(photo credit: Chirs Amos)
—Ann Arbor, Michigan
Ford’s Fiesta and Mazda’s 2 have both done a great job getting the motoring community amped up about small cars, continuing a trend that the Honda Fit really jumpstarted a few years ago. These small cars are anything but simple, basic transportation, offering quite a lot of style, comfort, and driving involvement to go along with their reasonable price tags.
But while reading single car reviews and breaking down equipment sheets can help us to understand the basics, there’s nothing quite like a head-to-head-to-head comparison test to really shake loose the truth of the driving experience. Our aim in testing this trio was to find out which really stood apart as the best small, inexpensive option for drivers. Sure, we take a look at areas like comfort and practicality, too, but our main goal was to seek out some challenging roads, drive these hatchbacks hard, and report in with our findings. A fun job, to be sure.
Herein you’ll find our test notes—broken down by car and by area of observation. We three Winding Roaders involved (Seyth Miersma, John Beltz Snyder, and Brandon Turkus) didn’t agree on every point, but did reach some broad consensus about where the dynamic superiorities lie. We also each felt compelled to argue for the car that best spoke to us.
The truth of the matter is that you can’t make a bad choice when picking from these three, but you can choose to best suit your taste. We hope our test makes that process a bit easier.
The Mazda2 may not have the best feeling transmission of the bunch (a little plasticky and soft when compared with the Honda), but it might be the best to use. It is short of throw, and is very precise. The result is the capability to knock out extremely fast shifts with little effort. —JBS
This thing feels like it has more than 100 horsepower under the hood, no doubt thanks to its low curb weight. It doesn’t rev as urgently as the Fit, but a run to redline still happens with plenty of gusto. —BT
A drawback of the Mazda’s weaker motor in combination with a five-speed gearbox is that you really have to wring it out in the lower gears to land in the sweet spot after your shift. Short shift, and you’ll end up low in the rev range, an unforgiving place in a 100-horsepower car. —JBS
The Fit’s shifter is buttery smooth, but I love the short throws in the Mazda. It really feels like the shifter just comes to your hand without much effort. I agree with John so far as there is some roughness around the gates, but it’s something I was able to adjust to quickly. The clutch on the 2 takes quite a bit of getting used to, though. It has an on/off kind of character that can make it difficult to work with and execute smooth shifts. Going from one car to another sometimes resulted in a stall in the Mazda thanks to that super-sensitive clutch, which was plenty embarrassing. —BT
The 2 really shined through in the steering department. While the Fit felt good, the Mazda is really my pick of the litter. The speed of the rack works well for a point-and-shoot car like this, and there is just enough heft behind the wheel so that it doesn’t feel spongy like the Fiesta or overly difficult to work. What’s more, the steering doesn’t just talk to you, it yaps your ear off. I really dug the sensations I got from the 2’s steering, like I could genuinely feel the car responding to my inputs. It almost reminded me of an older Mini Cooper in the way it went about talking to the driver. —BT
The 2’s rapid steering rack felt like it was easily influenced by whatever road surface you happened to be on. Mid-corner bumps and road imperfections had more of an impact on steering performance than I would have liked. While that is hardly a positive, I think it made the Mazda more involving to drive, as you really had to pay attention to your inputs and work to get things right. —BT
I think that Brandon is directionally right in his comments about the 2’s steering, but misses mentioning the fact that so much of this character is a product of the car’s short wheelbase. That super-quick turn-in is down to the steering rack, for sure, but the ability for the 2 to change directions on a dime (positive), and the unintentional bump-steer and slight jitteriness (negative) are seemingly down to the wheelbase. —SM
The Mazda2’s suspension offered the least forgiving ride, but it felt the most planted when cornering. The Ford’s cornering aptitude isn’t far behind, and the ride is much more comfortable. After performing one maneuver, the Mazda was just a beat quicker than the Fiesta in feeling like it was ready for the next move. —JBS
I really felt like the Mazda won out in terms of body roll and squat and dive. The hard suspension is difficult to live with on a freeway, but comes to life when being pushed. The car feels incredibly neutral, with the firm damping handling squat/dive and what I have to imagine is a pretty hefty sway bar negating body roll. —BT
Like the steering, the 2’s suspension really talks to you. Again, the suspension communication reminded me of a Mini. You could feel everything moving around and working, which goes a long way to creating the kind of visceral experience that you find in proper sports cars. —BT
