Those wacky Japanese-thanks to them we get those neat t-shirts (you know, the ones that read “Super Happy Fun Boy!” or “Winning is for me #1!”), and that cool script that less-imaginative gaigin use to tattoo platitudes on themselves. We also get a glimpse of what their roadways must look like-pint-sized, grinning machines straight out of one of those anime comics-but usually only through media coverage of their Tokyo Auto Show. After all, the folks from the Land of the Rising Sun learned long ago that their wacky designs didn’t do much for sales, and started emulating American and German design even better than the Americans and Germans himself did it. That’s why it’s neat when the corporate honchos let a model that’s straight from the Japanese Domestic Market through onto our shores-it’s like a glimpse of an automotive life most of us will never see.
And that’s what the Mazda5 is; it was designed for Japan, but some suits at Mazda figured they could make a business case for bringing it here-where it’s essentially in a class of its own. What it is, is really a mini-minivan; a minivan-let, if you prefer. Sitting on an enlarged version of the compact Mazda3 platform, and borrowing that compact’s mechanicals as well, the Mazda5 is tinier than even the old Corvair-based Greenbrier vans of the ’60s. Only 15 feet long and less than six feet wide, the 5 will surprise you with how big it seems inside, however. In fact, after seven days and six hundred miles, we’re even beginning to wonder if our own inherent taste for large-footprint family transport. Could it be that we don’t need 240 horses, 20 feet, and 4,000 pounds to haul the kids around?
There are three rows of seats inside the Mazda 5, and while it’s not spacious enough to walk around upright in, the seating is actually more comfortable than most 3-row SUVs we’ve tested. The seats themselves are thin, though-little space-saving tricks add up to a lot here.
Something else the 5 doesn’t do like a minivan-drive. It’s front-wheel-drive, and a little underpowered, but the low center of gravity and outbound wheel-placement means the 5 retains more of its compact qualities, as far as behind-the-wheel feel goes. In fact, the 5 handles in most driving situations like a decent compact car-that is, nimble around town, if a little overmatched when pushing it on interstate freeways. It feels light and ‘zippy’ if not quick, but much like those original Japanese imports back in the 60s’, it’s not entirely comfortable in the left lane of some of our faster freeways.
Speaking of power, the only motor in the 5 is the 2.3-liter four-banger that’s optional-and quite a screamer-in the Mazda3. It makes the same 157 horsepower in this application, but the extra four hundred pounds or so (3,389 with the automatic, as tested) make the 5 feel strained where the Mazda3 2.3 feels unencumbered. Part of that may be the paltry 148 lb./ft. of torque. Much of the blame also rests with the 5’s four-speed automatic transmission, though-it’s a low-tech piece that feels out of place in such a modern ride. A slow learner, this tranny never seems to sense any sort of aggressive driving, thus always seeming to be a gear too high when you need it. It also revs the engine at higher freeway speeds, not into the powerband where at least you’d get some sporty feel out of it, but just to where it’s inefficient and loud. In fact, this tranny is probably the weakest link in an otherwise attractive package.
Stepping into the Mazda5 feels a lot more like entering you average midsize Japanese family sedan-accord, Mazda6, etc.-than climbing into a minivan. The color scheme inside is basic black, with some aluminum bits here and there to break up the continuity, and the emphasis is clearly function over form. Controls are simple and fall readily to hand; everything feels solid without being over-engineered, in the way that Accords and their ilk do. There’s good bolstering in the front seats, too, although the passenger inboard armrest is sacrificed to the cause of pass-thru space to the next row. Entré into the back is via standard hinged doors; the 5 eschews the sliding-door trick, and is all the better for it.
The sole option in our Mazda5 Touring press tester was the $1,200 navigation system. Now, we’ve been staunch advocates of touch-screen based systems like those found in Toyota/Lexus products-but Mazda’s is probably the best of the bunch out of those that lack this convenience. Not once did it lose the signal, and entering destinations and other info was easier here than in systems from manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz or GM. The icing on that cake is the slick motorized panel that houses the screen; it pops up when in use like something out of MTV’s Pimp My Ride, and tilts to different angles at the touch of a button to reduce glare. As ever we’d recommend thinking about how much you’d actually need such a system before dropping a couple grand on it-not to mention consider investing in a Thomas Guide or two-but Mazda’s nav setup is better than most.
We usually begin a review like this with some thoughts on the vehicle’s styling-but when we’re talking minivan, there’s often not much to say, so we lead with other considerations. The Mazda5 doesn’t rate a change in this process, either. It’s straight-up minivan, in three-quarter scale. It’s your basic one-box shape, with a slick, sloped nose, slab sides, and a chopped tail. Still, much like Mazda’s MPV, the 5 does do more with the basic design than most efforts. There’s a sort of unexpected sleekness to the whole look, perhaps thanks to a lack of extraneous spoilers and ground effects.
We put a lot of miles on our press tester in our week with it. Roughly 80% of that was on mostly-empty freeways, at extra-legal speeds. Our average economy worked out to be just under 27 m.p.g. Rather impressive, and that figure would’ve been further improved had the tranny sported an extra cog. Still, that’s a solid performance, especially in these uncertain times-and significantly better than any minivan we’ve had in the fleet.
One last area where the Mazda5 trumps a conventional minivan-price. The 5 carries a pretty light price tag, especially if you’re cross-shopping minivans: under $18,000 to start. You simply can’t buy a six-passenger vehicle for less, and that’s before you factor in fuel economy.