REEDS SPRING, Mo. -- Route 76, a narrow blacktop path across the pine-clad Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri, contorts in an endless series of corkscrew corners with steep grades wrapped around granite ramparts or draped through deep valleys -- and only sporadic local traffic on the route plus a dearth of patrols to challenge our aggressive forward line.
This backdoor route heading toward the resort city of Branson serves as our track-de-jour to sample the expressive spirit of a sport-tuned hatchback from Mazda that's tiny in scale and fitted with a fuel-sipping engine yet surprisingly fun to drive.
Labeled the Mazda2 5-Door to denote five portals on the body in hatchback format from that "Zoom-Zoom" brand out of Japan, our tester quickly reveals itself as one cool motion machine that behaves like a sporty car.
Mazda2 5-Door looks muscular -- the skin bulges in taut contours with big air intakes at the prow and a rear roof spoiler on one issue -- in a promise of spirited performance and handling traits.
It rolls on P185/55/R15 all-weather rubber ringing 15-inch wheels and rides on a platform of exceptional rigidity with a 58-inch wide wheel track and 98-inch long wheelbase for dynamic stability.
And there's a tiny 1.5-liter four-in-line plant under the hood which produces an unexpected kick through a short-stick manual five-speed transmission or a smooth four-speed electronic automatic.
Building an agile little hatchback has historical precedents in Mazda's product line, tracing back as far as 1977 to a three-door subcompact hatchback called the GLC -- Great Little Car. With only 65 hp from a 1.5-liter engine directed to the rear wheels, spunky GLC was thrifty but still fun to drive.
The first-generation Mazda2 debuted in 2007 for Europe and Asia markets, then captured the "World Car Of The Year" trophy in 2008.
The 2011 Mazda2 in new third-generation design lands in North America for the first time.
Mazda2 configured as a five-door hatchback has an overall length of 155.5 inches and a width of 66.7 inches with the roofline rising to 58.1 inches high.
It trims out in two versions -- Sport and Touring.
Both editions stock the same four-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual gearbox, with the four-speed electronic automatic transaxle available for both.
Actually, Mazda2 is the low-price leader in Mazda's 2011 line of vehicles and it's a fuel economy champ too.
The 2011 Mazda2 Touring with added luxury content lists for $15,435.
Selecting the four-speed automatic shifter pulls $800 more to the bottom line of the Sport and Touring models.
With its wee scale, featherweight components and modest four-pack powertrain, the Mazda2 scores some high fuel economy figures.
Through independent testing by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a Mazda2 coupled with the manual five-speed gearbox delivers fuel consumption numbers like 28 miles per gallon for city driving and as much as 35 mpg on the highway.
With the optional four-speed automatic aboard, Mazda2's fuel economy scores tally to 28 miles per gallon in town and 34 on the road.
The dual-cam 1.5-liter four-in-line with variable valve timing (VVT) achieves 100 hp at 6000 rpm plus torque of 98 lb-ft at 4000 rpm.
These power numbers rank the plant among the slightest gasoline-drinking engines in our market, yet Mazda tunes the drive-by-wire throttle for spirited off-the-line action.
Mazda2 also stocks hardware which promotes sporty handling, such as a suspension system with independent MacPherson struts in front and a twisting torsion-beam axle in back.
The steering system gets electric power assistance, which eliminates a load of hydraulic equipment and contributes to the efficiency of the small engine.
Brakes utilize front ventilated discs and rear drums.
For predictable straight-line stopping, Mazda installs a standard anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD) and brake assist (BA), plus dynamic stability control (DSC) with traction control system (TCS).
For a driver, operation becomes a no-brainer because these safety controls are always engaged.
Mazda packs aboard heaps of hardware for passive safety, with dual frontal air bags and front seat-mounted side air bags plus curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners above front and rear outboard seats, as well as height-adjustable headrests front and rear, three-point seatbelts in five seat positions with front seatbelt pretensioners and force limiters, and tether anchors in the rear for installing a child's safety seat.
Although Mazda2 fits in the subcompact class, its passenger compartment seems surprisingly spacious -- 87.1 cubic feet of room for riders with headroom up to 39.1 inches, legroom to 42.6 inches up front and 33.0 inches in back, and shoulder room to 52.8 inches in front and 51.2 inches in back.
Those riding up front do not feel so squeezed together in a tiny compartment like you might in some other economy compacts, due to a tall wrap of windows and broad seats.
Driver sits in a supportive bucket which adjusts to fit, with seat height in tall stance to set up excellent visibility through the large windows.
The shifter lever protrudes from the bottom center of the dashboard.
Standard gear on Mazda2 Sport ranges from air conditioning and power controls for windows and exterior mirrors to a remote keyless entry device, tilting steering column, cloth seat upholstery, driver's seat with six-way adjustments, folding rear seatbacks split 60/40, a four-speaker audio kit with AM/FM/CD/MP3, and 15-inch steel wheels with full wheel covers.
Upgrades on Mazda2 Touring include an audio system with six speakers, leather wrapping the multi-functional steering wheel, cruise control, a trip computer, black cloth seat upholstery trimmed in red piping, front foglamps in the fascia, a spoiler on the roof and 15-inch alloy wheels.
Optional gear is limited to an auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass and Homelink, a cargo net, wheel locks, and a special paint job in Crystal White Pearl.
Pricing for a 2011 Mazda2 Sport begins at $13,980.