Whatever you do, don't call the 2011 Mazda2 a Fiesta clone. At least not within earshot of a Mazda employee--that is, unless you're looking to be educated on the many differences between the two. But whether this is Mazda's take on the Fiesta or a unique car in its own right, it's very good, and that comes through whether you're dicing it up in city traffic, slogging down the freeway, or hustling through the back country.

Disclaimer: Mazda flew us up to Montreal, lodged us in a very nice old town hotel, and fed us high-end French and Italian food like they were afraid we might be starving to death. Along the way, we found about 5 hours of seat time in the new Mazda2, touring what must be some of the roughest roads in the province.

Not A Bed Of Roses
First, lets dispense with the complaints. Though we know this is a $14,000-$18,000 (for most buyers) hatchback, we could still stand a little more power, particularly in the four-speed automatic model. With the five-speed manual transmission you can keep the revs of the 1.5-liter, 100-horsepower engine up above 3,500 and have enough juice to keep things interesting, but it requires a good bit of stirring the gearbox. The wide-spread four-speed, however, invariably winds out one gear only to fall a bit too low in the powerband for the next. And there's no manual shift mode with the slushbox, either. Not very zoom-zoom.

The Mazda2 is also not a comfy home for drivers much taller than six feet. At 6' 2", I found little leg room and the tilt-adjustable steering wheel could have gone a bit higher even when set to its maximum elevation. Headroom wasn't ample--I had about two inches to spare--but it wasn't claustrophobic, either. At any rate, you're not going to get much in the backseat behind a six-footer, though children should be comfortable behind even the rear-most seating position. Regular-sized folk will find legroom front and rear surprisingly good, however, with enough room to seat most adults at all four corners. Compared to the Mazda3, you're not giving up much interior space.

That's really all we can pick at on the little car--for its price range, the interior is nice but not special, the seats comfortable and supportive but not sporty, and the cargo room is better than you'd expect with the almost coupe-like profile, especially once you lay down the 60/40 split folding seats. Oh, and you'll easily average somewhere in the mid-30s for miles per gallon, too, even if you like to flog it about a bit--or at least we did.

Stylish, Modern, But Not A Clown-Face
Looking at the car, the profile and sculpted front and rear ends make for a more coherent package than any other car in the segment, flowing neatly and looking sorted from any angle. Even the Ford Fiesta can't make this claim, with the chopped rear end and protruding headlights making for some odd looks at times.

A wide base, sloping greenhouse, and flared fenders all serve to give the Mazda2 a solid, stable, and sporty look by tricking the eye into seeing a lower, wider car than the measurements actually indicate. Solid work by the design team here.

The only real visual differences you'll note between the various levels of Mazda2 are the trim packages--and they are mighty few. There are only really four variations possible with the 2, in fact: automatic or manual, Sport or Touring. The Touring model upgrades the standard 15-inch steel wheels to 15-inch alloys, adds red piping to the interior, and a spoiler out back. If you want to add navigation or Bluetooth to either model, you can buy Garmin and Motorola aftermarket add-ons directly from Mazda.

Zoom Zoom
It handles like it's lower and wider than it is, too. Between the firmly damped and sprung suspension, the well-tuned electric power-assisted steering (EPAS), and the incredibly firm and sorted chassis, the Mazda2 is a performer even in a segment that also holds the MINI Cooper, for many the benchmark in front-wheel-drive handling.

The reason? It's light. Very light--as in, it weighs less than the second-gen Miata, clocking in at a svelte 2,306 pounds, a weight almost unthinkable in today's safety-obsessed marketplace. Despite the light weight, it's surprisingly quiet thanks to BMW-like chassis dampers placed at key harmonic points on the unibody.

The light weight was earned through careful attention to what Mazda calls its "gram strategy," shaving weight from every component possible. The cumulative results are impressive: 6.4 pounds saved by shortening wiring harnesses, 5.5 pounds saved in the hood hinges and door handles, 2.2 pounds saved on the speakers by using stronger, ligher magnets, and 3.7 pounds of water weight saved by optimizing and downsizing the radiator. Even the suspension was lightened, shaving 3.4 pounds of each suspension member and a total of 29 pounds of unsprung weight through the use of lighter calipers and wheels. The list goes on, with the incremental gains smaller and smaller, but adding up to a lot of weight.

We didn't have the opportunity to put the car on the track or an autocross course, however, so we may find flaws not noticeable on the open road under further review. First impression, however, is that the car is near-brilliant: balanced, lots of grip despite the small 15-inch, 195/50 aspect ratio tires and all-weather tread, and ready to tackle anything from a high-speed lightly banked sweeper to a hard, bumpy 90-degree right with agility.

As we mentioned at the outset, a slight lack of power is the only beef we have with the drivetrain, as the sound and feel of the engine isn't nearly as thrashy or breathless as much of the competition. Sure, the MINI Cooper's 1.6-liter mill sounds a little better (and pulls a little harder, too), but this is an incredibly inexpensive car to be delivering this sort of rounded package. The MINI Cooper starts at $19,500 after all, near the upper ceiling of the Mazda2.

Inexpensive, Not Cheap
This is a point Mazda drove home with regularity: there's a difference between cheap and inexpensive. Yes, it's marketing speak, but it's also true. There are cheap cars (think most 1990s Kia/Hyundai vehicles, the previous-generation Chevrolet Aveo, the Chrysler Sebring, etc.) and then there are inexpensive cars that are still well-made (that list is shorter, but the base MINI Cooper fits, as does the Honda Fit, and, to a lesser degree, the Nissan Versa and Toyota Yaris, two of the Mazda2's primary competitors).

The fit, finish, and feel of the Mazda2 really is one of inexpensiveness, not cheapness. There's no outright lack of quality, but rather a cost-conscious lack of polish and panache. And that fits right in with the Mazda2's role as a cost-conscious city car, fuel-conscious commuter, third/fourth car for the luxury/sports car owner, and entry-level sporty hatch for the first-time buyer or college student. The plastics used aren't particularly pretty, but they feel durable; they aren't particularly nice to the touch, but they enclose the cabin quietly and without squeaks or rattles; the fabrics aren't premium, but they have texture that makes them feel and look like more than simple cloth.

A Car Born Of (And For) Economic Necessity
In a way, the Mazda2 is the perfect recession car: for the still-wealthy, it's both affordable and useful--a way to conspicuously non-consume. For the less well-off, it's a microcosm of what it takes to get through the week: making the most of meager materials through careful technique and artful invention.

As fuel prices continue to flirt with a return to $4-$5 per gallon levels amidst the worst petroleum disaster in history, we are also beginning to take seriously as a nation taxation and pricing of carbon emissions and fuel economy regulations. All of these add up to a reality that makes us glad there are cars like the Mazda2, and not just like the Yaris, Versa, or Honda CR-Z. It's easy for the funsuckers to punch a Rolls-Royce or a Ferrari in the face; even easier to send a big American V-8 to post-bailout banishment; it's not so easy, however, to take away a car that delivers smiles behind the wheel when it manages a real-world 30+ mpg average. In fact, there's no need to.

And that's exactly why the Mazda2 is such a brilliant car. Unlike the premium-positioned Fiesta or MINI, or the purely econo-class Versa, Fit and Yaris, the Mazda2 strikes a balance between them while offering what only the MINI really does as well: genuine hatchback fun.