$16,185: That’s the as-tested price of the 2011 Mazda2 Touring I recently had. That’s fully loaded, too. What does fully loaded mean to a car that weighs 2,306 lbs with a 1.5-liter 100 hp and 98 lb-ft of torque motor? Well, not much, I’m sorry. twenty-nine mpg city and thirty-five highway isn’t that great for a car like this. The Toyota Yaris is cheaper and gets far better fuel economy. But the Toyota is so boring its owner is just one bad day away from a tall ledge.

The Mazda2 Sport starts out at just over 14 grand, and it comes standard with a 5-speed manual transmission, power mirrors, door locks, windows, 6 air bags; front, front side and side curtain, as well as an AM/FM/CD stereo with auxiliary input jack feeding to a 4 speaker system. If you jump up to the Touring model, you’ll spec out 15-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps, a rear spoiler, cruise control, trip computer, steering wheel mounted controls, a leather wrapped wheel, cloth seats with red piping, 6 speaker sound system, and a chrome exhaust tip!

I’m tellin’ ya, just saying all that has me winded.

But that’s not even half the story. The Mazda2 has more soul and passion in it than most cars costing roughly 100 times as much. You can’t say Mazda without someone saying, “Zoom, zoom.” At which point I smile and call them a very bad word… in my head.

You see, Mazda’s advertising and marketing teams could never quite capture why they were so damn good in any ad or phrase. Except for the “Any Given Weekend” slogan. Which, incidentally, lines my office wall in the form of a poster. But Mazda just is one of the best. They’re the Japanese BMW. They may not always be the fastest, cheapest or the best out there, but they’ll always be more fun to drive and own. It’s the same with both car companies. You can’t really capture that in a sentence to explain to someone. You just have to give them the keys and let them see for themselves. That’s why, at $16,185, I think it’s quite the deal. You get a junior sports hatch combined with the frugalness of a vegan girlfriend.

The interior of the Mazda2 is well laid out, and I appreciate that the seats are comfortable and soft. The sporty cloth seats are lined in a really nice red leatherette pinstripe on all four seats, and it makes for a very classy interior style. Everyone that got into the car loved that feature, because it stood out as something unique and special. The center console area is perfect with three cupholders (1 in each door adds 4 more) and two cubby holes for your iPod, phone, MP3 player, or whatever else. Directly in front of the cubby area is a 12v jack as well as an auxiliary input jack. The manual shifter was the perfect distance for me and was as good as shifting gears in any great sports car, but smoother.

While the window sticker says 29 mpg city and 35 mpg highway, it’s hard to obtain that when driving the Mazda the way it wants to be driven. Sure, driving sensibly allowed me to average about 33 mpg, which is good, but not as good as it should be. But then again, when you weigh 2300 lbs and only have 100 hp, that’s pretty damn good. However, this car still needs more power, regardless. More power would help to move it along a little better so you’re not driving it so hard. Sometimes you feel as though you’re going to start pedaling the car, because you’re pushing your right foot as far as you can to the floor. And also, I have to say, on long drives, the 2 can be a little annoying after a while on your right leg. And I say that because the transmission tunnel kind of bulges out towards the pedals, so your right leg is constantly pressed up against it. I noticed a little pressure from it, but if I angled my leg so that my right foot was actually on the accelerator pedal the way it’s carved out, I noticed that I wasn’t uncomfortable, and it felt surprisingly natural.

With the 5-speed manual transmission, this car is a blast to drive, though. Say what you want about its gas mileage and looks, but for what it lacks, it makes up for with sheer driving pleasure. It’s amazing, because I found myself driving the Mazda2 to the end of the earth just for the hell of it, for no better reason than to just row the gears of this baby BMW. And when I say baby BMW, I don’t mean it’s a competitor to the German car maker. No, I mean it’s the car every automaker can take a page from. The Mazda2 is a front-wheel drive master. It doesn’t act like your typical front-driver. And while it may not be as wallet loving as the Toyota Yaris, it at least makes sense to your heart. It’s not as roomy and class leading as the Honda Fit, but it does sport, luxury and spaciousness fantastically well. If BMW or any other car company wants to make FWD mpg cars, they might as well just buy a Mazda2 and slap their badge on it. If you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em. This car is so solid, it’s easier to drive at highway speeds than my ’05 MINI Cooper S. At 80 or so mph, the Mazda2 feels as if it’s right at home. Sure, you know you’re going faster, but the car never really feels overloaded at speed.

If I hadn’t just gotten my Cooper towards the end of the summer, I’d easily go out and buy a Mazda2 and have it as my daily driver and not have a care in the world. This car is so damn good that I’ve talked about it numerous times on the BMW radio show that I co-host, and I truly feel as if I made the car myself. That’s how perfect it is. And yes, I would make cars perfectly if I made them. Storage space is great with the rear seats up or down, and I fit my 1957 Reproduction Custom Shop Fender Twin Amp with absolute ease.

But don’t just listen to me. Let’s ask my buddy Rob Basile who’s a traveling musician and someone who doesn’t necessarily have 16-grand to throw away on just any car.

