Road Test: Cheap and cheerful Mazda2 has emphasis on wrong word

Mazda's little runaround isn't that bad a car but it falls short up against tough competition in the subcompact segment.

The Mazda2 will at least give you a smile every day. Sammy Dallal / The National
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The most impressive bit of the Mazda2 comes when you mash your right foot down.

Unfortunately, I'm most certainly not talking about the little car's acceleration. With 103hp, you're never going to be blown away by the might of this subcompact hatch. The power is middling, just sufficient, but it's what you'd expect from a tiny runabout.

No, what is really noteworthy is how smooth the little 1.5L engine is. Even at higher speeds, it doesn't buzz the cabin like many other subcompacts will; it feels calm and composed, with just a bit of the noisy cacophony of its four cylinders to be heard inside. For such a little car, that's a big achievement, and that alone makes the Mazda2 feel like a bit more than its Dh54,000 would suggest when you're behind its wheel.

The handling, also, has bigger-car sophistication, and its light weight (1,068kg) helps make it feel quick and frisky. It's not the best-handling car in its segment, but it is nimble enough to be fun tossing it around roundabouts and into corners. And its electromechanical steering is crisp and precise to match. Even its ride is comfortable enough, being just a little on the firm side but more than comfortable enough for the everyday commute, including any higher-speed motorway trips, where it stays composed and settled. Due to its lightness, however, it will be tossed around in higher winds.

The exterior styling is sharp, with a line that raises the rear windows way up and with Mazda's ubiquitous smiling grille at the front. But it's not exactly a standout in the small-car segment, even in the lime green colour of the test car. Mazda didn't take many chances with the exterior design, and there's no denying that this is an inexpensive hatchback, no matter how many sharp creases there are in the body.

And, in fact, beyond the engine's smoothness and the handling, there are plenty of things about the Mazda2 to remind you of its low price point. The interior is acceptable in quality but not exactly inspiring, with black plastic broken only by a bit of grey plastic on the centre dash. The six-speaker music system on this higher-spec model is crisp, clear and better than you'd expect, but there is no USB connection available for your iPod, just a simple auxiliary jack with another charging jack; that could be a deal breaker on its own for me. And the steering wheel adjusts up and down but not in or out, so taller drivers will be stretching for the controls in a very uncomfortable position. There's plenty of room for front passengers, though people in the rear might be a bit cramped. The boot area is ample but not class-leading, and there aren't a lot of places in the cabin for storage of small items. The glove box has a strange pass-through at the top that is open even when the box is closed.

And a four-speed automatic transmission? These days, even in small, inexpensive cars, five is the norm, with six gears even showing up in some vehicles. Four gears means the engine has to work even harder, especially with its lower horsepower. It makes for slower acceleration and slightly higher fuel economy numbers than you'd expect from a car this size.

The Mazda2 is not a bad car, really; it's well screwed together, cheap and cheerful. There are many good things about it. But considering the level of quality and technology and vast selection of options from its competition in the subcompact segment, Mazda may need to up its game for its next little runabout.

Price, base / as tested Dh49,000 / Dh54,000

1.5L four cylinder

four-speed automatic

Power 103hp @ 6,000rpm

Torque 135Nm @ 4,000rpm

Fuel economy, combined 7.8L/100km