This may be the cheapest car, but Mazda did a fine job of tuning out things like wind and road noise. I’d say it’s at least as good as the Honda, in terms of cabin quiet. The engine may sound a bit like a “generic” small four, but it rarely sounded harsh. There was some peakiness at the higher reaches of the rev range, but that was about it. While it wasn’t as good as the Ford or Honda, it’s certainly a standout at this price point. —BT
The 2’s sound was a bit whiny, especially when cruising on the highway where it buzzed along at several-thousand rpm. Of the three cars presented, this is the one that would most likely benefit from adding a sixth gear to the transmission, if only for more comfort for sustained high-speed driving. —JBS
I’ve got to go ahead and call out my guys on this one. Calling the 2 “at least as good as the Honda” and “a bit whiny” are just nice ways of mentioning that this car is loud at speed. Gear, tire, and wind noise are constant companions. You can hear a decent roar from the exhaust, too, which is the happy flip side. Let’s face it; the Mazda is really lightweight because of, among many other choices, a lack of sound-deadening material. You take the loud with the fun, I guess. —SM
I’m a big man but I feel totally at home inside this Mazda. Brandon made mention, during our test, about a slight lack of rear-seat room, but I think the reality is that there is more usable space here for humans than you’ll find in the competitive cars. The Honda has loads more load space, but I couldn’t find a driving position in the Fit that didn’t leave the side of my knee pressed up against the center stack. —SM
In terms of performance, the 2 features the nicest driver setup. A perfectly sized steering wheel and nicely bolstered seats go a long way towards making aggressive driving enjoyable. The location of the shifter also really encourages some racy driving. I really wish that Mazda would have offered telescopic steering, or at least a height adjustment for the driver’s seat, though. Everyone has a unique driving position, and the 2 simply didn’t offer a large enough range of adjustment to get into a confidence-inspiring seating position. —BT
I hate to admit it, because it was probably the best handling of the three cars, but the Mazda2 loses the practicality fight. It has the same space as the Fiesta—which is less than the Fit—but it offers the least in terms of creature comforts and refinement. At least it has volume control on the steering wheel, something the Ford doesn’t. —JBS
The price-to-equipment ratio on the 2 is about average, but I wouldn’t mind seeing a more extensive list of options. Satellite radio and a USB jack would be nice, especially considering the younger buyers in this class. —BT
Honda Fit Sport
Driving all three cars, the Fit felt like it was the quickest, which I think comes down to the aggressively geared transmission. There is plenty of power just about everywhere in the rev range. The trade-off for the Fit’s speed comes at the pumps. The aggressive gearing doesn’t do any favors in terms of fuel economy, as the Fit has the lowest economy numbers of our three cars. —BT
Aggressive throttle tip-in and a fast-spinning motor makes the Fit feel fast even though it’s objectively slow (like all three of our combatants, for that matter). This also works to explain why the Honda felt distinctly faster than the more-powerful Ford Fiesta. —SM
We’ve made mention that the Fit could stand to benefit from a sixth gear, but of the three cars featured here, it needed the extra cog the least. The good response from the motor means more power available throughout the rev range, which means less hunting for the right gear. —JBS
Honda pulled off yet another awesome gearbox here. I definitely think the Fit’s trans is the most user friendly of the three cars. Going between gates is a bit longer than I’d prefer, and it doesn’t have the snickity-snack, short-throw, street-racer feel of the 2, but the action of the shifter is so smooth I don’t really care. —BT
The Fit is neck-and-neck with the 2 when it comes to volume of feedback from the steering wheel, while the Mazda still wins in terms of quickness and precision. (As you’ll read, there’s a bit of disagreement here with my fellow testers, probably a reflection of just how close these two really are.) The Honda wins the steering medal for me because it’s chunky, thick-rimmed steering wheel gives me the best purchase mid-corner. Gotta pick somehow. —SM
Steering in the Honda is excellent, but it isn’t as lively as what we found in the Mazda. It is a more precise rack though, which makes it a bit easier to place the larger Fit where it needs to be. Communication from the Fit’s is there, and I think it’s probably better than any Honda product short of the Civic Si. This rack really gives a good idea of what’s going on with the front tires. Unlike the 2, the Fit’s steering isn’t as disturbed by road imperfections either. It can hit a pothole or mid-corner bump and still track straight and true. For going properly quick down a rough road, this is the steering setup to have. —BT
As Brandon points out, the Honda’s steering offers a good balance of feedback and response—a nice compromise between the 2 and the Fiesta. Where the Ford was quick to turn in but needing constant adjustment, and the Mazda felt a bit light in the tiller, the Fit offered no room for complaint. —JBS
