Mazda5: Less minivan, more fun
Mazda's new little van offers a lot more than you might think at a glance.
By Peter Valdes-Dapena, staff writer

NEW YORK ( - For getting a lot -- six people plus lots of stuff -- into a small space, the Mazda5 may just be the current champ.

Unfortunately, it's also a vehicle a lot of buyers will pass by because it looks like something they want desperately to avoid: the dreaded minivan.

I had a hard time getting my own wife interested in even taking a ride in it.

"It looks like a turd," she said.

I said it looked like a minivan, but she said that meant the same thing.

She wanted nothing to do with it. That was, at least, until she relented and realized how much legroom there was in the second row and how comfortable the seats were. (This was with the third row folded away so the second-row seats could be slid all the way back. Call it a cheat, but who's going to ride with the seat pushed forward when the one behind you is empty?)

Then I let her take the wheel for a short drive.

After that, she was insisting I show the car to our neighbors.

The ride

The Mazda5 I tested had just one option, a navigation system valued at about $1,500. Overall, it would cost a grand total of about $21,000.

That's a pretty low price for a vehicle that seats six people and feels as generally well put-together and appointed as this one.

The Mazda5 is priced a bit lower than the least expensive full-sized minivans. But the Mazda5 is for people who want better fuel mileage and more driving enjoyment than you can get out of a big van.

The 4-cylinder engine's 157 horsepower isn't overwhelming, but this is an engine that absolutely loves to rev. That means you can actually use those 157 horses without fearing that they're about to have little horsey heart attacks.

My test car had a 5-speed manual transmission and, more than once and without even meaning to, I blew right past the 6,500 RPM redline. Fortunately, the tachometer needle caught my eye as it reached high noon, otherwise I would have just kept going.

In case you hadn't heard, all Mazda cars these days are engineered to have what the company refers to as "zoom-zoom." (That's Japanese for "Fahrvergnuegen," for those who remember the old Volkswagen ads.)

The Mazda5 delivers a far more engaging driving experience than you would think from looking at it. Around town, it feels light and nimble, particularly so for a six passenger van. In curves, it feels well-balanced if a bit top-heavy. The steering is direct and intuitive.

If you're considering a Mazda5, make sure you test drive it on a highway. In the tradition of other Mazda cars, the Mazda5's steering is very sensitive at highway speeds. There's a lot of feedback from the road and even the slightest twitch of the wheel moves the car's nose.

A few particularly nifty features: A fold out center console in the second row includes a mesh bag hidden underneath a removable plastic tray. Also, hooks on the front and back of the little console are designed for the handles of plastic grocery bags, making for instant trash receptacles. Fold the bottoms of the second-row seats forward to reveal hidden storage bins underneath. And the navigation screen pops up from the dashboard only when you want it to.

The Mazda5 has not yet been crash-tested by either the U.S. government's Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the private Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The Mazda5 has been sold in Europe for some time, though, and it received a top rating in crash tests by the European equivalent of NHTSA.

It does not, however, come with electronic stability control which I think is an oversight in a vehicle like this. It would help keep the vehicle from going out of control in abrupt maneuvers. It should at least be an option.

If you won't be filling the third row every day -- it's not bad, but it won't be a favorite spot, and it requires stealing some legroom from the second row -- the Mazda5 could be a great alternative to one of those sportier-looking wagons like the Chrysler PT Cruiser or Chevrolet HHR.

Less style, yes, but more substance.

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