Drafting is an auto racing art, the trick being to follow another car closely enough to take advantage of reduced air resistance, but not so closely as to crash into its bumper.
For the 2011 model year, this racetrack technique is wafting into the increasingly competitive space of subcompacts, a market segment that inspired yawns until two years ago when gasoline prices shot holes through consumers' wallets and got them thinking small.
FOR THE RECORD:
Mazda car review: A review of the 2011 Mazda2 subcompact in Thursday's Business section said the Toyota Yaris, whose mileage is rated at 36 miles per gallon highway and 29 mpg city, is the most fuel-efficient vehicle in the 2011 subcompact class. The 2011 Ford Fiesta has the highest rating for subcompacts at 40 mpg highway and 29 city. —
Take the Mazda2, an inexpensive new hatchback that's taking advantage of Ford's heavily marketed new Fiesta — a car that itself was following the success of Honda's capacious Fit and Toyota's bargain-basement Yaris.
Finally, this formerly inconsequential and blase segment is getting interesting as each model seeks to distinguish itself and add whatever value is possible to the most prized attributes of cars in this class: fuel economy and price.
Starting at $13,980, the Mazda2 isn't the least expensive subcompact. (That would be the Yaris, priced at $12,605). Averaging 35 mpg highway and 29 city, the Mazda2 isn't the most fuel efficient. (Yaris wins again, with 36 highway, 29 city). But the Mazda2 is the most fuel efficient car the Japanese manufacturer has made in the 40 years it's been peddling cars in North America.
What drivers get for the extra $1,375: a cheap thrill.
Before driving this five-door five-seater, I thought the most fun I would have was counting the pennies I'd be saving at the pump. What I found instead was a car with enough pep to keep me interested. The five-speed manual transmission was smooth without being anemic, and it engaged quickly enough that my left leg didn't get an unintended workout in traffic.
The Mazda2 was designed to attract the unostentatious, and that philosophy carries through to the 1.5-liter 4-cylinder engine, which was so quiet at idle that I wouldn't have known it was running had I not personally turned over the ignition.
That quietude was disrupted, however, on a gravel-strewn stretch of the 110 Freeway, where I heard the pinging ricochet of small rocks on the car's undercarriage. All the more reason to turn up the six-speaker stereo system on the touring version I was testing, which wasn't exactly Bang & Olufsen but nevertheless decent for a car this size.
While the technology in the Mazda2 cockpit is neither plentiful nor cutting-edge, it's smart in what it offers. There are steering wheel controls for the stereo and cruise control. Motorola Bluetooth is available as a visor-mounted, dealer-installed accessory, allowing hands-free phone calls.
Navigation equipment isn't standard, nor is it offered as an option or with a built-in screen. Rather, Mazda has partnered with Garmin and offers its Nuvi Navi as an accessory, the benefit being that plug-in units are less expensive and drivers don't need to bring their cars back to a dealer to update the maps. They can just plug into their home computers and download them.
I found the Mazda2 interior to be pleasingly simple, if Spartan. The dashboard panel was a trio of easy-to-read interlocking circles for the tachometer, speedometer and odometer/fuel gauge. And the center console of stereo and climate controls mirrored those rounded shapes into well-organized buttons — a simple task, really, since there aren't that many bells and whistles on this vehicle.
Mazda defines the Mazda2 very clearly as entry-level. The interior appointments aren't luxurious, but they also don't feel cheap. The seats are clad in textile. The color scheme is a simple black with silver accents.
To prevent a sales cannibalization of its Mazda3 sedan, Mazda has intentionally scaled back the amenities and available trims on the Mazda2, which comes in four-speed automatic and five-speed manual sport and touring versions.
It's only when you get to the Mazda3 sedan that more premium features, such as leather seats and moon roofs, are options or that you get more space to stretch out.
The smallest Mazda on the market, the Mazda2 is little, but it isn't minuscule. The leg and head room were ample enough for me as a driver. Slipping into the back seat, there was enough space even for those with long femur bones.
The most noticeably small component of the car was its alloy wheels, which are a scooter-esque 15 inches. They sometimes dance around on grooved pavement, trying to find their line.
While the Mazda2 is new to the U.S. market, it's actually in its third model year. Like other popular subcompacts, the Mazda2 was plucked from the global marketplace, where it has sold 400,000 units since 2007 in Europe, Australia and Japan. Mazda anticipates a doubling of small-car sales in the next three years.
Now in its second generation, the Mazda2 lost 220 pounds before its U.S. debut, which has helped not only with fuel economy but also with handling. Mazda has Americanized the car in other ways as well, adding cupholders, fine-tuning the suspension to be more responsive at slower speeds and tweaking its safety features.
Taking the Mazda2 to my usual stomping grounds — the Arroyo Seco Parkway and the battle zone of downtown L.A. — I felt agile, and, for the most part, safe.
The last thing drivers of small cars want is to lose an unintended battle with a large object. Traction control, stability control, anti-lock brakes and tire pressure monitoring are standard. So is brake override, a new system that gives priority to the brakes should the accelerator and brake pedals be pressed simultaneously.
Inspired by Toyota's sudden-acceleration fiasco, Mazda's brake override is debuting on the Mazda2 and will roll out to all other Mazda models by the end of the 2011 model year.
Mazda2 proves the adage: Good things come in small packages.