The world is getting smaller by the minute ... and so are the vehicles.
That's right, the tiny-car category is busy these days with vehicles such as the Mazda2 being imported from abroad. Borders are disappearing as automakers spread development costs across continents instead of mere countries.
The Japanese automaker's new subcompact is due to arrive in North America this summer, but a couple of Euro-spec versions recently made an early appearance on these shores, which is how we managed to log some precious seat time.
The Mazda2, which shares its basic platform with the upcoming Ford Fiesta, originally hit the road in Japan, Europe and Australia back in 2007. This makes sense since these regions -- the population that pays much more for fuel -- gobble up tiny cars by the boatload.
Here, too, you'll find the popularity of small, fuel-efficient vehicles beginning to increase in proportion to the price of fuel. In mid-2008 when pump prices were through the roof, sales of size-small models such as the Mini Cooper, Honda Fit plus other tiny runabouts significantly increased. But when gas began to drop, many buyers simply hung on to their old habits and mid- and full-size cars and trucks picked up steam at the expense of smaller and more fuel-efficient offerings.
Now, virtually every automaker building and/or selling vehicles in North America wants to be ready when the next price spike hits and part of that strategy includes having one (or more) gas-sippers in their fleet.
The Mazda2 will be the smallest and most fuel efficient model in the lineup.
Even in its overseas livery (the pictures here display the version we'll get), the Mazda2 is a stylish little hatchback, which will be the only available body style. That's too bad since Mazda also makes a four-door wagon and two-door hatch variants for other countries. Mazda's corporate smiley-face nose is much in evidence, along with neatly creased and curvy body panels and a fashionably sculpted tail.
Entry is through a set of wide front doors, while rear-seat access is a bit awkward (this is a small car, after all), but not a major impediment for average-sized adults.
Once, inside, there's more space than you'd expect. Taller drivers should find no major issues with foot, knee and elbow room, but full-size back-seaters will look to those in front to slide their chairs forward as far as they can.
The 60/40 split-folding rear bench doesn't fold completely flat into the load floor, but still manages to provide sufficient cargo room for luggage, camping gear and sports equipment, although a roof-mounted rack will be necessary for skis, bikes or other bulky objects.
The Russian-built Mazda2 that was imported strictly for demonstration purposes featured a well laid-out control panel, even though it was plasticky and trim deprived. You can expect Mazda to provide a dressier substitute for North American buyers when the car finally arrives from the plant in Mexico. The same goes for the seat fabrics, which were equally chintzy on the Russian car, although the seats themselves provided plenty of comfort.
The test vehicle's 1.5-liter four-cylinder powerplant, which is similar to the engine that will be fitted to the North American Mazda2, is rated at 102 horsepower and 101 pound-feet of torque. By our watch, getting to 60 mph from rest takes slightly more than 10 seconds, which is certainly leisurely.
A smooth-shifting five-speed manual transmission will be standard, but a four-speed automatic (one less cog than most of the competition) will be optional.
At highway speeds the Mazda2 proved buzzy, but not annoyingly so. Over bumpy back roads, the suspension helped the car maintain its composure, even while negotiating tight turns. The Mazda2 might be thrifty, but it is fun to drive.
Trim levels and pricing will be set closer to launch time, but you can expect it to start at about $15,000 with well-equipped models nudging the $20,000 mark.