A Second Opinion:

Rob: As a musician on a budget, and a car enthusiast, it’s safe to say that a vehicle is going to have to meet some very specific needs for me to be fully satisfied. Of course we’d all love 1000 horsepower on tap, 40 mpg on the highway, and the space to haul enough wood to build a deck. This doesn’t exist yet, but the Mazda2 does take a pretty good stab at covering those bases.

Rob’s Gear

From the get go, the first thing that blew me away about the Mazda2 was the amount of hauling space you get; it’s amazingly deceiving. Looking at the car from the outside would never suggest it, but fold the rear seats down and you’ll be quite surprised.  From a guitarists standpoint I was able to fit my whole rig; a Marshall half-stack in the back with the rear seats folded down. To those of you who are guitarists out there I’m talking about a mode four 4×12 cabinet and the 100 watt Plexi – one of the biggest half-stacks available. The Mazda2 held all of this as well as my guitar with ease. I could’ve fit another guitar in there. I can then zip off to the gig, with room to bring a friend.

On to driving: Josh and I agreed that Mazda did an excellent job with the transmission; shifting through the gears was one of the most smooth, effortless experiences with a manual transmission I’ve ever had. I should mention that my daily driver is a 1998 Mustang GT with a 5 speed manual. Granted, comparing the transmissions of a ‘98 Mustang GT to the 2011 Mazda2 is comparing apples to oranges, as they are two completely different beasts designed for two very different target markets. With that being said, the Mazda2 was very fun to drive around town. Combined with the effortless transmission, the car was extremely nimble, making U-turns a cinch. The steering was tight and responsive, which added to the whole fun factor.

What I truly would’ve liked to see was more power. You might think I’m too used to having a V8 Mustang. However, what I actually drive more often then any other car is my girlfriend’s 2007 Toyota Yaris sedan. We tend to travel together quite often and the Yaris is our go to vehicle to save gas. And I think it’s fair to compare these two cars as they both aim to serve the same market. The Mazda2 is sportier in handling, but throughout the day as I drove it, I constantly wanted more power. The Yaris not only has more power to get out of its own way, but it has better fuel economy. On top of that, it’s less expensive than the Mazda. To someone on a budget, as most people in this economy are, “more power”, “better fuel economy”, “less expensive than brand x” speak very loudly.  Now, I couldn’t fit the Marshall half-stack in the Yaris – although it had a much larger trunk space in comparison to the Mazda with both rear seats in their upright position.

The bottom line: The 2011 Mazda2 is lots of fun to drive, the transmission is very smooth, the amount of cargo space with the rear seats folded down is incredible, and I’ll add that I think the fit and finish – interior and exterior – are superior to the Toyota Yaris. I think Mazda enthusiasts take pride in the excellent fit and finish of their vehicles, and rightly so. However, for the price point, and the target market, I’d like to see Mazda up the horsepower at least an extra 20 horses, or, match the mpg of the Yaris.  Falling short in both power and mpg is a deal breaker for me to be brutally honest. It’s not that lots of horsepower is important in this vehicle, but in my opinion, it’s under powered. This makes a difference when you have an 18 wheeler coming up on you as you merge onto a busy highway and you need to get up to speed. That’s really the biggest disappointment in the vehicle. Outside of that, I think Mazda did an excellent job and will make their owners proud for many miles to come.

If you would like to hear Rob’s music, or follow what he’s up to, feel free to “Like” his new Facebook page, or you can check out some of his YouTube videos.

Now as you can tell, Rob and I both enjoyed the Mazda2 for pretty much all it had to offer. But one thing that helped make the car more enjoyable to drive were the tires. Say what you want, but tires are one of the most important things you can do to a car to make the responsiveness from the steering wheel, along with the brake and accelerator pedals is to change the tires on your car to something better.

Every time someone asks me about tires for their car, I always tell them to check out the reviews online, and one tire I can definitely recommend for you to add to your top few choices are Bridgestone Blizzaks. A weird name for a tire, I agree. Nonetheless, they got the job done and were 10 mm wider at each corner, but provided sports car like grip, even though they were all season radials. Now I could tell you all day long about Bridgestone’s Multicell technology, and all of the press release mumbo-jumbo that’s thrown at us. But instead of doing that, I can tell you from experience on using the tire in most types of weather conditions, and from my personal driving with them, the Blizzaks are damn good. Damn good! And not only are they good to drive on, but they’re good looking, too. As much as tire performance is important to us car guys, we also love looking at tires, too. A good looking tire means a sexier lookin’ ride, right? Well these tires will look great on any car.

Shockingly, as well, is the fact that the tires were phenomenal at highway speeds with regards to noise, and especially driving the Mazda2 at high speeds in the dry and wet weather I encountered on my drive down to my beach house. On the back roads, it felt like I had a nice, sticky summer tire gripping each hard corner I could throw at the Mazda’s way. It’s still amazing to me that tires can have that much affect on a car’s performance just for everyday driving. So if you need a good tire to brave all weather types, go check out the Bridgestone’s website.

Mazda2 and Bridgestone: Goes together like rice and pudding.