The Mazda2 is a small car that drives like a small car -- and that's a compliment. Some cars feel bigger than they are, which can be good if you also get a sense of strength and solidity.
The Mazda2, though, is like a welterweight fighter: all quickness and agility, without sacrificing ride and practicality. I kept looking for excuses to drive it.
City driving is the Mazda2's forte. I drove the Mazda2 with both available transmissions: a five-speed manual and a four-speed automatic. Obviously, having the right gear on hand for quick maneuvers is simple with the manual because you control the gear selection, but the automatic is also very well-matched to the engine. When I wanted to zip into a spot in traffic, the automatic usually chose the right gear.
The manual has a light clutch that's easy to feel when it's picking up the gear, and the shifter is short and direct. There's none of the rubbery feeling that can plague some entry-level cars. It's fun to shift through the gears in the Mazda2, and it happens with a good, solid feeling.
The steering is also good. It's very light and quick, but it doesn't feel over-boosted or twitchy in city driving. It just felt like I was steering a very light car -- because I was. Like the transmission, the steering feels like it's dialed-in well to the car. The same can be said for the brakes: Instead of a mushy pedal, it gave me the right amount of feedback to judge how hard I needed to press the pedal to stop. There isn't a lot of effort required, mind you, but the brakes are easy to get a feel for. It cornered well, too, even in the tight confines of Chicago.
All the stuff that makes you stop, go and turn is really well-tuned. The car feels like a unified machine, ready to zip wherever you want it to in the city.
There was only one real issue I noticed: The sloping A-pillar (the one that supports the windshield) can obscure pedestrians stepping off the curb. I got used to it the more I drove, but you'll have to judge for yourself. Other than that, visibility is really good.
On the highway is where you'll notice you're driving a small, light car, and that's not always a great thing. Right off, there was fair amount of road noise, and passengers noticed a lot of wind noise. That can be common for lighter cars, because they don't tend to have a lot of sound insulation. Neither noise was intrusive.
The steering is lively on the highway. I never felt like the car got twitchy, but other editors who drove the Mazda2 said the steering was too light at speeds above 70 mph.
If I liked the automatic for cruising around town, the highway was one place where I really preferred the manual transmission. The automatic Mazda2 runs out of steam at high speeds, and I think that's because it could use one more gear. When you want to pass, what you get is pretty much what you'd expect from a small, four-cylinder engine: a lot of noise but not a lot of surging forward. This was less of a problem with the manual.
The Mazda2 absolutely shines in one aspect of highway driving: its ride. You hear the car go over expansion joints, but you don't really feel it. Also, some small cars -- notably the Honda Fit -- seem to porpoise over lumps in the road, but the Mazda2 really soaks them up. I took the Mazda2 for a weekend of bike races and came out of it as fresh as I have from some other, larger cars -- maybe fresher. Whoever tuned the Mazda2's suspension should be commended, especially because the Mazda2 takes curvy highway on-ramps pretty flat, too. It's tough to get both of those attributes in one car.
Cars almost always make you compromise somewhere, and with a small car that can be in its practicality. The Mazda2 is no exception. I'm a bigger guy, and while I didn't feel cramped while driving the Mazda2, there's no way someone my size could have ridden behind me. A shorter person might have been OK, but either way it's a tighter fit back there than it is in a Fit or Nissan Versa. (Check the photographs to see how child-safety seats fit, in case your passengers tend to be toddlers rather than adults.)
On the other hand, the cargo area is surprisingly large. In some hatchbacks, there's just not a lot of room behind the rear seats to put stuff. Such is not the case with the Mazda2. I easily fit all the gear I needed for a weekend away in the hatch area without having to fold the seats over. When I did fold the seats, I found I had enough room for my large cyclocross bike without having to remove both wheels. That's nice, because it means the Mazda2 is competitive with the Fit and Versa in the bike-carrying department. The stats show the Versa and Fit are much larger (the Fit has 57.3 cubic feet of maximum cargo area, the Versa has 50.4 and the Mazda2 brings up the rear with 27.8). What I found, though, was that the Mazda's space is usable. In other words, there isn't a ton of vertical space, but from side-to-side and front-to-back, there's a lot of room.
Overall, it's a handy car, but I think it's best-suited for young couples, singles or people with children who are still in car seats.
The Mazda2 is related to the Ford Fiesta, in which I've also spent time. My quick take, though, is this: The Fiesta has the flashier interior but, while it has more power than the Mazda2, I can't say I really noticed a massive difference in speed or power. (This could be because the Fiesta weighs more than the Mazda2.)