Powertrain performance is perky, but certainly not the high point of the 5. Despite a variable induction system and a variable intake valve timing system, the engine often needs a downshift or two to even squeeze ahead for a lane change. And at full throttle, or close to it, with the automatic, the Mazda5's engine gets wheezy at the top of each gear, then surges forward as the next higher gear pulls the engine back up to its torque plateau—which seems to really find its stride near 3,500 rpm then run out of steam nearing 5,000 rpm or so. There's really no point in revving the engine into its noisy upper reaches. Luckily the manumatic controls allow you to lock in a gear—with no full-throttle forced downshift—so that you can rocket out of corners on the torque curve, without a raucous show.
A manual gearbox in a minivan? Yes!
The automatic transmission deals with hills better than most, smartly downshifting a gear before bogging down, even on shorter grades, yet not feeling too busy. Though we spent most of our time in Grand Touring and Touring automatic models, we much preferred a short stint in a manual-gearbox Mazda5 Sport. As with the manual gearbox in the Mazda3, the linkage is a little imprecise between gates, but the Mazda5 feels noticeably more energetic with the manual, with a nice, light clutch take-up and well-spaced ratios.
Fuel economy ratings for the Mazda5 with either transmission land at 21 mpg city, 28 highway. We saw about 19 mpg in two different automatic-transmission Mazda5s, driving in a spirited way on a mix of mountain two-laners and Southern California freeways. It's not all that impressive, and about what we would have seen from the Honda Odyssey or Toyota Sienna in similar conditions, but we look forward to seeing what we get in gentler real-world driving.
Back to the 5's packaging—hard to fault in any way—one of the Mazda5's many trump cards is the ease with which its seats fold down. With just a little, easy-to-reach pull strap, the third row folds forward, completely flat (provided you don't have that second row far back in its travel). That's probably what most families will do most of the time, as it opens up a low load floor with 44.4 cubic feet of cargo space. In the second row, the lower cushions flip forward to expose a storage compartment that's large enough for a purse or small camera bag, and if you leave those cushions flipped forward (and the headrests flipped forward) you can also fold the backrests forward flat, to closely align with the rest of the load floor. It's quite the continuous surface, and getting there seems refreshingly simple compared to many SUVs and even some minivans.
Mazda has added just a little more length to the lower cushions in the first and second rows to better fit taller folks, and while this 6'6" driver still didn't feel sprawled-out luxury comfortable, there was enough comfort for a few hours, if not cross-country. Second-row accommodations don't skimp; the seats feel nearly as ample (though a little less padded), and there's plenty of headroom. Getting in and out of the second row doesn't require any bow of the head either.
Inside, Mazda has updated the interior to better fit in with the interiors of the Mazda3 and Mazda6 lineups, with a more simple, matte look, with bright accents, throughout, and a few more curves added to the instrument panel. The Mazda5 gets the Mazda3's rounded climate control vents at either side, and center vents have been moved higher up for better flow. Audio systems have also been completely redesigned and reconfigured, and there's a new trip meter and display up on top, in the line of sight.
Nagare looks really good here
We like the new 5's look on the outside especially. The new Mazda5 keeps the same size and proportions, but it's the first (and perhaps only) of the brand's vehicles to fully adopt Mazda's Nagare design language, including a flow of creases and surfacing that rises over aggressively contoured front fenders and swoops along the side of the vehicle, with a sort of twist at the front of the front door. Taillights have been repositioned from the current vehicle's vertical rear-pillar configuration to a lower, more carlike design, while at the front the Mazda5 has adopted a new front-end design—much like that of the Mazda3—that positions the 'grinning' corporate grille below the level of the headlights. In all, this new design gives the Mazda5 a slightly lower, more carlike stance that tricks you into seeing it as a little lower and wider, even if it's essentially unchanged.
The presentation is hardly perfect, though. The hard, hollow plastic atop the instrument panel is among the worst we've seen in any new vehicle as of late; the dull, lightly grained black plastic used around the shift faceplate looks of the type that's easily scratched by watches or bracelets, and the vinyl-ish boot around the manual shifter feels like a parts-bin extra from the '90s. Upholsteries are about as expected for the price, with the base cloth feeling durable, grippy, and ready to take repeated deep cleans from toddlers' spills, while the available perforated leather with piping looks great but feels a little slippery and overtreated.