Wow. Our handling route really showed me things about this Honda that I hadn’t seen, and wouldn’t have guessed at before. The car felt really grippy considering its small tires, and proved able to carry tons of speed through hot corners for it. Still, I felt a lot of movement through the suspension when I turned the wick up, bounding up and down as I transitioned from corner to corner. Driven at fast-but-not-too-fast speeds, the Fit had always felt totally pinned down to me, but on these roads, and with a more aggressive style, that up/down motion reared its head. Still, this softness in the suspension wasn’t as doughy as the Ford’s, and not quite as bone-jarring as the Mazda’s. —SM
Using the brakes and accelerator was good in the Fit. Whether going or stopping, it was quick to respond and ultimately the most rewarding. The only drawback was the bit of instability it displays under hard braking. It tended to wobble a bit as it drew to a halt, as though the suspension was caught off guard by the act. —JBS
The Fit’s suspension sits firmly between the harder Mazda and the softer Ford. It doesn’t beat the hell out of you on pothole-ridden roads, but it is still an absolute blast on a twisty piece of pavement. The damping on the Fit sorts out squat and dive quite well, but there was more lateral movement than I would have liked. Overall, the Fit is definitely more pinned down than the Ford, but it can’t really match the terrier-like tenacity of the 2. —BT
When shifting through the gears, the sound of the Fit’s engine is pretty helpful. As soon as you re-apply throttle, the noise lets you know whether or not you’re in the sweet spot. It changes tone as is approaches peak output. It draws you in. —JBS
The sound of the 1.5-liter really put me in the mood for fast driving, too. This is certainly an engine that sounds best at the higher reaches of the rev range. From a harshness perspective though, the Honda isn’t as quiet as the luxe Fiesta. Wind noise and the engine note are nicely isolated when cruising, but tire noise seems to invade the cabin fairly easily. Maybe switching to different rubber would solve the problem? —BT
Not quite as boomy on the highway as I remember from my last drive, as it turns out. I still noticed fairly loud wind/tire noise, but not as much buzzing from the engine as I had thought. Still not as relaxing at speed as the Ford, but better sounding at top revs, too. —SM
No problems with visibility here. The Honda seems like it has miles and miles of glass surrounding the driver. No real blind spots to speak of. I especially liked the little windows near the A-pillars. That said, I was never really that comfortable when in the Fit. I couldn’t find a comfortable driving position, as the seat felt like it was up on stilts, the steering wheel didn’t have enough in the way of adjustability, and the shifter actually felt low after getting out of the Mazda2. The seats themselves really didn’t give me the kind of support I’d like for aggressive driving, either. More bolstering and an increase in lumbar support would go a long way here. —BT
With the exception of my long leg bumping up against the side of the center stack, I found the Fit to be both comfortable and well laid out. The high seating position didn’t happen to translate into a “tall”-feeling vehicle for me, but rather let me push the limits a bit thanks to near-perfect forward visibility. When you can see where you’re going, you can get there a lot faster. —SM
The Honda was the roomiest of the group. The Fit’s 20.6 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats up puts the other two to shame, each with about 13. Seats folded, Honda gets 57.3, while the Mazda and Ford have about 28 cubic feet. If you’re not accustomed to traveling light, or if you often bring passengers (human or furry), you’re going to want that extra room. —JBS
The Honda had far and away the largest and easiest-to-access trunk. The hatch opens high, and features a low entry point. Once inside, it’s properly cavernous, especially with the back seats folded down. As John points out, the Fit measures out as the biggest, too. —BT
The Fit lacked a few things on the equipment front that were certainly questionable. Chief among them were steering wheel-mounted radio controls, which could be found on the cheaper Mazda. You can pretty much spec all of the options here that you’ll find in the Fiesta, but you’ll make your Fit way more expensive in the process. —BT
Despite the Fiesta having the most power and torque, it never really delivered the kind of acceleration we were expecting. We suspect this has more to do with Ford’s eco-minded gear ratios than any actual issues with the engine. Is it too late to get the Mazda gearbox in the Fiesta? After driving the 2, shifting in the Ford seemed like quite a chore, thanks to the very long throws of its five-speed box—a bit too notchy to really run through the gears quickly. Worse still, if the Mazda’s clutch was too sensitive, the Ford’s felt like it had mainlined Novocain. It seemed like there was a lot more travel in the clutch than was necessary. This made it difficult to adjust to the catchpoint’s location. —BT
This was the least rewarding manual transmission, by kind of a lot. It felt pretty sloppy, while the other two cars offered fast, crisp shifts. There was a lot more room for error in the Ford’s box—not ideal when trying to shave off seconds. —JBS
Fiesta felt the slowest of our group, despite having the most power. Much of this was down to the manual transmission, which was far from inviting to use. I generally just stuck the car in third gear on our handling roads, and let the pieces fall where they may. —SM
