Mazda’s Cool $15,000 Subcompact Heralds New Little Gas-Sippers

About three inches long, the Mazda key fob has only three buttons -- door lock, unlock and a panic alert.

Touch a mechanism and the metal key flips out like a switchblade, adding a touch of cool.

Clever and compact, like the car.

Mazda’s new subcompact has five doors including the rear hatch, a neat trick compared to the current crop of portly sedans. It is three feet shorter and 1,000 pounds lighter than even the average-sized Honda Accord.

Yet the Mazda’s rear hatch stores nearly as much stuff as the Honda’s trunk (13.3 cubic feet versus 14.7), and offers far more storage (27.8 cubic feet) with the second row of seats folded.

Between a weak economy and federal gas mileage standards, the U.S. is primed for an influx of small cars. We’ll be seeing the cute Fiat 500 next year for around $15,500, as well as a bigger model from Mini, called the Countryman.

The Mazda 2 is already on sale, with the manual- transmission Sport model starting at $14,730. The better- equipped Touring model I tested came to $16,185. A four-speed automatic transmission is available for an extra $800.

Mazdas are blessed with personality, a quality which escapes many economy brands. From the CX-9 SUV down to the Mazda 3, they share excellent steering, a dose of quirkiness and savvy use of space.

No Clone

While the 3 hatchback is a personal favorite, the 2 is not simply a clone that’s undergone a magical shrinking ray. It’s got its own character.

Boy, is it tiny. Its rear wheels are shoehorned underneath the back bumper, maximizing the length of the wheelbase and access to the rear door, but also giving it a tilted-forward look that reminds me of a wheelbarrow.

Many buyers dislike hatchbacks, and the cause isn’t helped by Mazda’s signature “smile,” on the front grill, a design oddity I hope goes away.

So while it doesn’t necessarily read adult, the Mazda does broadcast fun. My test car was a flashy neon green, which set off the bright red taillights to best effect. This car would fit right into the merchandise at Target stores -- smart design on a minimal budget.

Even if it looks like a toy, it doesn’t drive like one. Hard to believe when you find that the 1.5-liter four-cylinder wields only 100 horsepower and 98 pound-feet of torque.

Go Loud

Coupled with the five-speed manual, it winds right up to the 6,300-rpm redline, sending it scrambling down the road. You have to be aggressive to get the best out of it, but that’s part of the fun. For such a small thing, the engine is loud, whirring happily as you wind through the gears.

The suspension shines. Many cars with short wheelbases ride harshly when cornering on rough asphalt. When I rammed around sharp corners carrying too much speed, the 2 gamely stayed true to my driving line while still feeling smooth.

The big upside to the tiny engine and light weight is the mileage. I saw 34 miles per gallon in mixed driving. The official estimates are 29 city, 35 country. A hybrid powertrain is not the only way to efficiency.

Of course in any subcompact you have to give up something, and that something is leg room. In the driver’s side, I felt boxed in. I positioned my seat further back than I would normally so that my knees weren’t rammed against plastic. Marathon drives for those over six-feet would be an issue.

Clever Space

It isn’t claustrophobic, though. Part of that comes from clever use of space. The stick shift sits on its own pedestal high on the center console, allowing for open air between the driver and passenger.

What it doesn’t have are a bunch of slick, electronic amenities. You can forget about navigation systems and seat heaters. They’re not even offered.

The big ticket items for the interior include a cargo net ($40), and an auto-dimming rear mirror with a compass for $295. Fancy!

I got an FM stereo, a CD player (who uses them anymore?) and a switch to turn off the stability control. Oh, and A/C, of course. And...that’s about it. You can control the trip computer screen via buttons on the steering wheel.

I envy the lucky teenagers who are invariably going to end up with this car. With front, side and curtain air bags and standard stability and traction controls, it will satisfy parents and keep their kids in the cool cliques.

And if you don’t know how to drive a standard, it’s a great stick to learn on. Not that you have to be under a certain age to drive the 2.

The 2011 Mazda 2 Touring at a Glance

Engine: 1.5-liter four-cylinder with 100 hp and 98 lb-ft of torque.

Transmission: Five-speed manual.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in about 9 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 29 city; 35 highway.

Price as tested: $16,185.

Best feature: Great steering, good gas mileage.

Worst feature: A bit cramped.

Target buyer: Teens or the young at heart.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com or follow on Twitter @JasonHarperSpin.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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Photographer: Guy Spangenberg/Mazda via Bloomberg

The front view of a Mazda 2, with the manual-transmission Sport model starting at $14,730.

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Photographer: Guy Spangenberg/Mazda via Bloomberg

The front view of a Mazda 2, with the manual-transmission Sport model starting at $14,730. Close

The front view of a Mazda 2, with the manual-transmission Sport model starting at $14,730.

Source: Mazda via Bloomberg

The rear view open hatchback of a Mazda 2. Close

The rear view open hatchback of a Mazda 2.

Source: Mazda via Bloomberg

The interior of a Mazda 2. Close

The interior of a Mazda 2.

Photographer: Guy Spangenberg/Mazda via Bloomberg

The exterior of a Mazda 2. Close

The exterior of a Mazda 2.

Photographer: Guy Spangenberg/Mazda via Bloomberg

The rear exterior of a Mazda 2. Close

The rear exterior of a Mazda 2.

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