2012 Mazda Mazda5: First Drive

February 25, 2011
There's a certain charming simplicity about the 2012 Mazda5. Yes, it's a minivan. Yes, it's a little lower, sportier, and more fun to drive. And yes, it's configured for the needs of small families—simple, lean, and value-priced.

You can easily open or close the non-power sliding doors with your thumb and forefinger; the hatch is easily closed and at arm's height for even shorter moms; and second- and third-row seats fold forward without a lot of straining or reaching.

From a few paces back, the Mazda5 looks like a well-designed 7/8-scale minivan—one that might park and maneuver a little easier, too. And it does. Get behind the wheel, and there's much more to love—excellent steering, top-notch poise and roadholding, and an all-around frisky feel on the road is some of it, along with a very affordable sticker price and a good list of features for the money.

To put it all into perspective, the Mazda5 is actually five inches longer than the original Dodge Caravan, but nearly two feet shorter than what are now called minivans, like the Honda Odyssey, Dodge Grand Caravan, and Toyota Sienna. In truth, each of those vehicles now nearly take up the space of the old boatlike station wagons they were intended to replace.

Modest but sporty

With modest but sporty underpinnings borrowed from the Mazda3 s models, the Mazda5 has the makings of a vehicle that's more fun to drive than the typical van. Under the hood is the familiar 2.5-liter four-cylinder 'MZR' unit that's also used in the Mazda6 and CX-7, and here it makes 157 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 163 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm. A six-speed manual gearbox is offered only in the base Sport model, while the five-speed automatic that's optional in the Sport is standard in the Mazda5 Touring and Grand Touring models. Underneath this front-driver is a MacPherson strut suspension setup in front and a multi-link, 'E-link' setup in back that helps provide stability under a wide load range.

While that's much the same as with the last-generation Mazda5, what has changed is its tuning. Mazda admits that with the former version, which was legendary for its responsiveness and almost edgy feel, passengers could feel a bit tossed around. In order to address that, without meddling too much with Mazda's fun-to-drive qualities, engineers softened damper response and roll stiffness slightly while stiffening bushings and raising spring rates, to yield just a little more roll and soften turn-in very slightly, while retaining that excellent body control.

Had Mazda not told us about it, we might not have known the difference, in all honesty, as the Mazda5 still feels so much sportier, more settled and communicative than anything else in the class. Even right up on the limit of adhesion, the Mazda5 has the body control of a small sport sedan; the body stays relatively flat, and there aren't any of the queasy body motions you get in left-right transitions in most crossovers. It takes a lot to upset its composure. Likewise, slam on the brakes at freeway speeds, even, and the four-wheel disc brakes stop the 5 quickly, with a firm, assuring pedal and none of the dramatic nosedive that other people-movers exhibit. And the Mazda5 has excellent quick-ratio hydraulic-assist steering (with an electric pump) that's weighted about perfect and unwinds out of tight corners better than most sporty front-drivers.

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