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2014 MAZDA2: Big smiles for a subcompact

No-frills Mazda2 drives like a Miata-in-training

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The Mazda2 GS package adds $3,850 to the price and includes alloy wheels, side-sill extensions and a rear spoiler.

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A monochromatic interior in the Mazda2 will remind enthusiasts of the MX-5.

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Perhaps you've noticed the glut of subcompacts popping up on the Canadian new car market lately, despite the continuing popularity of the next-size-up compact cars and crossovers.

The desire to attract buyers who would normally shop used-car lots and to offer a vehicle to lower corporate fleet fuel-consumption averages are two of the main reasons automakers have been breeding new subcompacts like rabbits.

Most of these tiny cars are nothing more than alternatives to public transit -- basic transportation with about as much driving excitement as a moving sidewalk. Yet there's one subcompact hatch that's been making driving enthusiasts happy since it debuted in 2007 in Europe and 2011 in Canada: the Mazda2.

Along with the Mazda CX-9 mid-size crossover, the front-wheel-drive, five-passenger, four-door Mazda2 is one of the last Mazdas co-developed with Ford -- in this case, the Fiesta. Because of this, the small hatchback does not receive the Japanese automaker's Skyactiv fuel-saving technologies nor its new Kodo design language.

While you can get a 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage for as little as $13,948 (all prices include freight and pre-delivery inspection fees), the more refined Mazda starts at $15,945 for the base-model 2014 Mazda2 GX and is comparatively priced with other fun-to-drive subcompact hatches, including the aforementioned Fiesta, the Honda Fit and the Chevrolet sonic.

My Mazda2 tester came with the higher-up GS package. It adds $3,850 to the price and extras that include alloy wheels, side-sill extensions and a rear spoiler, automatic headlights with dusk sensor, fog lights, heated front seats, chrome tailpipe extension, air conditioning, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, remote keyless entry, leather-wrapped steering wheel, six-speaker audio system and more.

A $1,150 four-speed automatic is optional, but my tester came with the standard five-speed manual gearbox.

What you won't find on the Mazda's options list are any of the "big car" features, such as a navigation system or full leather interior, that have been migrating down to these bottom-feeder ranks. That definitely helps the Mazda's power-to-weight ratio.

Although it's low on the glitz and glam, the Mazda's simple and easy-to-use monochromatic interior will remind enthusiasts of the brand's MX-5 sports car. All the controls feel robust and of high quality. Its driver's seat was both comfortable and very supportive in hard cornering.

Unlike the 197-horsepower Ford Fiesta ST, Mazda never got around to making a hot-hatch version of the Mazda2. As such, a 1.5-litre four-cylinder gas engine is its lone power plant. It makes 100 hp and 98 pound-feet of torque. If that doesn't sound like a lot of juice, it isn't. In the subcompact segment, only the 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage (74 hp and 74 lb-ft) makes less.

But with a curb weight of only 1,043 kilograms, the Mazda is one of the lightest vehicles you can buy, and is a big reason why its acceleration time of 9.4 seconds zero to 100 kilometres per hour matches the more powerful (120 hp, 112 lb-ft) Fiesta 1.6 hatchback, which is 108 kg heavier.

The Mazda scores a competitive 6.8 litres per 100 kilometres fuel-economy estimate in the city. But a sixth gear would help the 2's 5.6 L/100 km highway rating and reduce the engine noise at highway speeds.

Overall, the Mazda2 feels less like a small car trying to be a big car and more like a subcompact hatch trying to be a Miata. Instead of isolating the driver from the road (as in the Kia Rio5) the Mazda2 allows more intimacy.

And even if you have to take a few lessons to learn how to drive a stick, don't get the autobox. The slick-shifting five-speed manual is a joy to use. Compared to the Fiesta's five-speed, the Mazda2's transmission is much slicker, with shorter throws and more accurate engagement.

And yes, you'll feel more bumps and hear more road noise in the smallest Mazda, but the 2 is more anxious to string corners together, where the Fiesta is less interested.

In the end, the Mazda2 is a polarizing car. It can't compete with some of its subcompact rivals in the luxury-car features department. But it does separate buyers who view their vehicle as merely a transportation device from those who see a trip to the corner store as yet another chance to hone their driving skills.

So, if small-car driving pleasure is at the top of your new small-car shopping list, the 2014 Mazda2 will deliver plenty of subcompact smiles.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014

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