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If you’re finding that your growing family demands minivan convenience and versatility, but your heart calls out for something that drives like a sporty small car, not a transportation appliance, you should definitely consider the Mazda5. There’s a charming simplicity to the way the Mazda5 is presented—and how it drives. Size-wise, it’s a 7/8-scale minivan; there aren’t a lot of frills, and there are no power rear hatches or power folding seats; from the driver’s seat, you might think you’re in a nimble small car, yet there are convenient sliding side doors and oodles of easily reconfigurable interior space.
The Mazda5 has been completely redesigned for 2012, and while it keeps its compact size and minivan-like proportions, it’s a little more exciting to look at, especially from the side. As the first (and perhaps only) vehicle to adopt Mazda’s Nagare design language, the Mazda5’s fenders are aggressively contoured, and there’s a flow of creases and surfacing that rises from them, swooping along the side of the vehicle and entering a ‘twist’ at the front of the front door. Taillights have been made horizontal and more carlike, while in front there’s a more subtle version of the Mazda3’s ‘grinning’ corporate grille—altogether making the Mazda5 look slightly lower and more carlike in stance.
Underpinnings of the Mazda5 are modest but sporty, with much of the model’s running gear—and some of its structure—borrowed directly from the Mazda3. The 157-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder, with either a six-speed manual transmission or five-speed automatic is by no means quick, but it’s just peppy enough thanks to well-chosen gear ratios. Manual-gearbox Mazda5 models feel more energetic than those with the automatic, but the automatic offers full manumatic control.
Top-notch steering and a nimble, athletic feel make the 5 a blast to drive, especially when the road winds. The Mazda5’s quick-ratio electro-hydraulic power steering is weighted about perfectly, and feels natural and confident whether you’re cruising on the highway or taking on the tight esses of a mountain road. Likewise, body control is tight, and four-wheel disc brakes provide strong stopping power without the dramatic nosedive of other people-movers.
EPA fuel economy ratings for either model are 19 mpg city, 28 highway. But we’ve seen significantly better real-world results. In a 420-mile, varied drive of a manual-gearbox model, over two mountain passes, mostly highway driving plus some city miles, we averaged nearly 30 mpg.
The basic design of the Mazda5 cabin is hard to fault in any way; Mazda has managed to fit seating for six—three usable rows—in a vehicle that’s shorter than a typical mid-size sedan. While front seats are a little too skimpy and flat—even compared to those in the Mazda3, it seems—the buckets in the second row of the Mazda5 have enough space for adults to be comfortable—or for kids to have their own individual seat. The third-row split bench is hard to get to—and adults will find their knees positioned toward their chins—but it works in a pinch, or more often for smaller kids. The 5’s cargo-and-versatility trumph is its easy-folding third-row seat. With a simple pull of a strap, the third row seatback flips forward to a flat cargo floor. Then, for even more space, in two steps, you can flip the second row forward to almost align with the other portion—forming a mostly flat, huge cargo space without requiring much muscle or any removal of seats.
An available perforated leather upholstery with contrasting piping looks great from a distance, but up close it feels a little slippery and overtreated; we think most Mazda5 buyers will be happy with the base cloth, which feels durable and looks ready to take on repeated deep cleans from toddlers’ spills.
The two most significant letdowns of the Mazda5’s interior are its drab, hard-and-hollow plastic trim for the dash and door panels, and the seemingly ever-present din of road noise on some surfaces. Otherwise, ride quality is surprisingly absorbent and comfortable, given the suspension’s taut, responsive tuning.
With the base-model Mazda5 Sport trim, Mazda was clearly skimping a little bit on features in order to deliver it for a high-value base price of less than $20k, but we venture to say that much of the new-parent crowd will be a little disappointed at the lack of connectivity or top-notch sound systems. The 5’s rather primitive, basic audio system has no USB input or iPod compatibility, and with satellite radio it’s only capable of displaying a few characters (it will scroll some entries but not others with the press of a button). Touring and Grand Touring models get Bluetooth hands-free calling and Bluetooth audio streaming, though. In top-of-the-line Grand Touring form, the Mazda5 also comes with a power moonroof, heated mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, xenon HID headlamps, heated front seats, and Sirius satellite radio (a standalone option, too), all for around $25k.