Cheap and cheerful. It s not a Cartoon Network show, this is a term used in the auto industry for inexpensive cars. Building a profitable budget vehicle could be the toughest task an automaker has since it demands taking content out while somehow keeping the car appealing. Luxury cars are where car companies make their money.

Some find the cheap and cheerful term accurate and descriptive, others consider it derogatory. The sobering fact is that today more than ever it s tough for the average Joe and Jane to buy a car. Many are just happy with reliable transportation, a simple luxury that basic rides provide. Cheer is icing on the cake.

Mazda2 will never be confused for an S Class. Starting at 15 grand it is cheap, or if you d rather, inexpensive. There are option packages on premium cars that cost more than this car. Cheerful? You bet, just look at that grin of a grille. It s not as prominent as big brother Mazda3 but the Cheshire Cat would be proud. The flowing sheet metal is as graceful as a small car gets.

Measuring 22 inches shorter than the 3 it is a petite ride. While Americans aren t keen on small cars Mazda2 is what people are looking for these days, fuel efficient, practical and affordable. Mazda feels confident they can move 20,000 copies a year. Done up in Spirited Green Metallic, it must be particularly appealing to Kermit the Frog.

Not Affected By Peer Pressure

There s a trend in the industry to take small cars upscale, offering fancy stuff like leather seating, navigation and premium sound systems. Mazda2, will have none of that. My tester is a top line Touring model that goes for $16,400 with destination. Want to swap the 5-speed manual for a 4-speed automatic? It s the only main option and it ll set you back $800. Choose any interior trim as long as it s black cloth with red stripes.

For the extra $1,500, Touring adds 15 alloy wheels, cruise control, better sound system, leather wheel, fog lamps, a rear spoiler, trip computer and that must-have feature, a chrome exhaust tip. Standard features for all 2 s include power for the mirrors, door locks and windows, air conditioning with pollen filter, 6 airbags and electronic traction and stability control.

Mazda2 has just one engine choice, a 1.5 liter 4-cylinder that makes 100 horsepower. That s not much but Mazda obsesses about keeping the car lightweight using what they call the gram approach . If they can shave any weight at all off of a part it s gone. By using more carefully placed welds, the engineers shed 6 pounds. Every little bit helps. It s nearly 300 pounds lighter than it s cousin the Ford Fiesta so while the 2 has 20 fewer ponies, it s actually a tick faster with the 5-speed manual.

How Fast Is It?

Not very. 0-60 comes up in just under 10 seconds. It feels friskier though and the front-drive 2 is fun to toss into turns. I ve said it before and it applies here, sometimes it s more fun to drive a slower car hard. The diminutive 2 cheerfully dances through city traffic with ease due to its one-two punch of handling and size.

With a sturdy structure and nicely calibrated suspension, sharp bumps get dampened on the way to the seat of your Levi s. 2 s ride quality is a good balance sport and comfort, especially for a budget priced car. The EPA rates fuel economy at 29 city, 35 highway, average for a small car since these days Fiesta can do 40 MPG on the highway and the larger Chevy Cruze scores 36.

Mazda2 does best in the city where the cabin is quiet while dodging through crowded streets. Take it out onto the highway and the road noise rises a bit. Still it s quieter than the Fit. The light clutch action takes a little getting used to.

Basic But Not Cheap

The simple interior uses good quality materials. Unlike Fiesta the instrument panel is hard but hey, soft plastics aren t generally expected in this class. A small patch of piano black trim circling the sound system helps to spiff up the look. Switchgear feels fairly smooth and unlike expensive cars, an owner will never have to crack the owner s manual to find out how to tune the radio.

I put my evil twin in the back seat behind me and at 5 9 he has just enough foot and leg room to be comfortable. Good thing, evil and uncomfortable are a bad combination. Friends in back will have to fight over one cupholder, there s no storage in the door sides, no center armrest, no power port or any map pockets on the seat backs. Overall the back is a pretty spartan place.

That approach is continued to a lesser degree up front. No covered storage in the console that runs between the front seats. The steering wheel doesn t telescope (not a huge surprise in this class) and there s no sunroof option. No Bluetooth? Shouldn t that be standard in all cars now? A dedicated iPod interface is MIA too though the audio jack works just fine.

More Room Than A Sedan

I m a big fan of hatchbacks and wagons, they re much more useful than 4-doors when hauling stuff. This is the kind of car people leaving college buy when they don t want to worry about a used car s past. When furnishing the new apartment it will be a best friend on those inevitable IKEA runs.

With the split rear seats down the 2 has a bit of a lip to deal with on the floor but a bunch of medium sized boxes will fit fine. Since Fiesta and 2 share the same architecture it should come as no surprise that that both score a 4 in the TP Trunk Test with the back seat usable.

Other cars Mazda2 competes with are Nissan Versa, Suzuki SX4, Kia Soul, Scion xD and Lamborghini Diablo. Just seeing if you re paying attention. The 2 is a fun companion that likes to play in city traffic. It would be nice to have a few more option choices but then that s kind of defeating the purpose of its low price mission. If you want a good honest piece of transportation that s easy on the wallet and fun in the corners the Mazda2 might fit the bill. It s cheap and cheerful done right.

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