- Ride quality
- Steering's full of feel
- Handles more like a hatch than a minivan
- Skimpy front seats
- Can be noisy
- Short features list
If you don't mind being seen in a minivan--but don't want to feel like you're driving one--the 2013 Mazda 5 fits the bill, though it's short on some features.
Minivans might be a necessary evil for a particular stage in life, but accepting the utility of a family hauler doesn't mean a life sentence to dull driving. The Mazda 5 is our proof--it's charming in its simplicity, with the dynamics of a hatchback more so than a minivan. It looks and acts the part of a sliding-door wagon, but it sure doesn't feel like it.
Redesigned just last year, the Mazda 5 returns with just a minor change or two. Left untouched are its compact proportions and the updated look it brought to the fore for the 2012 model year. There's some aggressive contouring in its fenders, and a rhythmic flow to its surfaces and creases outside of the big panels of glass and metal that define its one-box passenger space. Yes, it's a minivan, but at least it fights against monotony. The cockpit is more deserving of nitpicks: the controls are clutter-free, but the amount of shiny, hard plastics can be disappointing even in such a value-priced vehicle.
With some structure and drivetrains on loan from the Mazda 3, the Mazda 5 summons a sporty but modest feel. Its 2.5-liter four-cylinder has just 157 horsepower; it's not quick at all. We'd choose the standard six-speed manual transmission on the base version, but even the five-speed automatic on upper trims has manual shift control. In both cases acceleration is adequate, thanks to well-chosen gear ratios. Gas mileage is fine, at up to 28 mpg highway, but other bigger minivans can do just as well on paper, though we've seen higher real-world fuel economy in the Mazda.
It's the Mazda 5's handling that draws our attention. The athletic feel starts with top-notch steering and a well composed ride. It's a blast to drive, especially when the road winds. It feels natural and confident, and ride quality is comfortable and absorbent whether you’re cruising on the highway or taking on the tight esses of a mountain road.
Size-wise, the Mazda 5 is 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. Mazda has managed to fit seating for six—three usable rows—in a vehicle that’s shorter than a typical mid-size sedan. The front seats are a little skimpy, but the buckets in the second row have enough space for adults to be comfortable. The third-row split bench works in a pinch for smaller kids--and folds away to create big cargo-carrying capacity. The two most significant letdowns of the Mazda 5’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.
With the base $20,000 Sport, Mazda has a niche to itself, with a manual-transmission minivan with six-passenger seating. A USB port is now standard across the board, as are power features and a CD player; Touring and Grand Touring models get Bluetooth hands-free calling and Bluetooth audio streaming, though. In top-of-the-line Grand Touring form, the Mazda 5 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 $25.000.
The Mazda5 hasn't changed significantly going on to the 2013 model year, but in follow-up drives of the Mazda5 we've found that it remains one of the most fun-to-drive yet frugal family vehicles you can get.