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TCC Drives: Mazda5

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Is it a Euro-sized minivan? A crossover? An MPV? A tall wagon with sliding doors?

Whatever way you see it, the 5 is a class of vehicle that we don't have enough of in the U.S.: zippy and fun-to-drive (in personality if not execution) yet cavernous inside. Not since being in the Kia Rondo — the closest match I can think of — have I been in a test vehicle that wows me with its available interior space as much as the 5.

Last time we did a full review of the 5, we found its interior smartly designed for people and cargo, and its steering and braking fully in support of Mazda's “zoom-zoom” brand image. But we thought that it fell short in one area: powertrain. The standard five-speed manual brought passable performance with a light load, but especially with the available four-speed and a load of people and effects, it felt anything but “zoom-zoom.”

With the Rondo now in the mix, we decided to revisit the Mazda5 and see if the new five-speed automatic offered for 2008 brought much improvement.

But first, interior space, which is the 5's forte: The 5 has seating for six, with two buckets in each of the first two rows, and a split bench for two in the third row. To clarify, there's really only seating for four adults; the third-row seats are ridiculously small in the legroom department but could prove useful if you're part of a parental carpool and need to transport kids more tot- than teen-sized. The third row flips forward easily, to a flat position, with just the pull of a strap, while folding the second-row seats forward is a simple two-step process. What you get is a cargo floor that's almost completely flat all the way to the front seats. But you'll need a blanket or tarp, as the delicate-feeling leather in our test vehicle continued around the back of the seat, which becomes the cargo floor.

That cargo space is huge. I tested it out by moving a band's worth of equipment. Including multiple instruments, a drum kit, a bass amp, and a large speaker cabinet, it all fit behind the front seats.

The only letdown, ironically, in all of this space-efficiency talk, is a lack of space and comfort for the driver. At 6'-6”, I could fit alright into the driver's seat, but I couldn't get truly comfortable and certainly wouldn't choose the 5 for a long trip for this reason. The proportions of the lower cushion in particular were just too small, and I'd imagine anyone over six feet with long legs to have the same issues — conversely, the seats weren't that wide either.

As before, we were very impressed with the way the 5 handled, steered, and braked (although the brakes on our test car were a little overboosted), and the ride was on the firm side but smoothed out a bit with a full load.

But the powertrain again was the low point. Essentially the same engine that feels so perky in the Mazda3, the 153-hp, 2.3-liter four may surprise you on the test drive with its super-aggressive, touchy throttle, but you'll get used to it and soon realize — to no fault of the engine itself — that there isn't really that much accessible oomph to move nearly 3500 pounds. So much for zoom-zoom. Having five speeds on the automatic helps though, especially at highway speeds where a downshift to fourth to squeeze past traffic is much smoother and less intrusive than we remember the four-speed's kick-down to be.

I won't go so far as to call the Mazda5 seductive, but it is seductively practical and has two things that are rare in this size of vehicle and otherwise impossible to get together: sliding doors and a manual transmission. If you don't mind an automatic and hinged doors, you should take a look at the Rondo, too, but if you're a city dweller and the not-so-mini, so-called minivans are just too big, the 5 — whatever it is — should be on your shortlist.
 
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