I’m normally a big fan of Ford’s electronic power-assisted steering systems, but it just didn’t deliver against the competition. The rack itself wasn’t fast enough, and lacked precision and feedback when compared to the Honda and Mazda. On the freeway though, it felt quite a bit better. It didn’t feel skittish like the Mazda, which really made long trips easier to deal with. —BT
Although the steering feel wasn’t very good in terms of feedback, the Fiesta offered snappy response from on center, making turn-in an easy and rewarding feat. A few degrees from the helm, and the car eagerly turned in to attack the corner. —JBS
To me the steering experience was really indicative of the Fiesta tuning as a whole. This is a car that has been envisioned and engineered to be a good all-around vehicle—dynamically competent, but filtered enough to be comfortable. The result is steering that is precise and rather quick, but a bit lifeless. Both Honda and Mazda seem to be courting a car shopper that craves some excitement despite their probable small budget. Ford would rather, it seems, be happy to go after a larger audience, by sacrificing some elements that attract the enthusiast crowd. Is that approach bad? Not at all. Is it an approach that is likely to yield great steering feel and feedback? Not at all. —SM
The suspension felt tuned more toward comfort than for sporting driving, almost the opposite of the Mazda. The Fiesta drove more like a larger car, which is nice for longer drives, but not so helpful in the tight twisties. Still, it rode flatter than the Fit through the bends. —JBS
The Fiesta’s suspension is certainly the softest of our three cars. The damping just feels too soft to allow any real fun when pushed. There is a lot of lateral motion, which is disconcerting in a hard cornering situation, and the Fiesta felt like it would get out of sorts when asked to make rapid directional changes. This is definitely the highway cruiser of the group. —BT
I actually found the handling to be pretty balanced here—less stiff through the corners than either of the other cars, but better able to stay flat over broken roads, too. Fiesta didn’t move up and down on its suspension like the Honda did, but there was a lot more unwanted body movement overall. —SM
When I engaged in a little bit of hard braking, I saw the Fiesta’s nose dive like a French soccer player. This was especially evident on our handling route, where that dive would really damage driver confidence when setting up for a tight corner. —BT
The Fiesta’s engine had the heartiest sound. From hearing it, one could easily think it was more powerful than it actually is. It was lower in tone then the others, giving it a more American flavor. Sound came into the cabin enough to be heard and enjoyed, but not so much that it felt intrusive. —JBS
I noticed a surprisingly muscular engine note in the Fiesta that belied its lack of speed. It sounded pretty beefy, especially in the lower part of the rev range. Mid-range sounded good too, but the upper reaches sounded a bit more docile. The more luxurious Fiesta did a good job of keeping road noise in check, even on rougher roads. Wind noise was nicely isolated as well. This is the cabin to have if you want a quiet driving environment. —BT
Exhaust note was significant when I pushed the car hard, but the Ford was the most quiet of our bunch, most of the time. True to the rest of its character, I’d say. —SM
Fiesta offered a low-slung, cocooned seating position that felt sporty, but it also afforded the least amount of forward visibility of the trio. (Still easy to see out of, to be sure.) As far as practicality goes though, the Fiesta was the hands-down winner, for sure. The starting price is a little bit higher for a lot more content, the fuel economy is the best, and comfort levels were higher here than in the Honda or Mazda. —SM
The Fiesta definitely had the nicest interior. It felt the most grown up of the three, with the most content and comfort for the buck. The seats were comfortable, and the plastic used throughout the cabin didn’t look particularly cheap. —JBS
I had the easiest time getting adjusted to the Fiesta. The seat offered a lot of adjustability, and when combined with the telescopic steering wheel, it felt like the cabin was custom tailored to me. Like the Mazda, accessing the Ford’s trunk required negotiating the high rear bumper, and making the best of a rather narrow space for loading and unloading. There is a lot of low-cost plastic in the trunk that you risk scuffing, too. The Fiesta doesn’t really have that much in the way of usable rear-seat space. Legroom is tight even with the front seats scooted up. Ingress/egress is comparable with the Mazda, but isn’t as good as the Fit. —BT
The Ford is far and away the winner on the content front. For not much more money than the Honda, there’s a lot more equipment, both standard and available with options. —BT
Brandon Turkus Picks: Ford Fiesta
While there is no denying that the Mazda2 and Honda Fit represent incredible values in terms of driver involvement, I can put hand on heart and say I’d rather have a Fiesta in my garage. Involvement, while absolutely essential to any car, is not the be all or end all of a car (otherwise we’d all be driving around in Caterhams).
