Mazda is taking dead aim at the very heart of the bargain runabout marketplace. Here you're looking at five-doors such as the Toyota Yaris ($14,920 base), Honda Fit ($14,480 base), Nissan Versa ($14,198), Chevrolet Aveo ($13,950) and Kia Rio5 ($14,095).

Mazda's 2 and the Fiesta are new nameplates to Canada, while these others have been around for years. But elsewhere in the world, the 2 and the Fiesta have been around for decades. This Mazda2 coming to Canada is the fifth-generation Mazda2 B-car, meaning it's been re-styled and re-engineered five times. The generation rolling into Canadian showrooms was originally launched in 2007 and won the 2008 World Car of the Year award.

Thus, the product presentation here in Montreal seems a bit odd. Most of what Archilla and his frères are Power Pointing has to do with a car that won car-of-the-year honours two years ago. But as Archilla points out, the North American version has a bigger centre console tray than others sold around the world, along with a built-in hardware setup for a roof rack and a standard electronic anti-skid system.

On top of that, even the most basic car has power windows, door locks and mirrors, tilt steering, a decent CD stereo with iPod jack, intermittent rear wiper/washer, 60/40 split fold-down rear seatbacks and cute little 15-inch steel wheels with proper wheel covers.

If you want air conditioning (AC) in the base GX car, add $1,195. If you want to step up to the $18,195 GX, the extra money gets you AC, heated door mirrors, a four-speed automatic transmission, cruise control, two more stereo speakers (for a total of four) and some other odds and ends.

Point is, the car is fairly and competitively priced. And Mazda officials say they plan to have a new leasing program in place that will be able to offer shopper a monthly payment well under $200. The Mazda2, then, lands in the sweet spot of the entry-level, Generation Y world.

In fact, Mazda Canada expects one-quarter of buyers to be Gen Ys, or Millennial - the group who come after the Generation X gang made famous in Douglas Coupland's book of that name. These are buyers Mazda believes will fatten up the B-car market in the coming years. Mazda Canada product strategist Bert Lanctot says Bs will grow from 13 per cent of the passenger car market now to 17 per cent in 2014.

So it's about time Mazda got in on some of this action.

"For 15 years, our dealers have been complaining about the lack of a B-car," says Mazda Canada public relations director Greg Young, noting that the last Mazda in this space, the 323, went away in 1996. The Mazda2 is a much better looking car.

Its cutesy shape catches looks, what with the shapely rump and the interesting detailing around the rear three-quarters. Might it be considered a little girly? Maybe, but what super-mini mightn't be? However, with the right wheels, paint, decals and various add-ons, the Mazda2 can look quite macho.

Case in point: the $3,195 Yozora edition. Yozora means "night sky" in Japanese, which explains the brilliant black exterior finish. Add in a decal package on the front driver's side bumper and fender, the rear spoiler, short stubby antenna, chrome tailpipe and 195/45R16 Toyo Proxes T1R performance tires mounted on contrasting silver and black 16-inch alloy wheels, and you have something that Mazda argues looks downright "fierce."

Looks and image aside, the 2 seems to be a well-considered package. It's not as utterly utilitarian as the camper-like Honda Fit, but the folding seats and a decent cargo hold have enough space. The front seats are decently roomy, but it's the back row from which you'll hear grumbles from full-size adults - especially if those in the front buckets have pushed their seats back at all. Visually, the "organic" curves of the exterior are echoed by a dashboard that's neat, contemporary and logical. No complaints.

As for the greasy bits, the basic suspension - MacPherson struts in front and a space-efficient, cost-effective torsion-beam axle in the rear - aren't fancy, but they do the job in city traffic.

The five-speed gearbox is crisp and positive, though clutch take-up is long, which means it's easy to cook the clutch when starting on a hill. The all-electric power steering is sharp and communicative, too. The 2 is no Mini Cooper, but body roll is checked pretty well in the corners and the softish spring rates make highway ride quality more than pleasant.

Really, this is a sharp little ride, one well equipped, cute and quite enjoyable to drive. Mazda seems to have nailed the pricing and the brand's image will also pull in some of those Millennials.

Zoom-Zoom in a B-car? Sure, why not?

2011 Mazda2

Type: subcompact five-door hatchback

Price range: $13,995-$18,195 (plus $1,395 freight)

Engine: 1.5-litre four-cylinder, DOHC

Horsepower and torque: 100/98 lb-ft

Transmission: five-speed manual and optional four-speed automatic

Drive: front-wheel drive

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.8 city/5.6 highway using regular fuel.

Alternatives: Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Chevrolet Aveo, Kia Rio5.

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