Last month, Gear Patrol was invited to be amongst the very first folks in North America to get keys to the brand new 2011 Mazda2. Naturally, we were keen to accept the offer where we sojourned to Montreal to get our hands, feet, and butts-in-seat on Mazda’s forthcoming compact – an award-winning vehicle that’s garnered almost 50 worldwide accolades including the 2008 World Car of the Year at the New York International Auto Show. With over 400,000 of the Mazda2’s having been sold in Europe and Japan over the past few years, there’s no doubt this diminutive Zoom-Zoom packs in Mazda’s trademark styling and sporty appeal for fans of the growing B-car segment. Read on to get our driving impressions and hear our thoughts on the 2.

Considering the various spikes in fuel prices we’ve endured over the last few years, doom and gloom economic predictions, and a renewed popularity in the frugal, it’s no wonder that American consumers have made compact vehicles (or B-cars) one of the fastest growing segments of auto market. The folks at Mazda know a thing or two about making fun to drive, sporty cars and have packed that know-how into the taut new Mazda2. Of course, to give the 2 its proper due, you’ve got to take stock of what it really is – a sub-$14,000 car offered in a simple choice of trims and option packages. Of course that limits some of the car’s potential, but the price is right to make the car a great option for budget-minded drivers. And, as we found out, that coin will earn you a fun ride packed with thoughtful features in a very attractive package.

On the design front, the Mazda2 certainly looks the part of its Zoom-Zoom heritage. Essentially a sporty wedge (we love simple machines), the body lines are clean and energetic, with the sculpted door panels offering some additional facets over the traditionally boxy and boring subcompact silhouette. The fender shapes seem agile and the entire package looks a bit coiled, as if the car is waiting to spring forward. The 2’s liftgate spoiler (standard on the Touring model) really completes the dynamic look. The 2011 Mazda2 is offered in six colors including the popular Spirited Green; the intentionally limited palette is a smart move on Mazda’s part to help keep costs down and make each color readily available for locating through your local dealer.

On the design front, the Mazda2 certainly looks the part of its Zoom-Zoom heritage

Inside, you’ll find a comfortable and relatively spacious cabin that belies the 2’s exterior dimensions. The abundance of contour echoes the outside look and banishes the monotony sometimes felt inside other budget-priced vehicles. We were particularly impressed with the visibility afforded by the interior design; both the A and B pillars seem optimized to allow an unimpeded field of view both fore and aft of the vehicle. There’s ample leg room in the front, as well as a 6-way adjustable drivers set that let’s you get settled just right. We found the seats to be plenty comfortable but certainly not bulky. In the upgraded Touring model, red accent piping offers a higher-end look to the seats throughout the cabin. Perhaps the best interior feature, however, is found in the 2’s backseat. In a welcome addition to the B-car segment, the Mazda2 offers a 60/40 split folding rear seat, for greater versatility in storage capacity. For backseat passengers, we found the headroom afforded to be adequate, considering the cars overall form factor and roof line.

Most importantly, of course, are the driving impressions that we gathered. The engineers at Mazda took great pains to reduce the 2’s weight in myriad areas in order to maximize the car’s performance and squeeze the most out of their 1.5L, 100hp power plant. Their attention to detail certainly paid off, as the primary adjective we’d use to describe the 2’s performance is agile. Our full day of zipping in, out, and around the crowded streets of Montreal proved that the 2 is an outstanding city driver. The suspension felt responsive and lithe, allowing for confident movement in and out of traffic. We spent our time with the 5-speed manual model and, consequently, learned the the clutch and gearbox are very forgiving, a trait that may make the 2 an especially attractive choice for inexperienced drivers. Whereas at the Mazda2’s engine was perfectly adequate for stop-and-go driving, it predictably left us wanting for torque and for responsiveness at highway speeds. This is a minor gripe when one considers the overall package and price. It’s also worth noting that the cabin of 2 is uncharacteristically quiet for a car of this size (a big plus in our book), and that the suspension package delivers a nice balance of ride quality and road feedback.

Our bottom line on the 2? Mazda has crafted a definite winner in the compact segment that looks better than anything else available at such an attractive price. It would make a great option for anyone looking for a car to compliment their urban lifestyle. Getting up to 35 mpg means that it’ll be painless at the pump as well. Round that out with world-class safety ratings and features, and you’ve got a very affordable vehicle that doesn’t sacrifice on necessity and delivers fun performance with style. Zoom-Zoom (Concentrated) indeed.

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