What the Fiesta represents in this comparison and in the new car marketplace at large is an excellent combination of involvement and content. This is a car that, while not as adept at the autocross circuit or on a twisty road as our other two cars, still allows a driver to go out and have a good time on a nice bit of road. In the context of this comparison, the Fiesta isn’t particularly good. But in the wider context of the new car market, it still represents a fairly involving car.
At the same time, it packs a great deal of content into a small package and at a price point that won’t break the bank. Case in point, a Fiesta minus our tester’s heated leather seats only costs about $185 more than our Fit Sport. It doesn’t hurt that the Fiesta is arguably one of the best looking cars, not only in this class, but across the market.
John Beltz Snyder Picks: Honda Fit
After being long reluctant to like the car, two things led me to finally rightfully appreciate the Honda Fit. First, I learned, in general, to appreciate small cars with small, low-powered engines. Second, I drove a Fit equipped with a manual transmission. After that it, all made sense to me.
The little Honda engine is happy to rev. In addition, inputs to the right pedal are met with immediate and totally predictable response. Same with the brakes. When stopping and going, the car seems to do exactly what you intended it to do. The five-speed manual transmission is also really slick feeling. While not perhaps quite as short of throw as the Mazda2’s, every time you drop the Honda into a new gear, it settles in very nicely, and with a satisfying feel. This makes rowing the gears a motive treat.
But the engine’s sweet spot is a lot bigger than those of the other two contenders. When you switch gears in the Fit, even if you botch it a bit, you’re never really struggling to get moving again. This forgiving nature also means the driver has to shift fewer times over the same stretch of road. Less chance for error, and more time spent applying power.
The only thing the Honda really lacks, here, is the flat cornering of the other two cars. Any quickness that is conceded to rolling through the corners, though, is made up easily by the gap in easily accessible power on demand.
Seyth Miersma Picks: Mazda2
We’ve lived with the Mazda2 at our office for three months now. So, while it’s easy to see that both the Fit and the Fiesta are worthy competition, it’s clear to me that the Deuce is the best driver’s car of the group.
The 2 is light, pointy, and quick, with controls that are almost universally direct and communicative. All of those attributes make the Mazda a car that is as fun to drive through an urban environment as it is on the sort of twisting back roads that we love to traverse. Sure, the highway driver that puts in a two-hour commute every day is probably going to want a car that’s quieter and more refined—I’ll give you that. But anyone who is looking to squeeze as much excitement out of their small car budget as possible will want to drive the 2 first.
In many ways the Mazda2 is following in the footsteps of the MX-5, which has become the standard bearer for grassroots motorsport over the last few decades. It may not have the rear-drive smoothness of its roadster cousin, but I’ve no doubt that many a 2 will see use as an autocrossing machine or other low-cost racing option. That’s high praise for the cheapest car in Mazda’s lineup, and great news for small car fans everywhere.
2011 Ford Fiesta SES
Engine: Inline-4, 1.6 liters, 16v
Output: 120 hp/112 lb-ft
Weight: 2537 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 29/38 mpg
Base Price: $17,120
As Tested: $19,605
On Sale: Now
2011 Honda Fit Sport
Engine: Inline-4, 1.5 liters, 16v
Output: 117 hp/106 lb-ft
Weight: 2520 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 27/33 mpg
Base Price: $16,860
As Tested: $17,610
On Sale: Now
2011 Mazda2 Touring
Engine: Inline-4, 1.5 liters, 16v
Output: 100 hp/98 lb-ft
Weight: 2306 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 29/35 mpg
Base Price: $15,635
As Tested: $16,430
On Sale: Now
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