Make no mistake, we are all caught up in the middle of a war against boring cars. Over the years we’ve seen a lot of good cars get torn up in bad ways by nasty styling and stupid features. Worst of all though, is when a vehicle just doesn’t care anymore. When a car goes numb, it becomes a heartless transportation device, a ruthlessly mundane driving machine.

Well, it’s time to put an end to all that. There’s no reason a car can’t get your where you need to go AND be thrilling to drive and nice to look at. As cars become increasingly expensive to run and park in the city centres, automakers will need to build cars at every price point that people actually want to own, rather than need to own.

These two little cheap subcompact cars are the beginning of a new breed. They look nice, they drive well, they’re inexpensive and they attempt to deliver some modest driving thrills. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. We’ve been here before – the original Austin Mini for example – but vehicles like this are few and far between and throughout much of the ‘90s and ‘00s it felt like they didn’t exist. It felt… like boring won.

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They may carry different badges, but both of these cars share the same platform. The Mazda takes the less is more approach, while the Ford goes in the opposite direction.

The ‘2’ feels more Spartan. In part, that’s thanks to its lithe 1,051 kg curb weight but it also has to do with its style and features. The dash is small and the centre console stack is ultra-space efficient. It’s not always pretty – with the major exception of that great three-spoke steering wheel – but we appreciate the simplicity and honesty of the interior design.

It’s important to keep in mind that the Mazda is $2,800 cheaper than the Fiesta hatchback. True, the Ford does have more equipment at those prices, but even if you add air conditioning to the Mazda, there’s still a $1,600 difference. 

Because the Mazda2 has to haul around 100 kg less than the Ford, Japanese engineers were able to make do with a smaller engine. The 1.5-litre four-cylinder only makes 100 horsepower and 98 lb-ft of torque, but when mated to the snickety five-speed manual of our test car, it felt quicker and more lively around downtown city streets than many cars we’ve driven. It’s proof you don’t need power to have fun. With the automatic though, we imagine the story would’ve been quite different.

With small cars, space will always be a big concern. The Mazda has less trunk capacity than its rival with the rear-seats in place, but more when they’re folded down.

We can attest to the fact that although the Mazda is the smaller of the two vehicles, it is actually more spacious in the rear seats. We managed to fit three fully-grown road-testers in there, barely, but the Ford’s more extensive interior styling meant it seemed narrower inside. If you’re planning on carrying passengers in either of these cars, know that it will make a significant impact on fuel economy and ride quality. Both cars ride very low on their springs when fully loaded.

Finally – and perhaps most importantly – we must report that Michael Banovksy, editor here at Autofocus, was able to fit in the boot of both cars with the trunk closed and the rear seats in place. Why he did this, we don’t know, but there you have it (plus photos above for proof).

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Starting at $16,799, the Ford hatchback sits well above the price of not only the Mazda, but also other rivals in the subcompact segment like the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Kia Rio.

You do get extras for your money though. It’s pretty obvious when you settle into the driver’s seat the Ford is the more substantial of the two vehicles. The dash looms very large in front of you, and there are big, plastic volumes emerging forth from it at odd angles. The centre console design is better, but it takes up more space: a toss up. On the other hand, the bulky door trim seems to intrude on interior space, especially in the rear.

Outside, the Ford looks like the more mature of the two, but it’s down to personal preference. Our testers were divided.

Unlike the Mazda, the Fiesta comes with a tilt and telescoping steering wheel (tilt only in the ‘2’), air-con, trip computer and a proper four-speaker stereo system (only two in the ‘2’).

On standard safety, both cars score high with all sorts of airbags, plus traction control, stability control and ABS.

Although it weighs 1,150 kg, the Ford is working with more power. Its 1.6-litre mill makes 120 horsepower and 112 lb-ft of torque. Don’t worry, we’ve done the mathematics for you and in terms of power-to-weight ratio, the Ford comes out comfortably on top.

For those of you who drive automatics only, the Ford has one big advantage: an advanced six-speed dual-clutch gearbox is an option, where the Mazda makes do with an old-school four-speed auto. We did not sample it here, but all other twin-clutcher we’ve rowed do an eviable of boosting performance and economy. Us? We’d stick with the manual ‘boxes in both cars.

Like in the Mazda, the Fiesta’s steering and handling feels better than the class average and honestly, there’s not much between them in this respect. Both are pointy and eager to dart wherever you point the wheel.

I have been dreading this bit. If I had to choose between these, I’d probably save some cash and go with the base Mazda plus AirCon. Cheap and just as cheerful. If you have plenty of cash, though, and need something small, a fully loaded Fiesta would be keep you happy—just remember that fully-loaded, you’re well into Focus (and even Fusion) territory.
Specifications:

MAZDA2

PRICE: $13,995 – $18,195
ENGINE: 1.5L four-cylinder
POWER: 100 hp, 98 lb-ft of torque
WEIGHT – 1,051 kg
CITY – 6.8 L/100 kmHWY  - 5.6 L/100 km

FORD FIESTA 
PRICE: $12,999 – $18,899 ($16,799 for base hatch)
ENGINE – 1.6L four-cylinder
POWER: 120 hp, 112 lb-ft of torque
WEIGHT – 1150 kg
CITY – 7.1 L/100 kmHWY  - 5.3 L/100 km