For most shoppers, the decision to get a third row of seats—to seat six or more when needed—is one that's going to involve some sacrifice, both in terms of the family budget and driving enjoyment. First there's the initial blow, as most vehicles with three rows typically cost thousands more than a mainstream compact crossover or sedan. Then you'll get hit again when it's time to fill up, as most vehicles with seating for six or seven don't deliver the mileage of smaller two-row vehicles either. As for driving enjoyment—third-row vehicles tend to be portly and anything but fleet-footed, so the jump from a compact car can be downright shocking.
But among vehicles with three rows, there's one U.S.-market model that stands out for not requiring those compromises: the 2012 Mazda5. As we've pointed out in our full review pages as well as in our first drive of the Mazda5, this little '7/8-scale minivan' drives with an athletic, nimble feel, and the ever-present sense of 'zoom-zoom' that the brand has imbued into nearly all its models.
On a recent follow-up drive with the 2012 Mazda5, we found this sprightly wagon to not only be enjoyable in the twisties, but also quite comfortable for longer highway stretches. Mazda has significantly reduced road noise in this generation, compared to the last, and that made quite the difference on Oregon's very coarse road surfaces.
Our manual-gearbox-equipped 2012 Mazda5 Sport stickered at just $20,470, including destination and optional satellite radio. That's less than most compact cars we've recently driven. And the manual transmission was a perfect companion during a weekend trip that took us along many curvy two-laners and over two mountain passes—helping make the most of the 5's excellent, sedan-like body control. The 157-hp, 2.5-liter 'MZR' four-cylinder engine had to be kept above the 3,500-rpm mark in order to gain momentum up the higher-altitude areas, but in cruising the tall sixth gear minimized engine noise and left just enough torque on tap at 70 mph to ease the speed up comfortably. The Mazda5's electro-hydraulic steering—combining the energy-saving benefits of electric power steering with the improved feel of hydraulic boost—is far better than that of any minivan or crossover we can think of, and better than the units in most compact cars.
The real surprise came when we returned to fill up. Carefully topping off the tank at the same pump after the weekend trip (and 420 miles of varied driving), we observed an average of nearly 30 mpg—soundly beating the Mazda5's EPA-rated 21 mpg city, 28 highway, and beating our own expectations by about 5 mpg. About half of the tank was on more level roads, with the cruise set, but considering the suburban miles and mountain driving it included, that's amazing.
The results also correspond to a trend we've noticed as the EPA's new driving cycles have been phased in, the past couple of model years: Manual transmissions tend to be rated lower than we've observed in real-world driving, while we're barely able to meet the estimates for automatics.
Even smart buys have their downsides, though, and the 5 is no exception. We were disappointed to find that there was no Bluetooth and no USB whatsoever in our test vehicle—and the sound system. Bluetooth is offered in upper Touring and Grand Touring trims, but there it can't be paired with the manual gearbox. Audio systems have supposedly been redesigned, but the displays are difficult, with the number of display characters for satellite radio very limited. And as we pointed out in our first drive, the dash and door trims really feel the price—they're dull, hard, and hollow-feeling and tend to accumulate fingerprints. That said, the base upholstery is grippy and comfortable.
Overall, the Mazda5's price, value for the money, gas mileage, and fun-to-drive factor amount to a package that's hard to resist. If you test-drive it through some corners, and see how easy the sliding doors make family chores, you might see that this 'zoomiest' van makes a lot of sense.