by Michael Austin from Car & Driver
Don’t be alarmed if you’re not too familiar with the Mazda5. After all, Mazda only sold about 16,000 in 2010. Chrysler sold as many Town & Country minivans every two months last year, but Mazda’s is still an impressive feat considering that the 5 has almost zero marketing support.
So let us reintroduce the Mazda 5, which has been updated for the 2012 model year with new sheetmetal, a new engine, and a new dash. For those buyers enlightened enough to spec a manual transmission in their tiny van—only about 5 percent of U.S 5 adopters—the 5’s five-speed is replaced by a six-speed for 2012. Unfortunately, the van tested here was equipped with an automatic. Mazda says this mini-minivan is aimed at young families looking to move up from an economy car but who don’t want the high sticker price or sluggish handling of a bigger van—given that narrow niche, the 5 would probably sell in small numbers even if it did receive marketing support. The fully loaded Grand Touring model we tested—sunroof, automatic xenon headlights, heated power mirrors, Sirius satellite radio, leather seats (heated in front)—comes in under the magic $25,000 limbo stick, at $24,670.
No Hiding the Stowaway
But wait, isn’t this the same pitch Ford gives for the upcoming C-Max? Although both vehicles can trace their underpinnings back to the same Ford global C-platform, neither company admits to much collusion. They’re clearly different vehicles, as evidenced by the Mazda’s second-row center console that folds into the right-side seat bottom. In the C-Max, it’s the middle seat that folds in exactly the same way. Suspiciously similar stowage aside, the vans at least look nothing alike. The 5 gets new front styling with a smiley-face grille, just like those on the Mazda 2 and 3. And its sides now feature the “sand ripple” creases first seen on the Nagare concept car. In the back, horizontal taillights replace the vertical stalks of the old 5.
Inside, the same three-row, six-passenger seating configuration remains. Noticeably absent is the option for navigation, as Mazda says its customers would rather buy a $100 portable nav unit than suffer the higher price of a factory piece. We’re still a little bit skeptical of this plan when the big players in the small-car field are offering more luxury and features than the segment has ever seen before. On the C-Max, for example, Ford plans to offer everything but the kitchen sink—Ford Sync will be available, though—including power side doors and a power hatch. We do expect, however, that such options would push the C-Max’s sticker well above the 5’s maximum. A C-Max equipped like the 5 tested here should price out similarly.
Under the hood, the Mazda 5 freshens up with a 2.5-liter inline-four similar to that in the 3, 6, and CX-7. Compared to the outgoing 2.3-liter, the 2.5 has 4 more hp—157—at a power peak 500 rpm earlier, at 6000. Torque increases 15 lb-ft to 163 and also tops out 500 rpm lower, at 4000. Highway fuel economy inches up 1 mpg to 28, although our as-tested result of 23 is closer to the 21-mpg city figure. On the test track, the new vanlet runs from 0 to 60 mph in nine seconds flat and covers the quarter-mile in 17.1 at 82 mph. It’s far from blistering, but 0.4 second quicker to 60 than before.
The Mazda 5 handles better than the meager steady-state cornering figure of 0.81 g would suggest. Turn the steering wheel and the front tires change your path without delay. All of the controls and responses are in harmony, making it easy (and fun) to wring the most out of the Mazda 5. When’s the last time you wanted to wring anything but your own neck in a minivan?
A Mazda 5 with a manual would be quicker, of course, and less expensive, too—the manual is only available in the $19,990 Sport model. More important, its mere availability is a reminder that Mazda is one of the few brands that continues to cater to people who care about driving. That mindset is evident even in the slushbox-equipped 5 that we tested. Most of the fun of the Mazda 3 is here, only with about 500 extra pounds. So, while the Mazda 5 isn’t the Miata of minivans—nothing really is—it is a reminder that family hauling doesn’t mean you have to give up on fun driving.