CARMEL VALLEY, Calif. -- Cinch that seatbelt hard and fast because we're steering a sport-tuned Mazda2 -- the itsy-bitsy 5-door hatchback from that "Zoom-Zoom" brand out of Japan -- on a narrow strip of California asphalt called Cachagua Road as it climbs in corkscrew contours into golden-hill headlands of the Carmel Valley.
Over this convoluted course with dips and rolls and oh-so-fun strings of esses and sweepers which shock the suspension and temper the spirit of any vehicle steered up the path our tester Mazda2 reveals itself as one fun-to-drive motion machine that behaves like a sporty car.
This pint-size 5-door hatch rolls on 185/55/R15 V-rated all-season 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. Mazda2 has an overall length of 155.5 inches and a width of 66.7 inches with the roofline rising to 58.1 inches high.
There's a wee-wonder 1.5-liter 4-in-line engine under the stubby hood which produces an unexpected kick through a short-stick manual 5-speed transmission or the smooth-shifting 4-speed electronic automatic.
Mazda offers the Mazda2 in two versions -- Sport and Touring. Both models stock the same 4-cylinder engine and manual gearbox, with the automatic transaxle listed as a price-loading option.
Actually, Mazda2 is the low-price leader in Mazda's 2014 line of vehicles and it's a fuel economy champ too.
Pricing for a 2014 Mazda2 Sport begins at $14,720 and the 2014 Mazda2 Touring with added luxury content stands at $16,210. Selecting the automatic shifter pulls $840 more to the bottom line.
With its small scale, featherweight components and modest 4-pack engine, the Mazda2 scores well in fuel economy tests -- 29 mpg for city driving and 35 mpg on the highway with the manual transmission.
The dual-cam 1.5-liter 4-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-sipping engines on the 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 with telescopic twin-tube double-acting shock absorbers and a twisting torsion-beam axle in back with mono-tube shocks.
The steering system has electric power assistance, which eliminates a load of hydraulic equipment and contributes to the efficiency of the modest engine.
For predictable straight-line stopping, Mazda installs a standard anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD), plus dynamic stability control (DSC) with a traction control system (TCS).
Conformed in a curvaceous bullet-sleek shell cast on wee wheels with an ultra-fast windshield rake, lots of glass all around and the blunt tail housing a rear door, little Mazda2 looks seriously sporty with curt overhangs front and rear and skin bulging in taut contours with big air intakes at the prow and a rear roof spoiler on the top trim.
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.
Standard gear on Mazda2 Sport ranges from air conditioning and power controls for windows and mirrors to a remote keyless entry device, tilting steering column, cloth seat upholstery, 6-way driver seat, folding rear seatback split 60/40, 4-speaker audio kit with AM/FM/CD/MP3/USB and 15-inch steel wheels with full wheel covers.
Upgrades on Mazda2 Touring include an audio system with six speakers, leather wrapping a multi-functional steering wheel, cruise control, trip computer, black cloth seat upholstery trimmed in red piping, foglamps in the front 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 center console with armrest, Bluetooth connectivity, rear cargo net, rear bumper guard, and Crystal White Pearl special paint job.