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2012 Mazda5: A Smart Pick, But Lean Feature Set Might Limit Appeal

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For most of the time that it's been on sale in the U.S. market—nearly five years—the Mazda5 has been an odd one out in the market—and a niche vehicle, despite its conventional minivan silhouette.

As Mazda points out, compared to the Dodge Caravan, which kicked off the U.S. minivan craze back in 1983, the 2012 Mazda5 is actually about five inches longer—and about the same width and height. Yet it manages to package in a usable third row of seats, and has 157 hp from its four-cylinder engine while the Caravan was under 100 hp.

However minivans, as most of the U.S. market knows them, have become big and bloated, and nearly as big as the full-size Country Squire–esque wagons they were eschewing in the first place.

By sticking to a leaner, more modest minivan, Mazda has surely locked onto a healthy niche market. Over the past several years, the automaker has been quietly selling increasingly more Mazda5 models with virtually no advertising or marketing dollars. And for those who want this kind of vehicle, there aren't any alternatives: Mazda found that 29 percent of buyers for the outgoing generation of the Mazda5 seriously considered no other model when vehicle shopping. That's an enviable claim, for certain.

In looking at its current buyer set, affordability ranked near the top among reasons for purchase. So with the full redesign of the Mazda5, the brand didn't innovate; rather it took the Mazda5 package, gave it a little more refinement and quite a bit more design flair from the outside, and didn't go overboard with features and options that would drive the price up.

The former generation of the Mazda5 was brought over as a sort of experiment—and Mazda ended up selling far more than expected with no significant marketing or advertising. This time there are a few signs that the 2012 Mazda5 was designed with Americans in mind (such as the more ample seat cushions)

2012 Mazda MAZDA5

2012 Mazda MAZDA5

Enlarge Photo
As we noted in our First Drive of the 2012 Mazda5, the new version of this van remains one of our favorite people-mover picks as it retains the surprising fun-to-drive qualities of the previous version--and even improves on them. But the resulting 2012 Mazda5 smacks of cost-consciousness. Its interior materials feel very basic and on a budget; there's no direct-injection engine; no power doors, hatches, or seats (though you don't need them here); and it has no USB plug, no iPod controls, and no available navigation system.

Mazda says that it's anticipating that buyers will be bringing their own portable navigation systems or nav-equipped smartphones on board, but it seems to us that an affordable nav option would have a place. At the same time, the typical family that ends up buying a Mazda5 is college-educated and makes just over $90k a year, and it seems that connectivity for their iPhones and iPods would be a priority.

Sound systems are very modest, too. The base system sounds well enough (albeit a little muddy with bass response), but it felt like an old-generation system with a fresh faceplate; it's tuning of Sirius stations was frustratingly slow, and the old orange-lit display will only show a few characters.

Mazda's choice not to innovate with connectivity or entertainment in the Mazda5 might help sell more in the short term, and focus the message around what this van does well: transport a small family with a more responsive, rewarding driving experience. But with the arrival of the Ford C-Max (which we've driven in Euro-spec form) early next year—with MyFord Touch, Sync, and Sony audio on the options list—families looking for a van-like vehicle that's not as mammoth as so-called minivans will have some fresh options.

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  1. We looked at the a couple of years ago. In the end, we went with a compact SUV instead. We wanted the manual transmission, because we enjoy driving and the control it yields. Mazda had decided that anyone who wanted a stick didn't like conveniences, so you couldn't get it with fancy stuff, like power seats...
    My parents had the larger engine in their Caravan (3.0 V6), and it sure seemed to have a lot more power than the Mazda 5. In our test drive, it really struggled with uphill freeway sections.
     
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