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car review

2011 Mazda2Guy Spangenberg/Spangenberg Phot

Small cars are hitting the road in record numbers; rising fuel costs and climate change are driving the shift. But when it comes to shopping for a small car it can be overwhelming.

The choices are endless - there's the Fiat 500, the Ford Fiesta, the Nissan Versa, the Honda Fit and the Toyota Yaris, to name a few. One of the newest subcompacts on the market is the 2011 Mazda2, a practical hatchback with an affordable price tag.

The Mazda2 was first introduced in Europe, Japan, and Australia back in 2007. Since then it has won dozens of awards including Car of The Year in Japan, New Zealand, Chile, Bulgaria and Greece. In 2008, it captured the coveted World Car of the Year award as well. And now Canadians know what all the fuss is about.

The 2011 Mazda2 comes in two trims - an entry-level GX and a top-level GS. Prices start at $13,995 for the GX model, which was my tester. The base model is well equipped with standard features such as power doors, power windows, power locks, tilt steering and countless safety features including ABS with electronic brake force distribution, dynamic stability control, traction control, side curtain airbags, front-seat side air bags, and child safety seat anchors in the rear seat. Air conditioning isn't standard on this trim - it costs $1,195.

My tester also has a convenience package, which is $895. The price won't break the bank and it adds some nice items such as heated door mirrors, remote keyless entry, steering-wheel-mounted cruise control and audio controls.

The top GS trim starts at $18,195 for the five-speed manual transmission and includes everything on my test vehicle plus 15-inch alloy wheels, a roof spoiler, fog lights, air conditioning and rain-sensing windshield wipers. But personally, I'd stick with my GX tester. With all its goodies including an automatic transmission and air conditioning, it costs $17,185 as tested.

Powering my tester is a 100-horsepower, 1.5-litre, four-cylinder engine. A five-speed manual transmission is standard; an optional four-speed automatic transmission costs an extra $1,100. Personally I'd go for the manual; my tester's four-speed automatic feels somewhat outdated, especially when compared to the competition. The new Fiat 500, for example, has a more responsive six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters, which is way more fun to drive.

Still, the Mazda2 is compact and sportier to drive than a Toyota Yaris or Nissan Versa. It has quick steering and an excellent turning radius that makes three-point turns a thing of the past. It's no speed demon, but it's not meant to be.

It's a practical grocery getter with enough power to merge onto the highway with faster-moving vehicles. Plus, the fuel economy will leave you smiling every time you fill up at the pumps. My tester is rated at 7.5 litres/100 km city and 6.0 highway. If you want better savings, go for the five-speed manual transmission, which is rated at 6.8 city/5.6 highway.

From the outside, the Mazda2 has a sporty wedge shape with short body overhangs. It comes in seven colours including some attractive shades called true red, aquatic blue and spirited green. You can also personalize your hatchback with body-side decals dubbed Mazda Skins. The decal graphics come in four themes including pop/mainstream, rock/indie rock/alternative, urban/hip-hop/rap and speed/performance. I find them a little tacky - I'd save the cash and skip them altogether.

The interior of the Mazda2 is far nicer than you'd expect to find in a subcompact car - in fact, it raises the bar to a new level of refinement in the category. From the driver's seat, you feel like you're in a pricier Mazda3.

Silver accents on the steering wheel and gear complement the piano black on the centre of the instrument panel. Large, circular climate-control dials are easy to find and use, even in the dark. Everything is conveniently located all within the driver's reach.

The cloth upholstery on the seats is durable and strong. But the seats themselves aren't the most comfortable, especially on long drives. The driver's seat lacks sufficient lumbar support. The rear seats are tight and could use more padding for extra comfort, as well.

You can also drop the 60/40-split fold-down rear seats for a huge cargo area of 787 litres. With the rear seats upright, there's still ample space - 377 litres of room, which is larger than some mid-size sedans.

The new Mazda2 is a versatile hatchback that's perfect for a new grad or student who is making every penny count.

Tech specs

2011 Mazda2 GX

Type: Four-door, five-passenger subcompact hatchback

Base Price: $13,995; as tested, $17,185

Engine: 1.5-litre, DOHC, inline-four

Horsepower/torque: 100 hp/98 lb-ft

Transmission: Four-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.5 city/6.0 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Nissan Versa, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Ford Fiesta, Fiat 500