It’s the conversation every car guy dreads. You’re married, have a couple of kids, and it’s time to shop for a new car. While you’re busy learning all there is to know about the Audi A7 as the ultimate family conveyance, you are snapped back to reality when your spouse mentions that it may be time to consider a minivan. Now, before you start wailing and crying into your beer, there is hope for you-the Mazda5. Mazda promises a soul of a sports car in all its vehicles, but can the company that builds the MX-5 and RX-8 deliver a minivan that is practical and fun to drive as well? Read on…
The Mazda5 has been sold in North America since 2005 as a 2006 model. The Garage reviewed, and was genuinely impressed with the last generation car. Now in its second generation, Mazda has chosen an evolutionary approach, not straying at all from the original recipe. As a minivan, the Mazda5 dances to its own beat. With a proliferation of popular crossovers, the landscape for minivans has changed over the past decade, with many major automakersÃ‚Â abandoning the market altogether. The companies that remain in the fray generally offer pretty big vehicles that command big prices, and it is here where Mazda diverges. The Mazda5, in comparison is small, and with a starting price under $20,000USD, pretty affordable as well. And with the departure of the Kia Rondo from the US market in 2011, the Mazda5 is in a class by itself.
While the Mazda5 is a completely redesigned car, it will take a Mazda5 expert to note the differences, as the basic silhouette is the same. Most notable differences is the smiling face front end treatment, giving the 5 the corporate face of the Mazda3. Note the interesting surface treatment on the car’s sides in the picture above, which reminded me of swirling a couple fingers through fine sand. Interesting, but I wonder how that look will age, but from some angles you don’t even notice the effect. At the rear, conventional horizontal taillamps replace the vertical lights integrated in the pillar framing the rear door, which I was a little disappointed did not return in the new car. Even so, the Mazda5 is a smart looking minivan with a dash of sportiness that should please most people, and offend none.
Stepping inside the Mazda5 is refreshing as well. Crystal clear white on black gauges, just-right leather steering wheel, and decently bolstered seats covered in black leather with red piping give the right cues that fun can be had here. Yes, there are some hard plastics, but the car never came off feeling cheap. Controls are easy enough to get used to, but if I had any complaint, it is the small, hard to read red display showing time, outside temperature, audio and climate control functions. It is far away from the driver’s line of vision, the tiny digits take too long to decipher the information they’re showing, and when in Sirius satellite radio mode, not enough characters to convey any useful information. If you want that you need to scroll through an info button to see the name of the song and the artist, not something you need to do in other contemporary cars.
All Mazda5’s share one engine, a new 2.5L four cylinder with 157hp. The Base Mazda5 Sport is available with a new six-speed manual, but Touring and Grand Touring models are stuck with a five-speed automatic only. The 5 offers a pleasing amount of pep around town, and the work the transmission is doing is mostly transparent, but obviously you’re not going to win many drag races with this car, and it was never meant to. The Mazda5 has EPA fuel economy ratings of 21/28 MPG city/highway. Where the Mazda5 shines is the steering, handling and brakes. With disc brakes at all four corners and independent suspension front and back, the 5 is actually fun to drive, and does not fall all over itself when the road throws curves at you, which is what you would typically expect with a minivan. No, this is not an MX-5 with three rows of seating, but you will be hard pressed to find a minivan that can keep its composure the way a Mazda5 can.
As we said, the Mazda5 is available in base Sport, mid-level Touring, and top-spec Grand Touring trim levels. Our test car was the Grand Touring, which gave us cool exterior features like 17″ alloys, xenon headlights, fog lights, side sill extensions and a rear liftgate spoiler. Other standard features included leather seats (heated up front), auto climate control, six-speaker stereo with Sirius satellite radio, Bluetooth and power moonroof. Including delivery, our car had an as-tested MSRP of $24,720USD. That’s not a bad price, but the Mazda5 is lacking some features and options many expect to find in a minivan. While a DVD entertainment system is available as a dealer installed option, staples like GPS Navigation and a back-up camera are conspicuous by their absence. Power sliding doors and liftgate are also not on the menu, but I found the doors light enough that I didn’t miss them.
So, what to make of this micro-minivan? Well, if you have more than two kids, you should probably look for something bigger. The Mazda5 seats six in a 2+2+2 set-up, with the third row just right for when you need to drop off your kid’s teammates off. With the third row folded down, there is plenty of room for all the luggage a family of three or four would need. Although the minivan market has shrunk considerably in North America, the Mazda5 is a welcome addition, proving that practicality and driving fun can be combined in a relatively affordable package. In essence, the Mazda5 is the minivan for the person who wants the utility, without sacrificing the fun. As I watched our test car drive away, my best summation of the Mazda5 was this-most minivan owners would hit a fast food drive through, but the Mazda5 owner would hit their favorite gourmet food truck-this is a car for the individual with particular tastes that are outside the mainstream.