MONTREAL – It isn’t fast, is limited on space and comfort and lacks the flash of some B-cars already on the market, but the new ’11 Mazda2 is a blast to drive and will limit trips to the gas station.

The Mazda2, sold in other markets for years but new to North America, joins an increasingly crowded B-car segment in the U.S. It faces not only longtime leaders such as the Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit and Nissan Versa, but also the new Ford Fiesta.

Distinguishing itself from the pack is essential, and in many ways the Mazda2 accomplishes that task.

Available only as a 4-door sedan, the Mazda2’s design, with its short overhangs and swept headlamps, is not as distinctive as some competitors, but it fits Mazda’s understated, performance image.

Mazda says the car’s styling “conveys a sense of stability and inspires confidence.” An encounter with a couple of vocal critics suggests differently.

While at a stoplight on a recent test drive here, two men in a nearby car wave frantically. Thinking we were going to get a manly thumbs-up, our mood quickly sours as they shout, “What an adorable car,” before darting away.

Confidence inspiring the encounter was not.

Regardless, we warmed up to the exterior over the course of a couple days. It’s not going to wow anyone, but its non-polarizing style is something owners likely will appreciate over the long run.

The interior is far more impressive. A circular motif in the gauges, vents, audio readout and shifter boot creates a sense of continuity.

The seats are a little quirky, with a checkered gray pattern in the center of large dark gray, and supportive, bolsters. But red piping surrounding the checkered fabric provides an aura of sportiness.

Switchgear is well laid out and intuitive, but the rotary climate controls seem a little dated. A few well-placed intersecting lines on the dash break up the monotony of what otherwise would be a large gray expanse.

Like other cars in this class, rear-seat room is at a minimum. An average-size male would be ill-advised to squeeze into the back for anything other than a short ride.

But that’s not uncommon in this segment. There’s only so much that can be done to sculpt out extra passenger space in a car that’s a mere 155.5 ins. (395 cm) long and 66.7 ins. (169 cm) wide.

The shifter takes a little getting used to, as it extends horizontally from the center stack, similar to the a setup in the Nissan Quest, Toyota Prius and Sienna and some other models.

’11 Mazda2
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger compact sedan
Engine 1.5L DOHC inline 4-cyl. with aluminum block, aluminum heads
Power (SAE net) 100 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 98 lb.-ft. @ 4,000 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 78 x 78.4
Compression ratio 10.0:1
Transmission 5-speed manual
Wheelbase 98.0 ins. (249 cm)
Overall length 155.5 ins. (395 cm)
Overall width 66.7 ins. (169 cm)
Overall height 58.1 ins. (148 cm)
Curb weight 2,306 lbs./1,046 kg
Base price $13,980
Fuel economy 29/35 mpg (8.1-6.7 L/100 km)
Competition Ford Fiesta, Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, Honda Fit
Pros Cons
Fuel-efficient Not much power
Handles well Stiff suspension
Nicely appointed interior Limited space

Two transmissions are available – a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic, with the manual a better match for the Mazda2’s 100-hp 1.5L 4-cyl engine.

One-hundred horses is not a lot these days, and the Mazda2 is outgunned by all its competition. But what the car lacks in grunt, it makes up for in driving dynamics.

Mazda prides itself on building fun-to-drive cars and strives to carry that into the Mazda2, its smallest and least-expensive model.

The Mazda2’s steering is spot on, with minimal input needed in navigating twisty roads at high speeds. The car also is remarkably nimble at lower speeds and easy to coax into tight parking spots.

The suspension features MacPherson struts up front and a torsion-beam axle in the rear, providing a sportier ride than most competitive makes.

The Mazda2 makes an excellent choice for buyers looking for a B-car tilted toward performance, but those seeking a smooth ride should look elsewhere.

Given the low output of the engine, Mazda engineers went through great pains to cut weight from the car, shedding some 220 lbs. (100 kg) compared with the previous model sold outside North America.

It may not seem like a lot, but it cuts the curb weight to 2,306 lbs. (1,046 kg) when equipped with the manual.

Despite its diminutive size, the Mazda2 comes with a laundry list of safety features, including antilock brakes, brake assist, electronic-brake force distribution and stability and traction controls.

Additionally, the Mazda2 will be the first Mazda in North America offered with the auto maker’s brake-override system, which prioritizes the brake pedal over the accelerator when both are pressed simultaneously.

Likely a preemptive strike against unintended sudden acceleration following Toyota Motor Corp.’s recall problems, Mazda says the system will be offered on all its vehicles in North America during the ’11 model year.

In U.S. dealer showrooms now, the ’11 Mazda2 combines the auto maker’s signature “zoom-zoom” performance philosophy with frugality, and that’s a matchup that could have strong appeal for many B-car buyers.

bpope@wardsauto.com